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 Ghost is nearly destroyed by a horrifying storm in the sealing grounds. Pursuing two deserters, Larsen rescues instead an open boat carrying the survivors of a sinking steamer, and consigns the deserters to their death.
One of the survivors is a young woman named Maud Brewster, a poet who represents perhaps a little too obviously the softening influence of civilization in the raw, masculine atmosphere of shipboard life. Larsen is attracted to her, but Van Weyden has been toughened enough to protect her, precipitating one of Larsen’s frequent seizures. Van Weyden and Maud escape in a small boat to an island where they prepare for winter. When the Ghost runs aground on the same island, the scene is set for the novel’s conclusion. The debilitated Larsen, deserted by his crew, sinks into a coma brought on by what appears to be a brain tumor, and Van Weyden and Brewster depart for a life together.
The Sea-Wolf’s final chapters have been criticized as unconvincing, partly because they sidestep the Darwinistic issues raised earlier. The novel nevertheless remains a forceful dramatization of frontier values and a significant exploration of the concept of masculinity. Writers such as Ernest Hemingway would subsequently explore the concept in greater detail.
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...
(The entire section is 1,636 words.)