What is the main argument in the book The Sea-Wolf by Jack London?

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hebronchester90 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Sea-Wolf by Jack London is a tale of opposites. While Humphrey "Hump" van Weyden is initially weak, wealthy, and overly idealistic, Wolf Larsen is masculine, working class, and sociopathic. "Hump" believes in an inherent good in all. He believes in justice and mercy, even to the end.

Wolf is the opposite. He lives in a cutthroat world of manipulation where life has no value. He believes the world is harsh and unforgiving. This reflects Jack London's previous themes in The Call of the Wild.

London focuses on the basics of survival in most of his books. He depicts worlds of primitivism, a back to basics lifestyle. At the root of his writing is a belief that life is bestial. In The Sea-Wolf, London opposes the primitive instincts of Wolf with the spiritual beliefs of "Hump." Overall, London presents the question: are we spiritual beings in physical bodies, or physical bodies clinging to spirituality?

jeremydodson | Student

The Sea-Wolf by Jack London tells the story of Wolf Larsen, a captain of a sealing schooner called the Ghost, who after rescuing a literary critic named Humphrey Van Weyden from an accident in the San Francisco Bay, makes him a cabin boy and proceeds to take him across the North Atlantic. 

Told in a style reminscient of sea adventures of the time (late 19th century) the narrator, Van Weyden, who comes from an upper class background, is forced into taking orders from the dictatorial Larsen, who comes from the lower class and possesses a breed of imperious sea knowledge. 

After Van Weyden is told he will not be returned to shore following his rescue, he begins to take on crew duties, from securing topsails and jibs to peeling potatoes and washing dishes. He is bullied by his fellow crewmembers, the cook in particular, a violent man named Mugridge who steals all his money. Van Weyden only finds comradery with one man aboard the ship, Louis, who doubts Larsen's judgment as a captain and fears for the crew's safety. This is substantiated by the fact that Wolf is prone to depression and mania. He is also unexpectedly well read, and carries around a lot of nihilistic sensibilities. 

When a strong wind comes in from the southeast Van Wyden hurts his knee—Larsen, though ordinarily unsympathetic to his complaints, allows him to rest for three days and meanwhile discusses philosophy and literature. After Van Wyden is healed, invigorated by what he believes is his growing admiration for Larsen, he goes to the galley and intimidates Mugridge the cook by whetting a knife in his presence. From then on out, the cook leaves him alone. 

Soon after the men encounter Death Larsen, the brother of Wolf Larsen, who's boat is out at sea. The men, afraid of having a run in with the menacing man, end up beating a crewmember named Johnson to near death because he voices complaints with the way the ship is being run. Another two crewmembers have a spat and, in a shooting match, severely wound each other; Larsen then subsequently beats them for ruining their bodies before the beginning of hunting season. 

As the book nears its climax the men attempt mutiny. One of the crewmembers, Johansen, drowns, and Larsen himself is nearly killed. Van Weyden attends to Larsen's wounds, and Larsen makes him first mate. They soon after enter the seal hunting grounds, and are hit by a mighty storm. Four men are killed and the ship is damaged severely. 

Johnson and another crew member, Leach, end up deserting in a makeshift skiff. Larsen and Van Weyden follow in pursuit, and on the way catch glimpse of another boat containing the survivors from a sinking steamer. Larsen takes them aboard and soon after catches up to the skiff manned by Leach and Johnson. The skiff then capsizes when they arrive and the men drown while Larsen stands by and watches. 

In the final pages, Van Weyden falls in love with one of the survivors from the sunken steamer Maud. Larsen is unnerved by their newfound intimacy, and takes out his anger on the crew members. Soon afterwards, a ship called the Macedonia robs Larsen's crew of their quarry by outpacing their ship. Larsen responds by having his crew kidnap members of the Macedonia. The Macedonia then chases them, and they escape death by finding cover in a fog bank. Larsen, by this point fed up with Van Weyden and Maud's relationship, attempts to kidnap her. Van Wyden stabs Larsen in the shoulder; after that the captain proceeds to have a seizure. 

Soon afterwards, Van Weyden and Maud escape the Ghost under the cover of night in an open boat. After days at sea they encounter a small island and set themselves up on it, attempting to create shelter and gather food. A few mornings later, Van Weyden awakens to see the Ghost on the shore. He goes on board and discovers Larsen aboard, slowly going insane. Larsen attempts to kill Van Wyden, but has a seizure and passes out. Van Wyden and Maud tie him up in the hold and set about restoring the ship. Larsen has a particularly bad seizure and dies. After they bury the captain at sea, Van Weyden and Maud commandeer the Ghost, restore it to working order, and prepare for their next great journey.