Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

After London’s novel White Fang (1905) proved popular with the public, he decided he could risk writing a novel he had long dreamed of undertaking: a socialist novel, “a la Wells, out of the idea of wage-slaves, ruled by industrial oligarchies.” After some three centuries, the fascistic oligarchies are overcome by the proletariat under the aegis of “The Brotherhood of Man.” The novel thus reflects London’s wish to be the evangelist of socialism.

Yet London’s book is not only a Marxist proletarian novel but also a futurology that purports to predict the future of the United States. Indeed, Robert E. Spiller has called London’s novel “a terrifying forecast of Fascism and its evils.” London’s prescient description of World War I, and the resemblance between the attack on the American fleet in Honolulu and the World War II attack by the Japanese on the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor, are most interesting.

Much of the novel, though, is founded on the recent history of the United States. The novel opens in Chicago, where there had been serious labor problems after the fire of 1871, which destroyed much of the city. In 1886, the Haymarket Square Riot occurred in Chicago when, amid labor’s drive for an eight-hour day, a demonstration by anarchists was staged in the square, where about 1,500 people were gathered. When police attempted to disperse the crowd, a bomb was exploded, killing eleven persons and injuring more than a hundred. In 1894, the Pullman strike stopped all rail traffic between Chicago and the West until President Grover Cleveland sent in cavalry and field artillery, under the pretext of protecting the U.S. mail, to break the strike.

London’s novel is thus grounded in the class distinctions, violence, poverty, and labor strife of late nineteenth and early twentieth century America. The welfare of the masses was dependent on the owners and managers of the trusts, which were controlled by a handful of the nation’s wealthiest families, such as the Vanderbilts, Harrimans, Carnegies, Morgans, and Rockefellers. The Iron Heel is a cautionary tale of the even darker future to which the author believed such naked capitalism would lead.