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Literature / The Sea Wolf

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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.

Adapted as a 1941 film directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Edward G. Robinson as Larsen.

Adapted as a rather Darker and Edgier (which is saying something) 1993 film with Charles Bronson as Larsen and Christopher Reeve as Van Weyden.

Adapted to film in a similar vein to the above in 1997 with Stacy Keach as Larsen.

Adapted as a 2009 miniseries with Sebastian Koch as Wolf Larsen, Tim Roth as Death Larsen, and Neve Campbell as Maud.

The Sea-Wolf provides examples of:

  • Action Survivor: Humphrey van Weyden becomes this over the course of the story.
  • Adapted Out: Maud Brewster in the 1941 film, with her role loosely filled by Canon Foreigner Ruth Webster.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Byronic Hero: Cunning, adaptable, handsome, passionate, wholly concerned with personal interests, hated by the world at large, and his own crew, possessing a philosophy at odds with the world, and often broods over said philosophy and the events that made him who he is, Wolf Larsen comes across as a Danish edition of Lord Byron. Except he's the Big Bad, and the nature of the tale makes him something of a deconstruction of this trope, highlighting that unless you share his philosophy, or more accurately, unless you prove entertaining to him, he inevitably comes across as a callous sociopath even on his best of days.
  • Cain and Abel: Wolf and his brother Death are not fond of eachother. The exact resolution of their conflict (if any) varies depending on the adaptation, but Wolf won’t live through it either way.
    • The 2009 miniseries has Death describing Wolf as "the sensitive one," indicating what a touchy-feely kind of guy he is.
  • Camp Cook: Thomas "Cooky" Mugridge. "Ethnic" (Cockney), known for his bad food (mostly due to his filthy habits) and often the butt of cruel humor.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The Charles Bronson movie has a rather literal one when Hump finds a heavy cannon tucked away in the Ghost's hold. Wolf intends to use it when (not if, when) he encounters his brother's ship. It doesn't end well.
  • Court Jester: Larsen mockingly compares Van Weyden to one, and though the Ghost plainly isn't a royal court, it fits. Despite being a clear subordinate, Van Weyden is one of the only people who can speak to Larsen as an equal, within reason, in large part because his intellect and naivety make him both interesting and amusing for Larsen. Though this doesn't spare him from Larsen's violent temper.
  • Crapsack World: The Ghost is like a Crapsack Microcosmos.
  • Death by Adaptation: van Weyden is shot and killed by Larsen at the end of the 1941 film.
  • Defiant to the End: Even after losing his sight, his ability to talk, having half of his body paralyzed and being left in terrible pain waiting for death, Larsen refuses to abandon his ideas of a finite life in favor of ones of a comforting afterlife and still has enough courage to call them "BULLSHIT".
  • 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.
  • Dying Moment of Awesome: In the 1941 film, Dr. Louis Prescott spends his final moments mocking Larsen and revealing the truth about their voyage before flinging himself to his death.
  • 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.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Wolf Larsen is perfectly capable of affecting a polite, or at least likeable, demeanour if he feels like it, but his general treatment of both his crew and Van Weyden make it clear how little he actually cares for either of them, something he even gleefully admits in his Motive Rants.
  • Fingore: One of the hunters gets his finger crushed between the "Ghost" and one of the hunting boats.
  • Genius Bruiser: Wolf Larsen. A violent, confrontational sea captain, strong enough to climb a ladder while being dragged down by his own crew and crush a raw potato to mush with his bare hands. Also a philosophical and cunning autodidact in his spare time.
  • Going Down with the Ship: Wolf Larsen in the 1993 adaptation pulls perhaps the most villainous example of this trope ever.
  • 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.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Larsen is an utterly vicious Bad Boss of a captain, and his moments of kindness are eclipsed by his more frequent episodes of cruelty, but his philosophical conversations with Van Weyden forces Weyden to acknowledge how little his naive, idealistic thinking makes sense in the real world. Larsen also makes the point that Van Weyden's time on the Ghost is probably one of the few times he has worked his hands in his life, and his experiences do much to make him man up, regardless of how much he hates Larsen for it.
  • Karmic Death: Larsen frequently suffers from intense headaches, a symptom of the brain tumor that eventually kills him.
  • Late to the Tragedy: In the 1993 adaptation, Hump and Maud attempt to escape in a seal boat. Hearing gunfire in the fog, they row back to find the Ghost sinking, and the crew gone, Wolf having lost the duel with his brother.
  • Lost at Sea: Van Weyden, before he is rescued by Larsen.
  • Murder by Inaction: 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.
  • 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.
  • Profane Last Words: Larsen's Bosh!
  • Proper Lady: Maud Brewster. Humphrey just can't stop reminding the reader of her beauty, gentleness and feminine delicacy.
  • Rated M for Manly: A high seas adventure taking place on a schooner where dog-eat-dog is the rule of the day, populated by crusty, toughened sailors who shrug off amputated fingers like water off a duck's back, with the Big Bad a hulking, handsome Genius Bruiser with a striking name. The protagonist, a Sheltered Aristocrat, is forced to toughen up in the environment, and ends up in a Cock Fight with said Genius Bruiser over a rescued Proper Lady. And it's written by Jack London. Enough said.
  • Rewarded as a Traitor Deserves: At least in the 1941 film, the cook tells Larsen what he learns from being around his crewmates, fairly regularly. Late in the film, Larsen says, "I hate an informer," and has him dragged behind the ship on a rope. Unusually for this trope, the cook survives, but he loses a leg to sharks.
  • Saved to Enslave: Captain Wolf's treatment of those he 'rescues' at sea. Possibly justified, since resources are scarce and you can't carry dead weight — but he could just drop them off at the nearest port...
  • Seadog Peg Leg: Implied in the first chapter. The "red-faced man" is clearly an experienced seaman and though he's wearing long trousers, walks in an odd way that Van Weyden surmises is caused by having two artificial legs.
  • Sheltered Aristocrat: Van Weyden is not of aristocratic descent, but for all his wealth and inexperience, he might as well be.
  • 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.
  • The Sociopath: The Other Wiki notes that Larsen displays several traits of a sociopath. However, he arguably subverts the trope due to not only being pretty open about being an utter prick, but displays a great deal of passion, especially around Maud and Van Weyden, and shows a degree of regret for how his life has turned out which is pretty foreign to textbook sociopaths.
  • 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.
    • In the 1993 adaptation, Larsen goes so far as to quote Paradise Lost for his last words: "Better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven."
  • Surrounded by Idiots: While hardly stupid, a large reason why Larsen comes to favour Van Weyden is that he's the only one of the crew on the ship with an intellectual background, and as such, one of the few sources of intellectual stimulation he has. Ditto for Maud Brewster, though there's a dose of Lust in the mix as well in regards to her.
  • Taking You with Me: Having lost his cannon duel with Death's ship and been abandoned by what's left of his crew in the 1993 adaptation, Larsen tries to force Hump to go down with him, though Hump manages to escape. In a paradoxical Pet the Dog, he simultaneously tries to convince Maud to leave them and save herself.
  • 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. It's also shown that when you use this idea to excuse being an unrepentant jackass towards your own underlings, it doesn't matter how badass or amoral you are: said underlings will inevitably turn against him and throw him off his own ship.
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Van Weyden. For better or for worse, his experiences on his Ghost force him to tone it down a bit, though he never completely abandons his idealism.
  • 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.