(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The Sea-Wolf is an example of symbolic naturalism, a novel that is simultaneously a study of environmental conditioning and a symbolic tale of initiation, a ritual of death and rebirth. Saved from drowning by Wolf Larsen, Humphrey van Weyden is shanghaied and set to work as a cabin boy. Conditioned by the violent "world of the real" aboard the Ghost, van Weyden is transformed from an elitist aesthete into a man of courageous action. In contrast, Wolf Larsen, the bullying materialist, is gradually incapacitated by raging headaches.

The conflict between van Weyden and Larsen is as much a war of ideas as it is a physical battle. Van Weyden is an idealist for whom "life had always seemed a peculiarly sacred thing," but he discovers that on the Ghost "it counted for nothing." In contrast, Larsen is a complete materialist who sees life as a "yeast, a ferment, a thing that moves . . . but that in the end will cease to move." Van Weyden triumphs because he learns to temper his naive idealism without embracing Larsen's misanthropy; thus, London suggests that the true path lies between the extremes.

Larsen displays the isolation and alienation inherent to Nietzschean individualism, and his decline expresses London's belief that modern society's complexity demands interdependence. London admired the will that drives some men to great individual accomplishments, but The Sea-Wolf shows that he recognized that greater strength...

(The entire section is 267 words.)