The story is told by Humphrey Van Weyden, a dilettantish and comically over-civilized literary critic. When his ferry boat sinks in San Francisco Bay, Van Weyden is picked up by the Ghost, a sealing schooner, and carried off into the Pacific against his will. He is appalled by the cruelty of the schooner’s captain, Wolf Larsen, but also fascinated by Larsen’s physical power and spiritual magnetism. A self-taught philosopher who echoes much of London’s own reading in Herbert Spencer and Friedrich Nietzsche, Larsen is amused by trials of wit with this gentleman, whom he renames “Hump” and sets to work as cabin boy.
Hump’s attempts to escape and the crew’s attempts to revolt are ruthlessly thwarted by the seemingly omnipotent Larsen. Nevertheless, Hump, promoted to mate, is learning to adapt to the struggle for survival that he had ignored in his protected life on shore.
Then another shipwreck victim is rescued, the beautiful poet Maud Brewster. One night Hump finds Maud struggling in Larsen’s arms. Before he can act, Larsen is struck by a sudden, mysterious headache. Hump and Maud escape in an open boat and finally manage to go ashore on an island off the Alaskan coast. There they learn to fend for themselves. Months after their escape, Larsen is washed up in the Ghost. Though blind and dying, he still almost succeeds in frustrating their efforts to repair the schooner. After his death they sail off, united by their shared return...
(The entire section is 457 words.)