The Sea-Wolf by Jack London 1906
The Sea-Wolf is a 1906 psychological adventure novel by American novelist Jack London about a literary critic, survivor of an ocean collision who comes under the dominance of Wolf Larsen, the powerful and amoral sea captain who rescues him. Its first printing of forty thousand copies were immediately sold out before publication on the strength of London's previous The Call of the Wild. Ambrose Bierce wrote, "The great thing—and it is among the greatest of things—is that tremendous creation, Wolf Larsen... the hewing out and setting up of such a figure is enough for a man to do in one lifetime... The love element, with its absurd suppressions, and impossible proprieties, is awful."
The personal character of the novel's antagonist "Wolf Larsen" was attributed to a real sailor London had known, Captain Alex MacLean. According to London himself, "much of the Sea Wolf is imaginary development, but the basis is Alexander McLean". Captain Alex MacLean, or McLean, was born May 15, 1858 in East Bay, Nova Scotia. He did sail mostly in the Pacific North West with his brother, Captain Dan MacLean. MacLean was at one time the Sheriff of Nome, Alaska. The MacLean Captains maintained their ties to Cape Breton Island despite having spent much of their lives sailing the Pacific Coast and do have living descendants. London, who was called "Wolf" by his close friends, also used a picture of a wolf on his bookplate, and named his mansion "Wolf House". Given that Van Weyden's experiences in the novel bear some resemblance to experiences London had, or heard told about, when he sailed on the Sophia Sutherland, the autodidact sailor Wolf Larsen has been compared to the autodidact sailor Jack London.
Writing the final rescue of van Weyden and Maud by a US Revenue Cutter London could well have had in mind the USRC Bear since 1885 in service along the Alaskan coast.
London's intention in writing The Sea-Wolf was "an attack on (Nietzsche's) super-man philosophy." Nietzsche and Schopenhauer are mentioned in the second sentence of the novel as the preferred reading of the friend Humphrey van Weyden visited before his shipwreck. The novel also contains references to Herbert Spencer in chapters 8, 10, Charles Darwin in chapters 5, 6, 10, 13, Omar Khayyám in chapters 11, 17, 26, Shakespeare in chapter 5, and John Milton in chapter 26.
Like The Call of the Wild, The Sea Wolf tells the story of a soft, domesticated protagonist, in this novel's case an intellectual man named Humphrey van Weyden, forced to become tough and self-reliant by exposure to cruelty and brutality. The story starts with him aboard a San Francisco ferry, called Martinez, which collides with another ship in the fog and sinks. He is set adrift in the sea, eventually being picked up by Wolf Larsen. Larsen is the captain of the seal-hunting schooner, the Ghost. Brutal and cynical, yet also highly intelligent and intellectual (though highly biased in his opinions as he was self-taught), he rules over his ship and terrorizes the crew with the aid of his exceptionally great physical strength. Van Weyden adequately describes him as an individualist, hedonist, and materialist. Larsen does not believe in the immortality of the soul, he finds no meaning in his life save for survival and pleasure and has come to despise all human life and deny its value. Being interested in someone capable of intellectual disputes, he somewhat takes care of Van Weyden, whom he calls 'Hump', while forcing him to become a cabin boy, do menial work, and learn to fight to protect himself from a brutal crew.
A key event in the story is an attempted mutiny against Wolf Larsen by several members of the crew. The organizers of the mutiny are Leach and Johnson. Johnson had previously been beaten severely by Larsen, and Leach had been punched earlier while being forced to become a boat-puller, motivating the two. The first attempt is by sending Larsen overboard; however, he manages to climb back onto the ship. Searching for his assailant, he ventures into the sleeping quarters, located beneath the main deck, the only exit being a ladder. Several, at least seven men, take part in the mutiny and attack Larsen. Larsen however, demonstrating his inhuman endurance, strength, and conviction, manages to fight his way through the crew, climb the ladder with several men hanging off him, and escape relatively unharmed. Van Weyden is promoted as mate for the original mate had been murdered. He later gets his vengeance by torturing his crew, and constantly claiming that he was going to murder Leach and Johnson at his earliest convenience, being after the hunting season is done, as he can't afford to lose any crew. He later allows them to be lost to the sea when they attempt to flee on a hunting boat.
Following this, the Ghost picks up another set of castaways, including a female poet named Maud Brewster. Miss Brewster and van Weyden had known each other previously—but only as writers. Both Wolf Larsen and van Weyden immediately feel attraction to her, due to her intelligence and "female delicacy". Van Weyden sees her as his first true love. He strives to protect her from the crew, the horrors of the sea, and Wolf Larsen. As this happens, Wolf Larsen meets his brother Death Larsen, a bitter opponent of his. Wolf kidnapped several of Death's crew and forced them into servitude to fill his own rank, lost previously during a storm. During one of Wolf Larsen's intense headaches, which render him near immobile, van Weyden steals a boat and flees with Miss Brewster.
The two eventually land on an uninhabited island, heavily populated with seals. They hunt, build shelter and a fire, and survive for several days, utilizing the strength they gained while on the Ghost. The Ghost eventually crashes on the island, with Wolf Larsen the only crew member. As revenge, Death Larsen had tracked his brother, bribed his crew, destroyed his sails, and set Larsen adrift at sea. It is purely by chance that van Weyden and Miss Brewster meet Larsen again.
Van Weyden obtains all of the firearms left on the ship, but he cannot bear to murder Larsen, who does not threaten him. Van Weyden and Miss Brewster decide they can repair the ship, but Larsen, who intended to die on the island and take them with him, sabotages any repairs they make. After a headache, Larsen is rendered blind. He feigns paralysis and attempts to murder van Weyden when he draws within arms reach but just then is hit with a stroke that leaves him blind and the right side of his body paralyzed. His condition only worsens; he loses usage of his remaining arm, leg, and voice. Miss Brewster and van Weyden, unable to bring themselves to leave him to rot, care for him. Despite this kindness, he continues his resistance, setting fire to the above bunk's mattress.
Van Weyden finishes repairing the Ghost, and he and Miss Brewster set sail. During a violent storm, Wolf Larsen passes away. They give Larsen a burial at sea, an act mirroring an incident van Weyden witnessed when he was first rescued. The story ends with them being rescued by an American revenue cutter.
Jack London (1876-1916), was an American author and a pioneer in the then-burgeoning world of commercial magazine fiction. He was one of the first Americans to make a lucrative career exclusively from writing. London was self-educated. He taught himself in the public library, mainly just by reading books. In 1898, he began struggling seriously to break into print, a struggle memorably described in his novel, Martin Eden (1909). Jack London was fortunate in the timing of his writing career. He started just as new printing technologies enabled lower-cost production of magazines. This resulted in a boom in popular magazines aimed at a wide public, and a strong market for short fiction. In 1900, he made $2,500 in writing, the equivalent of about $75,000 today. His career was well under way. Among his famous works are: Children of the Frost (1902), The Call of the Wild (1903), The Sea Wolf (1904), The Game (1905), White Fang (1906), The Road (1907), Before Adam (1907), Adventure (1911), and The Scarlet Plague (1912).
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