Form and Content (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series, Supplement)
Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf is primarily an adventure and a journalistic narrative, but it is also a philosophical discussion, the tale of a man coming to terms with what it is to be a man, and a love story. Literary critic Humphrey Van Weyden is thrown off a sinking ferry in San Francisco Bay and is rescued by the Ghost, a seal-hunting schooner bound for Japan. The captain, Wolf Larsen, disgusted that Ven Weyden does not really work for a living, offers him the job of cabin boy, through which he will learn to stand on his own legs, for the good of his soul. Thus, Van Weyden becomes a prisoner on the Ghost. He discovers that the captain reads literature and studies astronomy and physics, and the two enter into philosophical discussion. Larsen believes that people do not have souls, that the world is a terrible and selfish place, and that humans are all part of a great yeast in which the parts that are the strongest eat the weakest and stay alive.
Morale is not good on the ship, and, as a result of a series of attempted mutinies, Van Weyden is promoted to cook and finally to first mate. At the seal-hunting grounds, Van Weyden is given the job of tallying the skins and overseeing their cleaning, and he observes that he is toughened or hardened by the work. The Ghost comes upon a stranded mail steamer from San Francisco bound for Yokohama. Larsen takes the stranded passengers on board and passes by Yokohama, keeping the...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*San Francisco Bay
*San Francisco Bay. California’s great natural harbor, in which the novel opens with the protagonist, Humphrey Van Weyden, crossing the bay on a ferryboat. In the midst of a dense fog, the ferry collides with another ship, and Van Weyden is washed out to sea by strong currents, leaving behind the soft and comfortable life that civilized San Francisco represents. Near the Farallon Islands, about thirty miles west of the coast, he is rescued by the schooner Ghost.
Ghost. Seal-hunting schooner bound for Japan on which most of the novel takes place after Van Weyden is forced into joining the ship’s crew. Much of the novel consists of philosophical conversations between Van Weyden and the ship’s self-educated and brutal captain, Wolf Larsen, as the Ghost makes its way through the Pacific. Eventually, each man earns the other’s respect, and having to cope with the conditions aboard the ship makes Van Weyden strong enough to master what he initially regards as an impossibly brutal environment in which might makes right.
*Pacific Ocean. To take advantage of wind currents, the Ghost sails southwest across the Pacific before turning northwest toward Japan, following a route resembling the letter V. Although the story takes place aboard the ship, the ocean itself is the harsh world that surrounds the tiny,...
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In The Sea-Wolf London uses his vigorous, plain prose to dramatize his theories of environmental determinism through action and character. However, the novel's tight structure makes it seem formulaic at points, and London's preoccupation with matter over manner results in some static debates between van Weyden and Larsen.
Although Maud Brewster has an important function in terms of the novel's ideas, her improbable introduction off the coast of Japan and the sexless love affair that develops between her and van Weyden mark the weakest aspect of the novel. London is unable to describe their prudish passion in terms that significantly distinguish the prose of the final chapters from the sentimental claptrap common to the popular magazine fiction of his day.
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At the age of seventeen, Jack London shipped out on a seven-month voyage aboard the sealing schooner Sophia Sutherland. Out of this experience, London created The Sea-Wolf, a powerful, symbolic novel of action and ideas in which he examines the class structure of American society, the conflict between materialism and idealism, the effective social limits of Nietzschean philosophy, and the function of the artist.
London remembered the hardships of his own years as a laborer, and the schooner Ghost is a microcosm of American industrialized society, a place in which the crewmen are brutalized by the conditions of their work and the cruelty of Captain Wolf Larsen. But by introducing the wealthy artists Humphrey van Weyden and Maud Brewster, London shows that the safety of privilege can also be debilitating.
The philosophical conflict between the protagonist Humphrey van Weyden and the antagonist Wolf Larsen explores the merits of idealism and materialism, and the self-destructiveness of Larsen's will to power underscores the dangers of Nietzschean individualism.
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In the character of Wolf Larsen, London bridges the gap between the Byronic hero and the modern anti-hero, and critics have drawn parallels with Shakespeare, Milton, Nietzsche and others. Yet the most important American literary precedent is Melville's Moby Dick (1851). Wolf Larsen is literary naturalism's Ahab. Like Melville's captain, Larsen is an intelligent man who has questioned too deeply. Refusing to comfort himself with beliefs he cannot get his hands on, Larsen, like Ahab, courageously confronts the natural and human worlds alone. However, unlike Ahab, whose life is directed by his mad quest to seek revenge on the white whale, Larsen has no purpose toward which to direct his energy. His increasingly severe headaches represent the way in which he is consumed by his own consciousness.
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The tyranny of Wolf Larsen's rule aboard the Ghost foreshadows London's direct attack on fascist dictatorship in The Iron Heel (1908), and the attention given to the function of the artist in the novel foreshadows London's autobiographical novel Martin Eden (1909) in which the title character is a thinly veiled portrait of the author.
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The Sea-Wolf has been the basis for more film adaptations than any of London's other novels. Some examples are The Sea Wolf (1913) with Hobart Bosworth; The Sea Wolf (1920) with Noah Berry; The Sea Wolf (1926) with Ralph Ince; The Sea Wolf (1930) with Milton Sills; The Sea Wolf (1941) directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Edward G. Robinson, Ida Lupino, John Garfield, Gene Lockhart, and Barry Fitzgerald; Vik Larsen (1947), a Czechoslovakian production; Barricade (1950), reworked as a western with Raymond Massey; Wolf Larsen (1958) with Barry Sullivan; and Wolf of the Seven Seas (1975), an Italian film starring Chuck Connors. Certainly, Edward G. Robinson's portrayal of Wolf Larsen is most memorable.
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Labor, Earle. Jack London. Boston: Twayne, 1974. Praises London’s convincing portrayal of Wolf Larsen and of Humphrey’s transformation from a weak, rich socialite to a dynamic he-man.
London, Jack. Novels and Stories. Notes and chronology by Donald Pizer. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1982. Uses text from the first editions. Includes notes on the texts, historical and geographical notes, maps, and notes on the stories.
Lundquist, James. Jack London: Adventures, Ideas, and Fiction. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1987. Suggests that the quality of London’s stories arises from the risks he took and from his colorful personal experience. Traces London’s intellectual leanings.
Pattee, Fred Lewis. The New American Literature, 1890-1930. New York: Cooper Square Publishers, 1968. Chapter 9 discusses the influence that London’s life had on his writing.
Sinclair, Andrew. Jack: A Biography of Jack London. New York: Harper & Row, 1977. Discusses the biographical detail in The Sea-Wolf. Describes London’s marriages and affairs.
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