The plot of The Sea-Wolf was a popular one in the late nineteenth century; Rudyard Kipling, for example, had used something similar in Captains Courageous (1896). A snobbish, upper-class weakling is forced to obey the commands of a harsh, lower-class dictator and ends up greatly profiting by the experience. In London’s novel, a literary gentleman, Humphrey Van Weyden, is washed off a San Francisco ferryboat and taken up by an outgoing seal hunter. The imperious captain, Wolf Larsen, has just lost a hand and decides to press the protesting Weyden into service as cabin boy for the long voyage.
An apter parallel for London’s book than Kipling’s novel may be found in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851). In both London’s and Melville’s novels, the center of attention is not the slowly maturing, sensitive narrator but the superhuman ship’s captain. In Moby Dick, Captain Ahab is a monomanical, charismatic zealot, and the critical light thrown on him is also used to criticize basic premises of a then-current theoretical posture, Byronic Romanticism. In something of the same way, in The Sea-Wolf the judgment passed on Wolf Larsen, the dynamic, intelligent, yet brutal captain also undercuts the materialism he espouses.
Larsen is contradictory. At first Van Weyden sees the ship’s master as nothing more than an unfeeling hulk. He witnesses Larsen tossing a dead body overboard without a proper burial ceremony and forcing his men to obey him through fear of his fists. As the trip progresses, however, Van Weyden finds in the captain’s cabin a well-stocked library of current literature: science, history, even grammar. At this discovery he says to himself about Larsen, “At once he became an enigma.”
As it turns out, the captain’s violence is rooted in a materialist metaphysics—and violent he is. When a crewman complains of an arrangement, Larsen and the first mate beat him senseless. When the cook does not keep the mess clean, he is dangled over the ship’s side until a shark lops off his foot. Larsen’s study of Darwin, Spencer, and other evolutionists has taught him that life, in his preferred phrase, “is like yeast.” It is a battle that goes to the strong, and, according to Larsen,...
(The entire section is 931 words.)