Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1187
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....
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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 when he speaks, he uses either excellent English or the lingo of the sailors. Sometimes he amuses himself by arguing with Hump. He claims that life is without meaning.
During a southeaster, Hump badly dislocates his knee, and Wolf unexpectedly allows Hump to rest for three days while he talks to him about philosophy and literature. When Hump returns to the galley, the cook is whetting his knife. Hump obtains a knife and begins whetting it also. Hump’s actions so frighten the cowardly cook that Hump is no longer the victim of the cook’s abuse.
Louis talks of the coming season with the seals. Moreover, he hints that trouble will come if the Macedonia, a sealing steamer, comes near. Captained by Death Larsen, the brother and enemy of Wolf, the Macedonia is a certain menace. As a prelude to things to come, an outbreak of fury takes place aboard the Ghost. First, Wolf and the mate beat a seaman named Johnson to a pulp because he complains of ill treatment; then Leach, the former cabin boy, beats the cook. Later, two hunters exchange shots, severely wounding each other, and Wolf beats them because they crippled themselves before the hunting season begins. Afterward, Wolf suffers from one of his periodic headaches. To Hump, life on shipboard is a tremendous experience in human cruelty and viciousness.
A few days later, the men try to mutiny. In the row that follows, Johansen, the mate, drowns, and Wolf is nearly killed. While Hump dresses Wolf’s wounds, Wolf promotes him to mate in Johansen’s place. Leach and Johnson would kill Wolf in a second, but he remains too wary for them. At the seal hunting grounds, a terrific storm costs them the lives of four men. The ship itself is beaten, its sails torn to shreds and portions of the deck swept into the sea.
When Leach and Johnson desert in a small skiff, Wolf starts out in pursuit. On the morning of the third day, an open boat is sighted. The boat contains a young woman and four men, survivors from a sinking steamer. Wolf takes them aboard, planning to make sailors of the men as he did of Hump. Shortly afterward, the Ghost overtakes Johnson and Leach. Refusing to pick them up, Wolf lets them struggle to get aboard until their small craft capsizes. He watches them drown without comment and then orders the ship’s course set for a return to the seal hunting grounds.
The woman survivor is Maud Brewster, a rich woman and a poet. She is weak physically, as Hump was. Wolf resents the intimacy that springs up at once between Maud and Hump. He takes out his resentment by deciding to give the cook the first bath the cook has ever taken. At Wolf’s orders, Mugridge is thrown into the water with a tow rope slung about his middle. At first, the cook flees madly about the ship, causing one man to break a leg and another to be injured in a fall. Then Mugridge is thrown into the sea. Before Wolf is ready to bring Mugridge back aboard ship, a shark bites off the cook’s right foot at the ankle. Dragged aboard, Mugridge in his fury tries to bite Wolf’s leg, and Wolf almost strangles him. Then Hump bandages the wounded man’s leg. Maud looks on and nearly faints.
The Macedonia appears one day and robs Wolf’s hunters of their day’s catch of seals by cutting off the line of approach to the Ghost. In revenge, Wolf sets his men to work capturing hunters from the Macedonia. When the Macedonia gives chase, Wolf sails his ship into a fog bank. That night, Wolf tries to seize Maud, but Hump, awakening, runs his knife into Wolf’s shoulder. At the same time, Wolf is overcome by one of his headaches, this seizure accompanied by blindness. Hump helps the captain to his bunk, and under the cover of darkness, he and Maud make their escape in an open boat. After days of tossing about on the open sea, they come to a small island. Using supplies they took from the Ghost, they set about making themselves houses and gathering food for the coming winter. One morning, Hump sees the wreck of the Ghost lying offshore. Going aboard, he discovers Wolf alone, his crew having deserted him to go aboard Death Larsen’s ship. Wolf seems nearly insane and has only a desire to sleep. Hump steals some pistols and food, which he takes to the island. Hump, planning to repair the masts of the Ghost, begins work on the crippled ship. That night, Wolf undoes all Hump’s work and casts the masts off the vessel.
Hump and Maud begin anew to refit the ship. One day, Wolf attempts to murder Hump, but during the struggle, he has a spasm and faints. While he is still unconscious, they handcuff him and shut him in the hold.
Then they move aboard the Ghost, and the work of refitting the vessel goes forward. Wolf has a stroke that paralyzes the right side of his body. Hump continues to repair the vessel. At last, it is able to sail. Wolf next loses the use of his muscles and lies in a coma. When he dies, Hump and Maud bury him at sea. By that time they are deeply in love. When a United States revenue cutter discovers them one day, they feel that their dangerous odyssey is at an end. They are, however, about to begin another journey together.