Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Sea-Wolf

Many consider The Sea-Wolf by Jack London to be among the best sea stories ever written. I found it a moving and epic tale. Not only did it achieve great popular and literary success, but it also was effectively realized in several cinematic versions (most recently as a TV mini-series). The story ranks in the great tradition of one of London's literary influences, Herman Melville, while I saw similarities to another story of a life changed by sea voyage, captured by Rudyard Kipling in Captains Courageous.

Drawing upon his experiences seal hunting in the North Pacific, London created a story with a lot of realism. He put himself and his contradictory nature into the two opposing characters, the captain Wolf Larsen, a ruthless and rugged individualist, the superman, and Humphrey van Weyden, a weak, but highly cultivated and virtuous gentleman. It is in the clash of these two forces that London gives vent to his innermost struggles: idealism versus materialism, conscience versus instinct, desire versus soul. Humphrey joins Larsen's crew when a ferry he is on sinks. Later in the story he and the captain are joined by a young woman, Maude Brewster who, like Humphrey, is well-educated and literate. During one of their discussions Brewster and Larsen take opposite positions on the importance of desire versus soul. The argument is concluded when Humphrey says:

The man's soul is his desires. . . There lies the temptation. It is the wind that fans the desire until it leaps up to mastery. That's temptation. It may not fan sufficiently to make the desire overmastering , but in so far as fans at all, that far is it temptation. And, as you say, it may tempt for good as well as for evil. (pp. 674-75)

But the main philosophy demonstrated in the novel is a form of Social Darwinism. It is this that is the philosophy espoused by Wolf Larsen as justification for his tyrannical domination of others. Larsen's library is noted to contain works by Darwin, Malthus and Spencer - all seminal theorists of the concept. Darwin himself rejected the concepts of Social Darwinism even though his biological theories were generally used to support and inform the sociological concept that social inequality is the inexorable result of meritocratic division of available resources. Larsen summarizes the concepts of Social Darwinism in his extended analogy of a yeasty ferment of existence.

The novel's drama proceeds to a resolution of this elemental conflict through van Weyden's struggle toward fulfillment and mastery of life's forces and Larsen's ultimate deterioration. Ironically, the majority of the critics and the public misunderstood the work, thinking it a glorification of the superhuman and individualism, and London later wrote, ". . . I attacked Nietzsche and his super-man idea ... no one discovered that it was an attack upon the super-man philosophy. " In the death of Wolf Larsen and the survival of Van Weyden and Maude Brewster we see the confirmation of London's claim.

The Sea-Wolf by Jack London. Library of America. 1982 (1904).

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