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Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Book Review: The Sea Wolf by Jack London

Over the weekend I finished my latest 'on the bus to work and back' book, which was the classic novel The Sea Wolf written by Jack London. Although probably not as famous or well-known as London's novels that actually involved wolves (The Call of the Wild and White Fang), The Sea Wolf was certainly an interesting piece of literature. If you are interested in late 19th century/early 20th century philosophy, literature, and psychology, then I would recommend reading this book. It is an exciting adventure novel and period piece with all the elegant prose that is so sorely lacking in most modern novels. Although I will try to keep from overly spoiling the novel, my discussion hereafter will contain details that those planning to read the book might not want to hear.

As one might have noticed, I hedged my praise in the introductory paragraph with the catch-all (and therefore not very descriptive or flattering) descriptor 'interesting'. The reason for this is that the book has a somewhat lopsided construction - the first half of the book is excellent and builds up a complex relationship between the narrator, Humphrey van Weyden, and Wolf Larson, the captain of the sealing schooner Ghost. Humphrey is a gentleman scholar and literary critic who was lost at sea following the collision of a ferry boat and steamer in the San Francisco harbour, only to be saved at the last moment by the passing Ghost. Instead of turning around and depositing him back on shore, however, Wolf Larson decides to teach Humphrey to "stand on his own two legs" and forces him to be part of the crew. As an intellectual and an idealist, Humphrey has great difficulty dealing with the world of harshness and brutality that he now finds himself a part of. While much of the opening chapters is taken up by tales of cruelty and violence, Larsen begins to emerge as an enigma to both distract and frighten Humphrey. Although never properly schooled, Larsen is an accomplished autodidact with a personal library pulling from literary analysis and grammar to astronomy, mathematics, and biology. That the captain possesses such a keen intellect but still acts in a monstrous and brutish manner both fascinates and appalls Humphrey, while Humphrey's years of education provide the captain with an intellectual peer for perhaps the first time in his life. The two develop a bizarre camaraderie, verbally sparring about philosophy and the meaning of life while the brutally physical nature of the ship continues around them in excessive violence.

Just as things seem to have reached some sort of uneasy equilibrium, London introduces a few new characters out of the blue in the form of a rescued lifeboat containing a trio of men (all pressed against their will into service by Larson) and a lone woman, Maud Brewster. The inexplicable introduction of Maud is generally greeted as a great failing in the construction of the story, but I disagree that this is the point where the novel goes entirely astray. Being the first and only woman the entire crew is likely to see for months at a time, the fact that Larson refuses to sail out of his way to drop the rescued foursome on shore clearly spells trouble. Maud is a dangerous element being interjected into the relationship of Humphrey and Larson (the only two men aboard the ship who have any clear chance of her affection, in the case of Humphrey, or possession in the case of Larson). She forces their relationship, oppositional though it has ever been, out of the safe realms of mental sparring and verbal debate and back into the savage physical world of the isolated life at sea. The tension seems wound to bursting, and a climactic showdown appears inevitable... except it never happens. The moment it appears that it is actually going to happen, when Larson begins a lustful and physical advance on Maud that looks like it can only end in her rape, and Humphrey abandons all caution and attacks his much more powerful adversary, the tension simply disappears as Larson instead collapses under a sudden and vicious headache.

Although it would seem that perhaps this has only delayed the climax of the novel, instead Maud and Humphrey escape on a lifeboat that night and the story from that point on becomes one of survival in the northern sea and on an isolated northern island. It is this inexplicable twist that, for me, is the great failing of the novel. London spent the first two thirds of his book expounding flowery prose and conducting his words into what ought to be a resounding and terrible crescendo of struggle, action, cunning, and fight, only to transform his book into an oddly restrained love story of almost sickening chastity and propriety. Even when mutiny, rebellion, and foul weather lead the Ghost, carrying Wolf Larson himself, to shipwreck on the same god-forsaken rock that Humphrey and Maud end up having been washed upon by a storm, the philosophical and physical show-down has become spoiled and lop-sided through Larson's new-found infirmity (it would seem he is suffering successive strokes or suffers from some other degenerative neurological disorder). Thus, although it was very nice that Humphrey and Maud managed to repair the masts, sail off, find a steamship to rescue them, and finally get around to pecking each other on the lips, the last third of the novel was so anticlimactic that one hardly cared at that point. I might be, of course, overly harsh in hindsight, but it was rather disappointing.

Now that I have described the plot, however, I would like to give some incidental thoughts. London sets up the philosophical showdown as one of the moral, genteel man of faith (Humphrey) versus the materialistic, amoral, and atheistic brute (Larson). While I recognize the time period in which this was written, it does still somewhat bother me that no distinction was made between Larson's materialism and his sociopathy (for he really was a sociopath of the highest degree). During London's lifetime biological altruism was a seeming enigma, for kin selection, the iterated prisoners' dilemma, and all the other models and explanations explaining why cooperative behaviour really can be better for every individual had yet to be discovered. Despite my understanding, though, of why this particular dichotomy of outlooks was chosen, I really wished I could have interjected at a few points.

The other observation that struck me as a little funny was how comparatively uneasy modern society is with the idea of masculine beauty (at least masculine beauty being recognized by other men). There are several passages in which Humphrey describes the finely crafted lines of Larson's face and body, with one particularly awkward scene (to be fair, I would have found this scene awkward with any gender combination of characters since it strikes me that Humphrey was simply being a creep) involving Humphrey being summoned to the captain's quarters to help tend to his wounds after a fight. Rather than help out, however, Humphrey forgets himself when he is partway through wetting the towel and just stands and stares after Larson strips off his shirt. This is certainly not the first piece of literature I have read in which male characters dwelt at length on the beauty of other male characters (although the titles of those texts now escape me), but it is something that I think is very rare in modern novels (presumably, of course, there is some really smutty fan fiction out there involving Kirk giving moon-eyes at Spock's ears or Ron lovingly following the line of Harry's scar down to gaze soulfully into his soft green eyes, but I am here referring to mainstream writing). I am curious when and how that changed, and more-so why it only seemed to change for men. Women, after all, still seem perfectly comfortable remarking on the beauty of other women.

Now that I have inexplicably brought out a bizarre and only tangentially related observation at the very end of my review, I think I shall follow the form of The Sea Wolf and end here.


BeamStalk said...

That is a good question you post at the end. I will at times say certain men are good looking, Johnny Depp comes to mind, but I am still reserved about it. I have also heard other men say they just can't see a man as being attractive. That just seems ridiculous to me. So when and how did this change in society is a good question.

Anee Dupaix said...

I also just finished reading "The Sea Wolf" and I thought your review was very insightful and i very much enjoyed it

Threestoogesfan said...

First of all, I must say that "The Sea Wolf" is one of my favortie pieces of literature and Jack London is my favorite author. I find Wolf Larsen to be a very dynamic character. This is a very well-written and insightful review, however I disagree on some points. Wolf Larsen's illness and eventual death is crucial to the story's theme. London intended for this novel to be a literary criticism of Nietzsche's "Uber-Mensch" or superman theory in which he stated that man must rise above conventional morality and become physically and mentally strong and rule the weaker masses. Wolf Larsen was Nietzsche's ideal Superman; and despite his ascension and great strength, he is destroyed in the end.

Threestoogesfan said...

Also, I have to say that Humphrey wasn't being a "creep" when he was observing Wolf Larsen. Humphrey comes from a society where "exonerating the flesh" (as he puts it) is frowned upon and he is not used to seeing someone of Wolf Larsen's body type. I think he is simply overwhelmed and possibly even fearful when he is describing Larsen's figure. Also, Humphrey looks at him the way an artist or art buff looks at a sculpture or painting, analyzing the curves and lines and details of the object in question.

Anonymous said...

I apologize--in my last comment I meant to say "exalt" not "exonerate". lol

Lauren Reyes said...

I was dissapointed with the book in the end while during the greater half of it, I very much liked the idea though in my head I was hoping of a sort of brotherhood to manifest for Wolf Larsen and Humphrey. I thought the ending was kind of sudden, a bit messy and lame and the whole sudden "I'm in love with this chick" that Humphrey experiences is q bit half assed. Don't get me wrong, I absolutley adore Jack London and his style but I think he could have made this book way more epic.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting review (to use that catch-all word) and I enjoyed it immensely, especially your ending. A part I think might be good to touch on is the crew and the role they play in the development of Humphrey. Maybe it would be including too much detail in the book, maybe not, but at least Thomas Mudgridge can be included; he was the first person to make Humphrey take action on the ship himself (obtaining a dirk from Louis).

Anonymous said...

I completely agree. This was exactly what I was feeling when I read the book. Hopefully I will find London's other books better. Also, I was annoyed at Maud so much, she made the book feel like some weird romance story. I suppose she was supposed to be the ideal woman at that time, but I still couldn't stand her.