Study Guide

The Sea-Wolf

by Jack London

The Sea-Wolf Essay - Critical Evaluation

Critical Evaluation

Jack London’s talent for creating adventure stories made him one of the most popular writers of his time. His familiarity with adventure came from his own experience. He began making his own living at the age of fourteen. By the time he was able to live as a writer (with the publication of his collection of stories, The Son of the Wolf, 1900), London had worked a variety of menial jobs. He had been a seaman, a waterfront fighter, a coal shoveler, an oyster pirate, a wage slave in a laundry, and a gold prospector in the Klondike, to name a few. He also spent thirty days in prison for vagrancy. London lived the seafaring life, and The Sea-Wolf portrays a vivid picture of the life on a sealing ship—from the technical details of steering a vessel in a blinding storm to violent encounters between seamen.

The Sea-Wolf is more than a simple adventure tale. It reflects philosophical ideas prevalent in London’s time. In order to educate himself and improve his prospects, London read voraciously in all subjects. From Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859), London learned that in nature, living is a constant struggle, and organisms that have the ability to adapt to their environment survive. The works of nineteenth century philosopher Herbert Spencer taught him that human life is a matter of the survival of the fittest. The individual most likely to survive and dominate others would be much like the “superman,” the man of superior intellectual and physical abilities who follows an amoral code as described by nineteenth century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, another favorite of London. The Sea-Wolf portrays a struggle between civilization and raw nature. In the untamed, natural arena of the sea these two competing philosophies, embodied in Humphrey Van Weydon and Wolf Larsen, come into conflict.

The violently competitive environment on the Ghost, in which men struggle to establish their place in a pecking order based on physical strength, intimidation, courage, and aggression, seems to validate the worldview described by Spencer and Nietzsche. Larsen is close to the Nietzschean superman. Larsen is extraordinarily strong, with a body that strikes Humphrey...

(The entire section is 932 words.)