The Iron Heel Essay - Critical Essays

Jack London


London refers to the lower classes as the “people of the abyss,” and in a footnote he gives credit to H. G. Wells for first employing this phrase. London wrote a nonfiction, sociological account of the poor inhabitants of East London, a work titled The People of the Abyss (1903). The influence of Wells on London is significant. Like Wells, in his futuristic novels, London in The Iron Heel employs science fiction, a popular genre, to convey a political message warning of the possible excesses that might occur. The foreword states that the socialists realized too late that the oligarchy would succeed; even the capitalists in the novel are helpless to prevent the downfall of democracy and free enterprise. By setting part of this novel seven hundred years in the future, London attains a perspective that allows him to warn of what might happen. In addition, this perspective of futurity allows London to imagine social and political alternatives.

Edward Bellamy wrote a popular science-fiction novel, Looking Backward: 2000-1887 (1888), that depicts a utopian, socialist society. This novel of future history inspired a new political organization, the Nationalist Party. Bellamy also wrote Equality (1897), a sequel to Looking Backward that depicts an alternative political system. London, in The Iron Heel, draws on this utopian, science-fiction genre to create a novel that depicts the possible horrors that might occur, but his work also contains a utopian vision. The narrator, Anthony Meredith, lives in a socialist society that precedes The Iron Heel and that represents an alternative to both laissez-faire capitalism and fascism.

London published The Iron Heel in 1907, during a progressive era in the United States when laws were passed against monopolies and trusts. In this didactic work, London combines romance and science fiction to deliver a political message, supporting the progressive movement. Ernest Everhard, like London himself and like the main character of London’s autobiographical novel Martin Eden (1909), rises from a working-class background, educates himself, wins the hand of an intelligent woman, and struggles for social justice.