Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Dominating this story are two influences that shaped much of Jack London’s writing: Social Darwinism and sympathy for the working classes. Tom King personifies the concept of survival of the fittest. His profession, prizefighting, is based on the demonstration of one man’s strength, stamina, and cunning over another’s. In his younger days, the system of which he is so much a part worked well for Tom. He was a champion and had little sympathy for those left crying in the dressing room. However, despite his still fearsome physique, Tom is growing old, and his turn for crying is at hand. It is the law of the jungle.

His profession might be violent, but Tom himself is a very sympathetic character. Fighting is a way of life he has come to love. He is also a father and husband who grieves for his family. His devotion to his family is clear. Tom knows his limitations, and one must wonder if he would have risked the fight against the younger Sandel were it not for the dire straits of the family. Skilled at nothing except fighting, Tom is a man trapped by circumstances, though he entered prizefighting voluntarily and knows he must live with that choice. He does not indulge in self-pity, but the realization that he has failed his family is heartbreaking, and so he cries.

There is a grim determinism in this story that London would apply to the poor generally. London himself grew up in a working-class neighborhood and knew the odds against escaping the poverty of his childhood. However, he did it, and one can see in the will and determination of the aging Tom King the latent power of the proletariat. It is too late for Tom; the system of prizefighting that nurtured him has brought him low and threatens ruin to his family. The political purpose of the story is relatively unobtrusive, carefully subordinated to the character of Tom King and his struggle to survive.