Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Sea-Wolf

The Sea-Wolf
© 1906 Jack London
Reprinted in Tales of the North, © 1979.
pp. 183-330

Humphrey van Weyden never imagined that a simple ferry ride across the San Francisco Bay would take him so far. Following a collision at sea, he is rescued by one Wolf Larsen, the dread lord and master of the sealing schooner Ghost -- a man quite unlike any other van Weyden has ever encountered. The Wolf is the embodiment of brute strength, wild cunning, and savage brutality who dominates his ship, striking fear into the hearts of all aboard her. Wolf is inescapable -- but to obtain his freedom, van Weyden must somehow find the strength to do so.

While The Sea-Wolf follows the Ghost on a sealing expedition from San Francisco to Japan on peril-fraught seas, the adventure and struggle here is between two men --  one impotent if morally courageous, and the other gloriously strong but bankrupt as a man. Each fascinates the other: they circle one another like Buck and his counterparts in The Call of the Wild. While van Weyden attempts to make a life for himself aboard the Ghost, determined to survive, the two grapple over their respective worldviews -- treating the reader to a philosophical discussion about morality, the meaning of life, and the measure of a man.

The Wolf is a fascinating character, ferociously strong in both body and in spirit. He is almost 'the unfettered', the Nietzschean superman, but he lacks something to strive for. He lives for nothing, only exists, and so he languishes for all his strength. In the end it is what fate they create for themselves as the plot tests them which proves which is the better man -- for while van Weyden can develop the strength and cunning he needs to stand on his own two feet, independent of others, the Wolf is capable of growing beyond himself -- to live as a man, and not simply exist as a beast.

The Sea-Wolf enthralled me, not just for the wild energy London's characters and plotting seem to possess, but to witness the triumph of the human spirit -- not just van Weyden's growth, but his ability to maintain the nobility of humanity while at same time harnessing the beautiful, wild strength inside.

A note about this version of the story: the publishers printed the novel in four magazline-like columns and supplemented the text with stunning artwork by W.J. Aylward. Tales of the North collects The Call of the Wild, White Fang, The Cruise of the Dazzler, The Sea-Wolf, and fifteen short stories. I received it for Christmas years ago but never realized what a tremendous boon it was until I opened the book to see if it contained The Sea-Wolf: I'd been planning on checking that out from the library.


  • 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The strong but bitter Captain Nemo reminded me much of the Wolf. 
  • The Iron Heel, Jack London
  • The Call of the Wild, Jack London.
  • The Fountainhead/Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand. While I've never read them,  the Wolf uses the objectivist arguments for selfishness against van Weyden in the course of their discussions.

1 comment:

  1. I remember the 1941 movie with Edward G Robinson as Larsen. Unfortunately the DVD is no longer available....

    I must pick up the book at some point & add it to my classics 'to be read' list.


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