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.

Jack London: “Call of the Wild”

Like Martin Eden, Buck spends much of the novel as an exploited worker, carrying sleds of supplies across the Klondike.  And like Martin Eden, he seeks to dominate his arena, but even through struggle and eventually success Buck can only be a high-ranking servant.  Many of the sled dogs are killed or left for dead when they become to exhausted to continue the treks.  Individualism fails for both Martin Eden and Buck.  None of Buck’s struggles for domination, none of his assertive resistance can defeat the “law of club and fang.”  Unlike Martin Eden, who found salvation only in suicide, Buck is able to return to a primitive equality by joining a wolf pack.  This is the equivalent of Martin Eden joining with his socialist friends – but of course Martin Eden rejected that choice.

call of the wild

This is the reading I would like to propose for The Call of the Wild, the next text in my adventure through Jack London’s writings.  When I last read London’s works 4 years ago, I read a greater ambivalence about individualism and community than I am seeing now.  I used to see The Call of the Wild as a text calling for radical individualism, reflected in Buck’s rejection of the human world.  But now, I see the harsh brutality of the capitalist machine that Buck was drawn into.  Like the East Enders in People of the Abyss, like the maritime workers London drank with in John Barleycorn, and like poor Martin Eden, Buck spends much of the novel facing exploitation.  As an animal, Buck is subjected to even worse torture and brutality and indifference.  Owners mock him, starve him, smash him with clubs, murder his companions at will, and encourage violence among the sled dogs.  As the recent fire in a Bangladesh textile factory shows, workers around the world today are seen as less than human and are allowed to die for profit.   Let’s not delude ourselves.  We are Buck except for some slight protections governments feel fit to bestow on us.  And but for genetic luck, we would be one of the billions of animals tortured, raped, murdered, dissembled and eaten/worn/discarded.


The plot is well-known and straightforward.  Buck is owned by a gambler and drunkard who has to sell him to pay off some debts.  After being disciplined into submission with the “law of the club,” Buck joins a sled team.  Buck rises to dominance within the sled team by defeating Spitz in a battle to the death.  After a brutal mail run, Buck and his team were hungry and worn down.  Some had died or been killed.  Unable to make the return trip, the team is sold to some naive newcomers, who seem good-hearted but end up misusing the dogs when frustration brought on by their ill-planning and ill-experience overwhelms them.  Buck is eventually adopted by John Thornton, who is the one human who sees beyond Buck’s material utility.  Buck becomes more wild as he fights to defend Thornton.  It is at this time that Buck begins fraternizing with wolves.  When Thornton died, Buck joins the wolf pack.

The humans early in the book are all odious, symbolizing the cynical, experienced, iron-hearted capitalists of industrial America.  They willingly discard and kill and exploit.  Charles, Hal, and Mercedes, the greenhorns are more complex.  They lack the experience to properly manage the team.  They overfeed the team and are forced to starve them when the food runs out.  Despite their good intentions and comparable warm-hardheartedness, when things got hard for them they abuse of the animals increased.  “In excess of their own misery they were callous to the suffering of the animals.  Hal’s theory, which he practices on others, was that one must get hardened.”  (54)  London is clear that in practice the suffering of the team was worse under the inexperienced than under the professional exploiters.  With these characters we have the liberals.  They want to do good.  They are softer and less cynical.  But their good intentions cause as much harm as self-aware exploiters.  They mismanage resources and weep over their crimes as well as their own suffering.  We are surrounded by people like Charles, Hal and Mercedes.  These are the people who consume organic crops harvested by exploited immigrant workers.  These are the people who sponsor children in “developing” countries but own clothes sewn by slaves.  These are the people who proudly eat at Chipotle for its “locally-grown” vegetables, indifferent to the suffering of animals and workers in the slaughterhouse or the low-pay and scientific-managed regulation of the workers behind the counter.   These are the Obama voters who looked the other way at Guantanamo Bay, the destruction of unions, drone strikes, and forty years of stagnant wages.  John Thornton sees through them and knows who they are.  As should we.

John Thornton is their to make money, but he is the only one who seems to manage this without exploiting others.  Contrasted with the other characters, Thornton is the anarchist.  He works to liberate Buck.  Buck and Thornton work together and protect each other.  But rather than rehabilitating humanity, this brings Buck closer to the “wild.”  It is under Thornton that Buck has the freedom to encounter the wolf pack that will eventually lead to his liberation.

Who is Thornton for us?  My guess is that for London, Thornton is the socialist.  We will want to read him differently, but in any case he emerges as an authentic liberator.  It is nice to imagine that each of us through will or self-direction can free ourselves from dependency and slavery.  In reality, these struggles more often parallel the struggles between Buck and Spitz.  My guess is that we need to create Thornton for ourselves first.  He will not be waiting for us at a prospecting camp.