Monday, September 7, 2009

The Sea Wolf, by Jack London

The Sea Wolf is everything I ever dreamed Moby Dick would be, but could never access through Melville’s barrier of whaling arcana. London gives us the battle between raw will and acculturated ethics straight-up, with enough clarity of syntax to allow a high school freshman access to the philosophical debate roiling under the castaway-meets-mutiny adventure.

Wolf Larson, captain of a seal-hunting ship, is all raw will: a self-made man with the body of a beast, ruthless in business, surprisingly well-read, but a materialist with no belief in the ephemeral notions of the soul, afterlife, or morality. He sees the ethical inclinations of narrator Humphrey Van Wyden, a gentleman writer and critic shipwrecked during a pleasure cruise and pulled on board the Ghost (Larson’s ship), as one of that man’s many weaknesses, along with his inability to earn his own meals through physical labor.

Rather than returning him to shore, Larson gives Van Wyden the moniker of Hump and puts him to work at the bottom of the ship’s ladder, as cabin boy and helper to the cook. Perhaps because of Van Wyden’s intellect, he develops a connection with Larson against his will, so that as the crew becomes increasingly mutinous and key men are lost to violence, Hump soon finds himself Mr. Van Wyden again, as First Mate. He has now learned not only to work for his meals, but to work the ships sails and navigational equipment, and he and Larson alone navigate the Ghost through a storm when all the other men are out on their sealing boats. All this time, he has spent nights arguing the nature of man with Larson, who continues to maintain that Larson’s ethics are mere weakness.

The deux ex machina comes with another castaway—the beautiful Maud Brewster, a poet and critic herself—who had been out sailing for her health when Larson’s crew saved her from her storm-smashed ship. Again, Larson refuses to return her to shore; clearly he has sexual designs on her, but Van Wyden is taken himself, and takes it upon himself to be her protector. Ironically thanks to his training through Larson’s brutality, the narrator is now equipped to steal a small sealing boat, load it with provisions, and escape with the willowy, frail Maud in the middle of the night. For days they paddle through hopelessly cold conditions until a tiny and uninhabited islet comes into sight.

There, they make house, combining knowledge Van Wyden picked up from other sailors with memories of shipwrecked characters in their favorite books. London is still obviously grappling with whether man is more mind or more creature. Though the house they build has two rooms, and Van Wyden is very clear about his passing nights alone in the beached boat until the second room is built, he admits to loving her, and finds himself referring to her as “my woman, my mate” in his most secret, silent thoughts.

The final challenge comes when Larson’s Ghost runs up on their islet, with no crew but Larson himself (all men lost in a run-in with his equally ruthless brother, Death Larson). Ravaged by unbearable headaches, blinded, and soon deaf, his body breaks before his will does, and he continues to try and foil the couple’s attempts to escape with the Ghost, cutting their repaired rigging, destroying the sails, and even setting his own bed on fire. But against all physical odds, using mathematics, engineering, and his new found will, Van Wyden gets the ship in working order just as Larson takes his dying breath. The couple sails the ship away from the islet after burying Larson at sea, and are soon rescued by another vessel.

There is something rather indulgent about reading such a straight-forward examination of the human condition; Melville buried his battle in the murkiest encyclopaedic ephemera, and pure philosophy would shy away from giving credence to Larson’s physicality. Though the captain is established as the hero’s tormentor and nemesis, we find ourselves sympathetic to Larson all the while. When Van Wyden is able to succeed precisely because he has absorbed some of Larson’s tendencies—physical strength, sexual desire, and most importantly, a confident will—London is condoning that antagonist’s convictions. But when that purely physical being expires by literal bursting in his brain, and Van Wyden is triumphant in his love, London tempers those convictions with humanist responsibilities.

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