Monday, April 16, 2012

The Sea-Wolf by Jack London

Ends not with a bang but with a whimper
The Sea-Wolf, first published in 1904, is one of Jack London’s best known novels. The narrator, Humphrey Van Weyden, is a self-proclaimed “gentleman” who dabbles in literary criticism. While crossing San Francisco Bay, Van Weyden’s ferry boat collides with another ship and sinks. He is washed out toward sea, where he is picked up by the seal-hunting schooner The Ghost. Van Weyden’s joy at being rescued is short lived, however, when he discovers that the captain of the ship, a brute by the name of Wolf Larsen, has no intention of returning him to California. Larsen is amused by the idea of taking this weakling who never worked a day of physical labor in his life and turning him into a man who can “stand on his own legs.” Larsen informs Van Weyden that he will be joining the crew as cabin boy for the several months duration of the sealing trip.

Wolf Larsen is an atheist and materialist, who believes that might is right and there is no purpose in life other than the pleasure he finds in it. Van Weyden describes him as “not immoral, but unmoral.” In Larsen’s view, the world is a brutally competitive place, and a life has no inherent value other than that which it can earn by fighting for its own survival. Van Weyden, on the other hand, is an idealist who believes that man possesses an immortal soul, and that there exist absolute virtues of right and justice that supersede self-interest. Each an intellectual in his own way, the two men engage in intriguing philosophical discussions on human behavior and the nature of the universe. These conversations take a back seat to the daily workings of the ship, however, as Van Weyden slaves like a dog while Larsen exercises his philosophy by brutalizing the motley crew of sailors. The barbarity of this environment is an education for the cultured Van Weyden, who gets his first taste of the harsh reality that exists outside the pages of his books.

At first The Sea-Wolf promises to be an excellent novel, grippingly suspenseful and intellectually provocative. Unfortunately, at the halfway point it takes a turn for the worse. The Ghost rescues some castaways, one of which happens to be a woman, Maude Brewster. From that point on, the book ceases to be a philosophical novel and instead concentrates primarily on Van Weyden’s discovery of the mystery, the magic, the glory, of Woman. Romance was never London’s strong suit. His male/female relationships often end up being so idealized and cloyingly sweet that it’s hard for today’s reader to take them seriously. The second half of The Sea-Wolf is still a decent adventure novel, but London’s devotion to this trite love story keeps it from rising above the level of mediocre genre fiction. Thus the promise of a profound philosophical novel is never manifested. The conflict between Van Weyden and Larsen ends up being resolved not by any action on either’s part, but rather by an “act of God,” which leaves the reader feeling cheated and let down.

The Sea-Wolf is a good book, but not a great one. Though the front half shows inklings of a masterpiece along the lines of The Call of Wild, The Iron Heel, or Martin Eden, the disappointing ending puts it in a class with middling works like White Fang.

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