Literature: The Sea Wolf

The first edition cover

The Sea-Wolf is a 1904 novel by Jack London. It can be described as a psychological adventure novel which gets most of its tension from the conflict between two characters with spectacularly different world views.

The protagonist is literary critic Humphrey van Weyden, a physically weak intellectual with a strong sense of justice and a very optimistic, albeit initially not very thought-out ideology about inherent good, altruism and the immortality of the soul. He was born into a rich family and relies mostly on his father’s inheritance, although his job provides him with an income of his own. At the beginning of the novel, he gets shipwrecked and set adrift after the ferry he was traveling on collides with another ship and sinks.

He is rescued by Wolf Larsen, captain of the seal-hunting schooner “Ghost”. Larsen is the absolute antithesis to van Weyden’s passive benignity. As captain, he rules over the crew of the “Ghost” with an iron fist, brutally beating everyone into submission who dares to defy him and humiliating people for his own amusement. Instead of returning van Weyden to the shore, Wolf Larsen forces him to become part of his crew.

While trying his best to adapt to the harsh new environment, van Weyden discovers that there is more to the captain than blunt, animalistic brutality. Wolf Larsen is an autodidact; he taught himself reading, writing, biology, astronomy, physics and a number of other things and developed his own nihilistic philosophy, heavily inspired by Nietzsche and social-Darwinism.Van Weyden and Larsen often engage in long philosophical debates during which “Hump”, as the captain calls him, has to defend his own ideology against Larsen’s hedonistic world view.

While Wolf Larsen does humiliate and occasionally beat van Weyden, believing that the harsh treatment will help the spoiled young man to learn how to “stand on his own legs”, he also shows him favoritism because he is the only one on the ship who can provide Larsen with intellectual stimulation.

During his stay on the “Ghost”, Humphrey van Weyden grows stronger in body and spirit, but he stays wary of Larsen, whom he sees as a monster and whose immense cruelty he finds appalling.When the “Ghost” picks up more castaways, among them a female poet named Maud Brewster, the conflict between van Weyden and Larsen grows more dangerous as both men feel attracted to her.

Jack London originally wrote the novel as an attack on Nietzsche’s Übermensch-concept.It has been adapted for movies many, many times (8 English-language films, 3 German ones, and an Italian and a Russian version, respectively) and is mostly remembered for the character of Wolf Larsen and his relationship with Humphrey van Weyden (described as similar to that of a king and his jester), while the love story that unfolds between Maud Brewster and Humphrey van Weyden and their subsequent escape to a deserted island has been deemed cheesy and absurd even by contemporaries.

The Sea-Wolf provides examples of:

  • Action Survivor: Humphrey van Weyden becomes this over the course of the story.
  • Alas, Poor Villain: After Wolf Larsen dies, Humphrey and Maud express sympathy for the man, remarking that now, at least, his spirit is free.
  • Audience Surrogate: Humphrey van Weyden.
  • Awesome McCoolname: Wolf Larsen and his brother Death Larsen.
  • Burial at Sea: It's the first thing van Weyden witnesses after the "Ghost" picks him up. At the end of the novel, Larsen is also buried at sea.
  • Crapsack World: The "Ghost" is like a Crapsack Microcosmos.
  • Deserted Island: This is where Maud and Humphrey escape to. They build stone huts, hunt seals and call it "Endeavour Island".
  • Disproportionate Retribution: A specialty of Wolf Larsen. One sailor gets beaten within an inch of his life for daring to complain about the quality of the oilskins and the ship's cook is keelhauled for cooking unsavory food and not changing his shirt.
  • Driven to Suicide: Humphrey van Weyden initially contemplates just flinging himself over board. Wolf Larsen also casually suggests suicide as an option to the sailor he treats with particular cruelty.
  • Exact Words: Larsen promises van Weyden "not to lay a finger" on Leach and Johnson, the two sailors he threatened to kill before. In turn, van Weyden has to promise not to try to kill Larsen. Van Weyden accepts. So after Leach and Johnson tried to flee with one of the hunting boats and it sunk in a storm, Wolf Larsen finds them drifting in the water and simply lets them drown.
  • Face Death with Dignity: George Leach. He knows Larsen is going to kill him and Johnson, but he stays calm and collected, continuing his attacks on Wolf Larsen and showing no sign of fear.
  • Fingore: One of the hunters gets his finger crushed between the "Ghost" and one of the hunting boats.
  • The Hedonist: Wolf Larsen, believing that life is inherently meaningless, says that the only thing to seek is pleasure. However, his pleasure is not the Hookers and Blow sort, but one of striving and triumph.
  • Karmic Death: Larsen frequently suffers from intense headaches, a symptom of the brain tumor that eventually kills him.
  • Lost at Sea: Van Weyden, before he is rescued by Larsen.
  • Misaimed Fandom: Fair to say many, perhaps most, fans of the book like it for Wolf Larsen. This is hardly a surprise as he's by far the best written character, and despite London supposedly writing this book as a refutation of such views, Larsen comes out on top of every single argument in the book.
  • Naïve Newcomer: Humphrey van Weyden, though he adapts quickly. Later in the novel, Maud Brewster counts as well.
  • Names to Run Away From Really Fast: Wolf Larsen, his brother Death Larsen and the schooner "Ghost".
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Wolf Larsen delivers these with gusto.
  • Proper Lady: Maud Brewster. Humphrey just can't stop reminding the reader of her beauty, gentleness and feminine delicacy.
  • Sheltered Aristocrat: Van Weyden is not of aristocratic descent, but for all his wealth and inexperience, he might as well be.
  • Straw Nihilist: Wolf Larsen views life as a constant battle for dominance in a world with no meaning or morals. Van Weyden tries to counter this. Emphasis on tries.
  • The Social Darwinist: Wolf Larsen.
    Wolf Larsen: The big eat the small. The strong eat the weak. The lucky eat the most and move the longest, that is all.
  • Threatening Shark: When Thomas Mugridge is keelhauled, a shark bites off his foot.
  • Übermensch: Wolf is intended to be a deconstruction of the trope, showing how unpleasant it would be to interact with a man with a radically different moral code and no qualms about imposing it on others. It also shows just how hard it would be to be the Übermensch, for van Weyden himself notices that whenever Wolf becomes melancholy, he can find no consolation or succour, for the very qualities that make him who he is deny him that comfort.
  • Wooden Ships and Iron Men: Very late example: it's set at the very end of the Age of Sail, but the atmosphere definitely counts.