Jack London: “Sea-Wolf”: Resistance and Other Themes

In my last post, we met Wolf Larsen, captain of the Ghost, and found him to be the logical consequences of the capitalist,dog-eat-dog world that London critiques throughout his career.  He was self-made and ambitious but violence, brutish, and would have died alone if not for the company of the novel’s narrator Humphrey van Weyden.  He is the logical consequence of the turn-of-the-century Social Darwinism that praised the struggle of individuals over the community and honored the captains of industry who rose to domination by crushing their competition, abusing the commons, destroying unions, and manipulating the political system.  Morality for these types is secondary to personal gain.


One easy response to this, which is a response London may not have had access too, is that of Kropotkin.  In Mutual Aid, Kropotkin argued that evolution was not simply the struggle for survival between individuals, but was based on cooperation within species.  Species that “succeeded” tended to work together to achieve goals and care for each others, sharing resources and labor.  That is, the most successful species were communists (from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.)  The anarchist Kropotkin could also notice that for all of natural history this was one without the aid of a state distributing resources.  This is one of the origins of evolutionary ethics, another being Thomas Huxley who contrasted ethics as a gardener ensuring the stronger weeds do not kill the weaker but more valuable flowers.  London was either no aware of this idea or rejected it.  For London, nature was incompatible with socialism and cooperation.  Socialism would consist of overcoming our Social Darwinian tendencies to dominate or be dominated (The Law of Club and Fang).

Peter Kropotkin

What are the forms of resistance that London offers up in The Sea-Wolf.

The first method of resistance is that of van Weyden, who choose moral suasion and the modelling of an alternative.  In chapter eight, van Weyden attempts to reeducate Wolf Larsen on Herbert Spencer, suggesting that the Wolf has read Spencer all wrong.  For Van Weyden, Spencer demands that people practice altruism for their own self-interest.  Altruism benefits the individual, her children, and her “race.” As in every other moral argument presented by Van Weyden, and later Maud Brewster, Wolf is unimpressed and proclaims his own amoral reading of Spencer.  “But with nothing eternal before me but death, given for a brief spell this yeasty crawling and squirming which is called life, why, it would be immoral for me to perform any act that was a sacrifice.  Any sacrifice that makes me lose one crawl or squirm is foolish.” (545)  Wolf Larsen ends his life with little change in attitude after the many conversation

s with van Weyden.  If anything, van Weyden enabled him by providing a forum for Wolf Larsen to refine his philosophy.  Van Weyden even gets a bit of the Wolf in himself in the end when he alone repairs the Ghost, experiencing a moment of joy at his solitary accomplishment.  “I did it!  I did it!  With my own hands I did it!” (765)  Wolf would have been so proud.  The moral argument is a dud.

The crew takes another approach, that of open resistance.  The mutiny failed and Wolf Larsen remained in charge of his ship, but the mutiny at least provided a significant challenge, unlike van Weyden’s tedious moralizing.  The problem with the mutiny was that Larsen was fully capable of maintaining his power.  He was disciplined, powerful, intelligent, adaptive, and had an endless reservoir of will.  The international crew was too internally divided to overthrown Wolf Larsen.  Being unable to bring equal force of will to bear, the mutiny was doomed to failure.  The instigators of the rebellion hate Wolf Larsen for personal reasons.  The mutiny is not a revolution.  Instead it is an expression of rage.  Without direction, unity, or an alternative it is weak.

There two strategies needed unity.  The sailors were simply the other side o

f Social Darwinian coin.  The heads was the exploiter – Wolf Larsen, the tails the exploited – the sailors.  What they lacked was the clear vision of an alternative.  Van Weyden, a sideline obse

rver of the mutiny could have provided that.  He did not want to get his get blood on his hand and rejected his occasional ideas to murder Wolf Larsen.

The force that finally defeats Wolf Larsen is his brother, Death Larsen.  Death sh

ared many of the characteristics with his brother.  They are both Nietzsche’s  “supermen.”  Both have a ship.  Both are autodidacts (although Wolf has more academic curiosity).  After an earlier battle where Wolf achieved victor, Death is able to leave his brother for dead, alone on his ship.  This action is all told in flash back and takes place after van Weyden escaped the ship with Maud Brewster.  (It would have been interesting to see how he would have interacted with Wolf’s brother, but alas the novel is long enough as it is.)  The choice here is to choose our tyrant.  The crew chose “Death” because he paid them off.

A fourth method of resistance could be London’s socialism, which is never presented overtly as an option in the text.  It is, however, the only choice left.  The intellectual failed, the enraged violence of the unorganized working class fai

led, and victory of Wolf Larsen came only in finding his equal in brutality and amorality.


I want to mention one more thing about The Sea-Wolf.  Underneath the enti

re plot is a story of American empire and environmental destruction.  The brutal destruction of the seals on the Arctic coasts parallels the brutality on the ship.  Wolf Larsen is a terror to his men, but the entire crew is a terror to the helpless seals.  “And north we traveled with it, ravaging and destroying, flinging the naked carcasses to the shark and salting down the skins so that they might later adorn the fair shoulders of the women of the cities.  It was wanton slaughter, and all for women’s sake.  No man ate of the seal meat or the soil.  After a good day’s killing I have seen our decks covered with hides and bodies, slippery with fat and blood, the scupper running red; masts, ropes, and rails spattered with the sanguinary color; and the men, like butchers plying their trade, naked and red of arm and hand, hard at work with ripping and flensing-knives, removing the skins from the pretty sea-creatures they had killed.” (603)  Passages like this remind us of the brutal war against nature that shaped so much of the American conquest of the Pacific.  From the slaughter of sea otters, to the deforestation of Hawaii, to the dropping of nuclear bombs on Bikini Island, the U.S. Empire in the Pacific came at the cost of nature.  It is to his credit that London, a participant in these activities, was aware that the Pacific was not an empty ocean to be secured for American shipping, but an alive world, mostly helpless against the force of capital.


Seal Hunting Then


And now.

And now.

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