The reason I took a small detour last week, talking about Harvey Cheyne Jr. of Kipling’s Captains Courageous, is that he reminds me of another “land lubber” who is thrown into a naval adventure: Humphrey van Weyden of Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf. Both narrators are refined intellectuals shipwrecked, rescued, and then shanghaied into service on the vessel that saved their lives. Both are hardened by their experiences, matured, and changed forever by the sea.
My first exposure to Jack London’s work was what I would consider the “average” introduction to his work: through Call of the Wild and White Fang, which are by far his most famous works. So I think I was forgivable in assuming, just from these two books and from the title of The Sea-Wolf, that it was probably about a canine.
“Let’s see…Call of the Wild is about a dog that goes to live with wolves. White Fang is about a wolf that goes to live with dogs.” So I guessed that The Sea-Wolf was…about a wolf that goes to live with seals?
Well, I got the seal part right at least. In actuality the “wolf” of the title refers to Wolf Larsen, captain of a schooner called the Ghost*, which hunts seals much like the Pequod of Moby-Dick hunts whales.
Our story begins with narrator and protagonist, Humphrey, being rescued and subsequently drafted by Captain Larsen. Although his first experience in meeting Larsen was having his life saved, Humphrey soon discovers Larsen is an amoral, brutal man, hated by his crew, who fail at their attempt to mutiny. Needing a first mate he can trust, Larsen promotes the inexperienced but harmless Humphrey, and then proceeds to punish his crew for their disloyalty by psychologically torturing them.
Although at first glance The Sea-Wolf’s opening mirrors Captains Courageous, the similarities between London and Melville are pretty numerous, too: Ishmael and Humphrey van Weyden are narrators of an intellectual bent, relatively new to seafaring life. Both stories are largely set on ships whose purpose is killing animals (the Pequod is a whaler, while the Ghost hunts seals). And Ahab and Wolf Larsen are the captains are charismatic, yet brooding men—Ahab consumed by the idea of revenge, Wolfe obsessed with mortality, survival, and man’s need to control an uncontrollable universe.
The novel departs from the other seafaring stories I’ve reviewed with the introduction of Maud Brewster, a lady poet who is rescued from the sea. (This happens a lot in books, apparently. Partly this is a mere plot device, but I also suppose it is true to life, especially during the time these books were written where almost the only mode of intercontinental travel was by ship, and the ocean even more of a mystery than it is today.) Though women have been mentioned, or even had fleeting appearances in the other books, Maud is actually present for the action. Not only is she “there” for the adventure—she may not have much character development, but she enters the story as an independently wealthy writer, who endures everything Humphrey does—her very presence is what drives the rest of the novel.
As soon as Maud arrives, she unbalances the relationship with Humphrey and Larsen. Both fall in love with her, but it isn’t just a run-of-the-mill romantic triangle that Jack London creates here. It’s more of a philosophical argument between brute strength and moral courage. Larsen lives his life at is most primal, following his instincts, glorying in strength. He’s no intellectual slouch, but lives life to its fullest extent, with great passion and little pity. Humphrey, on the other hand, while he is growing in his physical strength and naval experience, doesn’t give up the ideals of his education, believing there is something more to be nurtured beyond our natural instincts.
Addressing Nietzsche’s “superman” ideology along with the usual themes of “survival of the fittest” and “to the strong go the spoils” that characterize his writing, London doesn’t let the philosophy bog down the action. If anything, the adventure is enhanced by the philosophy, because this isn’t just two men fighting over a girl on a boat. It’s the fight between life and death, and the fight between whether there is anything in life beyond our most basic instincts, whether we can ever grow beyond our natural strengths.
*Which makes one wonder why anyone would want to sail in a ship with such name. What, was The Impending Doom already taken?