The Sea-Wolf, one of Jack London’s best-known novels, is based in large part on his 1893 voyage aboard the Sophia Sutherland (or Sophie). Like the Ghost of the novel, the Sophie sailed to the far northern Pacific to hunt fur seals. London came away with the raw material for a novel. A decade later, the experience bore fruit in one of the most important works of the American seagoing tradition.
The sea-wolf of the novel’s title is Wolf Larsen, captain of a sealing schooner that rescues literary critic Humphrey Van Weyden after a collision in San Francisco Bay. Rather than return him to shore, however, Larsen forces Van Weyden into the role of cabin boy. As the Ghost crosses the North Pacific, Van Weyden must earn his sea legs and master such mundane tasks as washing pots and peeling potatoes. He must also learn to protect himself, as Larsen’s unpredictable episodes of savage cruelty have infected the entire crew.
At sea Larsen can play the tyrant as easily as any frontier lawman, but he is anything but petty. He is an educated man who justifies his violent nature with the concept (pioneered by scientist Charles Darwin) of the survival of the fittest. As he explains to Van Weyden, “The big eat the little that they may continue to move, the strong eat the weak that they may retain their strength.”
Attempted mutiny and violent brawls punctuate the voyage, and the...
When the ship in which he is a passenger sinks in a collision off the coast of California, Humphrey Van Weyden is picked up by the crew of Wolf Larsen’s ship, the Ghost, a sailing vessel headed for seal hunting ranges in the Bering Sea. Larsen is a brute. Van Weyden witnesses the inhuman treatment of a sick mate, who dies shortly afterward. He sees a cabin boy badly beaten. In his own interview with the captain, he fares little better. Instead of promising to help him return to San Francisco, Wolf demands that Van Weyden sign as cabin boy and stay with his ship.
The crew sets to work taking in the topsails and jibs. From that moment Hump, as the crew called Van Weyden, learns things the hard way. He has to get his sea legs, and he has to learn the stoic indifference to pain and suffering that the sailors have mastered already. As cabin boy, he peels potatoes and washes greasy pots and pans. Mugridge, the cook, abuses him and robs him of his money. Only one man, Louis, seems to share Hump’s feelings about the captain and his ship. Louis predicts that many deaths will result from the voyage. He said that Wolf is a violent, dangerous man and that the crew and seal hunters are vicious outcasts. Wolf does seem mad. He varies from moods of wild exultation to spells of extreme depression. In his cabin are classic books of literature, and when he speaks, he uses either excellent English or the lingo of the sailors. Sometimes he amuses himself by arguing with Hump. He claims that life is without meaning.
During a southeaster, Hump badly dislocates his knee, and Wolf unexpectedly allows Hump to rest for three days while he talks to him about philosophy and literature. When Hump returns to the galley, the cook is whetting his knife. Hump obtains a knife and begins whetting it also. Hump’s actions so frighten the cowardly cook that Hump is no longer the victim of the cook’s abuse.
Louis talks of the coming season with the seals. Moreover, he hints that trouble will come if the Macedonia, a sealing steamer, comes near. Captained by Death Larsen, the brother and enemy of Wolf, the Macedonia is a certain menace. As a prelude to things to come, an outbreak of fury takes place aboard the Ghost. First, Wolf and the mate beat a seaman named Johnson to a pulp because he complains of ill treatment; then Leach, the former cabin boy, beats the cook. Later, two hunters exchange shots, severely wounding each other, and Wolf beats them because they crippled themselves before the hunting season begins. Afterward, Wolf suffers from one of his periodic headaches. To Hump, life on shipboard is a tremendous experience in human cruelty and viciousness.
A few days later, the men try to mutiny. In the row that follows, Johansen, the mate, drowns, and Wolf is nearly killed. While Hump dresses Wolf’s wounds, Wolf promotes him to mate in Johansen’s...
The plot of The Sea-Wolf was a popular one in the late nineteenth century; Rudyard Kipling, for example, had used something similar in Captains Courageous (1896). A snobbish, upper-class weakling is forced to obey the commands of a harsh, lower-class dictator and ends up greatly profiting by the experience. In London’s novel, a literary gentleman, Humphrey Van Weyden, is washed off a San Francisco ferryboat and taken up by an outgoing seal hunter. The imperious captain, Wolf Larsen, has just lost a hand and decides to press the protesting Weyden into service as cabin boy for the long voyage.
An apter parallel for London’s book than Kipling’s novel may be found in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851). In both London’s and Melville’s novels, the center of attention is not the slowly maturing, sensitive narrator but the superhuman ship’s captain. In Moby Dick, Captain Ahab is a monomanical, charismatic zealot, and the critical light thrown on him is also used to criticize basic premises of a then-current theoretical posture, Byronic Romanticism. In something of the same way, in The Sea-Wolf the judgment passed on Wolf Larsen, the dynamic, intelligent, yet brutal captain also undercuts the materialism he espouses.
Larsen is contradictory. At first Van Weyden sees the ship’s master as nothing more than an unfeeling hulk. He witnesses Larsen tossing a dead body overboard without a proper burial ceremony and forcing his men to obey him through fear of his fists. As the trip progresses, however, Van Weyden finds in the captain’s cabin a well-stocked library of current literature: science, history, even grammar. At this discovery he says to himself about Larsen, “At once he became an enigma.”
As it turns out, the captain’s violence is rooted in a materialist metaphysics—and violent he is. When a crewman complains of an arrangement, Larsen and the first mate beat him senseless. When the cook does not keep the mess clean, he is dangled over the ship’s side until a shark lops off his foot. Larsen’s study of Darwin, Spencer, and other evolutionists has taught him that life, in his preferred phrase, “is like yeast.” It is a battle that goes to the strong, and, according to Larsen,...