Jack London’s ‘The Sea Wolf’ is perfect mix of charisma, description and romance

Jack London is one of the most influential novelists ever to hold a pen, renowned as the brilliant author of “The Call of the Wild” and “White Fang,” two stories of the toil and triumph of dogs and wolves. After that, reader interest in his novels falters. However, his brilliance shines ever so brightly in his 1904 novel, “The Sea Wolf.”

The story is told from the point of view of Humphrey Van Whedon, a gentleman, rather egotistical and callous, who has benefited from his father’s fortune. He doesn’t need to make money and isn’t at all interested in it. His only semblance of workaday life is his rare writing of reviews of novels, not at all for survival purposes. In the book, even, it is hinted that his work as a critic is merely an endeavor for the purposes of amusement. He embarks on a short cruise on the ocean, but his very life is put at risk when his San Francisco ferry collides with another boat.

This the beginning of a fast-paced and gripping tale, told in a strikingly contemporary tone combined with the alluring descriptions of London’s age. What a delight to read.

He dives into the sea right before the crash and hangs on to a piece of floating debris. But due to his great exertion, he soon lapses into unconsciousness, floating barely above the water.

This small detail I love, for it sets up quite a bit of development for Van Whedon from a weakling who cannot swim a stroke even for his life to a man capable of adapting to unfamiliarity.

When he awakes, he finds himself aboard a large ship called the Ghost. He looks for the captain, in order to direct him to take him back, expecting no trouble, as if it would be only a very minor inconvenience, but is oblivious to the ruthless brute who is in charge.

The captain is called Wolf Larsen. That is not his name, merely a title which is meant to embody his ruthlessness. Not one of the sailers knows his true name, and it is not once revealed in the book. However, before he meets the captain for the first time, Van Whedon is notified of the man’s eccentricities and how his brutality is merciless. Of course, Van Whedon smugly disregards the warnings and launches straight into his requests of the captain.

This part, still reflecting Van Whedon’s snobbish disregard for others, creates a picture of the egotism of the self-absorbed rich population of that age.

Wolf Larsen stares straight at him, and says, “You will not return home. You will work here for salary, under me.” Van Whedon is positively shocked at these words, and yet there is some enticing air about Wolf Larsen, so, in an act of oblivious idiocy that I found rather unrealistic, for it seems as though he is compelled by some magic spell, Van Whedon accepts the position as cabin boy of the Ghost.

In many entries in the diary-like portin that follows, the hero complains of his maltreatment and of how he is a “veritable prisoner” upon the “dreary” ship. He is treated as the regular cabin boy, berated for failures and ignored when he triumphs.

However, Van Whedon soon finds a way to combat his boredom: He converses with Wolf Larsen. The man whom seemed a meat-headed lunatic who spoke only in slang turns out to be a great admirer of literature, and he talks frequently with him in the coming journey. I found this revelation to be a great detail, for it reflects the fact that sometimes characters are ambiguous, and it is interesting, for it seems strange for such a brutal man to be so well-read, as though he not only knows the laws of the survivalist, but also that of a more civilized breed. It added great character development to this seemingly one-sided antagonist.

After weeks of stories of his experiences under the wing of Wolf Larsen, Van Whedon is promoted. He has almost no experience with ships and relies on the constant help of his fellow sailors to teach him the ways of the ship. And through the rest of the story, he begins at last to find his own “legs,” after living off of the affluence of his father. He toils, he hardens, and he at last becomes a man.

Thus, the long character arc of Humphrey Van Whedon is at last completed. From the bookish, lazy egotist to the toughened master of the sea, it is a satisfying journey.