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The Sea-Wolf works on several levels: as an adventure, a survival story, a philosophical discussion, an examination of manhood, and a love story.

As an adventure story, it is fast-paced and exciting. Most of the men hate Larsen and are waiting for an opportunity to kill him. There are chases at sea, dangerous storms, plots, and escapes. In terms of survival, this novel has much in common with London’s The Call of the Wild (1903). Like the dog Buck, Van Weyden is civilized, protected, and spoiled. He, like Buck, is thrown into unfamiliar surroundings that test his fitness, patience, strength, and ability to stand up for himself. Ultimately, both are tested in terms of their ability to fit in, to work hard without weakness or complaining, to become leaders, and finally to achieve heroic acts that save the ones whom they love in the face of great danger.

The novel is also an interesting combination of philosophy and adventure; in this, it is not unlike Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851). In that novel, chapters of action are interspersed with chapters of philosophy. In The Sea-Wolf, events often prompt philosophical discussions between Larsen and Van Weyden concerning morality, mortality, the value of life, and the existence of the soul. As these discussions evolve through the novel, readers get a fuller sense of how Larsen thinks, and his cynical views of life and the soul are an interesting contrast to Van Weyden’s intellectual idealism and to Larsen’s own struggle with the illness that is destroying him. Van Weyden learns from his experiences that Larsen is right in his claim that it takes some hardness or toughness to survive in this environment. Larsen never seems to accept the idea of the soul. When his ability to communicate is sinking away in blindness, deafness, dumbness, and paralysis, but his mind is still fully functioning, Maud asks if he is pondering immortality, and Larsen scribbles back “Bosh.”

It is clear that Van Weyden learns about manhood from his experiences and from his relationship with Larsen, and Larsen was correct in his belief that Van Weyden’s ordeal would make a man of him. Van Weyden is courageous because he quickly accepts his fate and, in spite of his previous experience to the contrary, throws himself into his duties. He not only survives but also excels.

The love story is interesting because it does not begin until more than halfway through the novel. It is as if Van Weyden needs the time before Maud Brewster appears in order to learn what it is to stand on his own. By the time that she comes on board, he can offer her protection and inspire confidence in their ability to survive Larsen’s attacks. It is interesting to watch Van Weyden and Maud fall in love in such unusual surroundings. On the ship, she is the only woman, and he almost immediately becomes her protector, which he is now ready to do after his trial by sea. They become closer without any customary courting rituals. In addition to the intellectual stimulation coming from their common ground in literature, it is the constant danger and uncertainty about Larsen that draws them together. When they are alone on the island, they live as polite neighbors. They eat, work, and relax together, but still without anything that resembles a customary courtship. Nevertheless, the romance grows strong. It is only when they are about to be rescued that they give in to any kind of physical expression or admit their feelings, and they kiss. Until then, they had barely even spoken of their feelings. Yet, somehow that restraint—physically, verbally, and even socially—makes their intense love seem great.

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Critical Context