7. The Sea Wolf

by Jack London

Didn't like it. Well, I enjoyed reading about a turn of the century gentleman suffering so greatly. Having never worked a day in his life, he finds himself aboard a schooner headed for Japan to hunt seals. This is a result of a highly implausible accident in San Francisco bay between this man's ferry and a steamer. The crew on The Ghost pluck him from the freezing bay waters but refuse to drop him off. Instead they sail out of the bay with the wealthy wimp and are at sea for most of the story.

The gentleman (on land, at least), Humphrey Van Weyden, becomes "Hump" the cabin boy/dishwasher at sea. This scene where the incredibly brutish and violent Captain Wolf Larsen is interrogating the gentleman his crew just saved, was fun:

"What do you do for a living?"
I confess I had never had such a question asked me before, nor had I ever canvassed it. I was quite taken aback, and before I could find myself had sillily stammered, "I-I am a gentleman."
His lip curled in a swift sneer.
"I have worked. I do work," I cried impetuously, as though he were my judge and I required vindication, and at the same time very much aware of my arrant idiocy in discussing the subject at all.
"For your living?"
There was something so imperative and masterful about him that I was quite beside myself-- "rattled," as Furuseth would have termed it, like a quaking child before a stern schoolmaster.
"Who feeds you?" was his next question.
"I have an income," I answered stoutly, and could have bitten my tongue the next instant. "All of which, you will pardon my observing, has nothing whatsoever to do with what I wish to see you about."
But he disregarded my protest.
"Who earned it? Eh? I thought so. Your father. You stand on dead men's legs. You've never had any of your own. You couldn't walk alone between two sunrises and hustle the meat for your belly for three meals. Let me see your hand."

That stuff is fun but the stormy, tortured, brutally primitive ship's captain seems annoyingly cardboard in the shadow of Captain Ahab. Captain Wolf Larsen seems to have little reason for his excessive brutality, excessively muscular body or for his desire to be at the helm of a seal hunting schooner full of men who'd love to see him dead.

Sorry, I much prefer the character of the wolf in White Fang than the one in The Sea Wolf. I much prefer the clarity and experiential nature of the ways of London's wild than the overblown primitivist/industrialist (?) philosophy bantered broodingly in the cabin of his ship, one that felt more like a stage setting than a schooner out on the Pacific.

I guess I'm really dissatisfied after my great experiences reading Call of the Wild and White Fang. I'm loving London, but I'm staying on land.


Dan said...

I think I will skip this one. :-)

Doc said...

If you get the chance, read Before Adam. It's such a strange book for its time, but its no surprise that London "went there." It's a story about a man whose mind is inextricably linked with his remote, quasi-human, primitive ancestor. It's not the very best thing I have ever read, but I liked it enough to read it twice. It's intriguing.