Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 543 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*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

*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, savage society dominated by Larsen. A turning point...

(The entire section is 621 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In The Sea-Wolf London uses his vigorous, plain prose to dramatize his theories of environmental determinism through action and...

(The entire section is 120 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

At the age of seventeen, Jack London shipped out on a seven-month voyage aboard the sealing schooner Sophia Sutherland. Out of this...

(The entire section is 165 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In the character of Wolf Larsen, London bridges the gap between the Byronic hero and the modern anti-hero, and critics have drawn parallels...

(The entire section is 126 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The tyranny of Wolf Larsen's rule aboard the Ghost foreshadows London's direct attack on fascist dictatorship in The Iron Heel...

(The entire section is 52 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The Sea-Wolf has been the basis for more film adaptations than any of London's other novels. Some examples are The Sea Wolf...

(The entire section is 105 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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.