"The Sea Wolf" by Jack London

Movie Poster for a production
of "The Sea Wolf"
"The Sea Wolf" by Jack London is the story of a man named Humphrey Van Weyden who has, by a series of mishaps, been taken aboard a seal hunting vessel called the Ghost. "The Sea Wolf" is a story of adventure, misfortune, romance and morality. In essence, "The Sea Wolf" is a story about a well-bred young man learning to fend for himself in a rough environment, while attempting to maintain his standards of morality even while living amongst men who disregard any moral responsibility to all but themselves.

In the beginning of Jack London’s novel, "The Sea Wolf", Humphrey is aboard a ferry steamer in the San Francisco Bay. An accident occurs when the steamer fails to spot another boat in the fog. The two vessels hit each other and the steamer begins to sink. Our narrator soon finds himself dumped into the frigid waters of the San Francisco Bay. He is an inexperienced swimmer and a gentle man, who is wholly unprepared for the disaster he now faces. He quickly begins to lose his battle for survival, but he is luckily picked up by the Ghost. He is revived and cleaned up by some rough sailors aboard the ship, whom he asks to introduce him to the captain.

It is at this point in "The Sea Wolf" that Jack London introduces us to the character for whom the novel is named. This man is the captain of the Ghost and his name is Wolf Larsen. Jack London describes the man thoroughly as rugged, somewhat nice to look at, but terrifying in the extreme. At first, Humphrey does not know what to make of the man, but senses something about him that he does not like. Nor does he like that Wolf refuses to turn the boat around and bring Humphrey to California. Humphrey learns from the captain that they are headed to Japan and that he has no plans to allow Humphrey to leave the ship.

From this point on "The Sea Wolf" takes Humphrey through a series of trying events. He has found himself aboard a ship full of murderous men. However, there are a few that Humphrey begins to admire. Wolf Larsen also forces Humphrey to do hard labor on the ship as payment for his safety. The captain mentions that he does this to teach Humphrey to “stand on his own legs.”

Humphrey soon learns that the captain is an avid reader and that he wishes to discuss the things that he has read with Humphrey. The pair’s conversations are mostly about morality and the existence of the human soul. Wolf is adamant that humans do not have souls and that morality is equal to stupidity. He believes that a man should do whatever he deems necessary to gain what it is that he wants in the world. Humphrey is appalled by the captain’s beliefs, and even more by his actions.

It is through these conversations that Jack London turns "The Sea Wolf" into a novel that is immensely more philosophical than your average adventure story. Eventually, a series of events on board the Ghost cause Humphrey to want to kill Wolf Larsen. However, the young man’s ideals stop him from following through. Wolf, on the other hand, displays time and again that he has no qualms about killing men on a whim.

When a young woman named Maud is brought onto the Ghost, Wolf begins to display lust for her. Humphrey has fallen in love with the girl, so Wolf’s advances fuel his hatred for the man. Humphrey eventually decides to escape with the woman, at great personal risk. The two then leave the ship on board a small hunting boat. Wolf eventually catches up with them on an island, but he is alone. His entire crew has deserted him. He is also sick and dying.

Despite his illness, Wolf continues to be aggressive toward Humphrey and even tries to kill him. Our poor Humphrey still cannot bring himself to kill the man. Instead, he sets about trying to steal the Ghost so that he and Maud can escape the island. Wolf gets very sick during this, so Maud and Humphrey do what they feel is right and care for the man while he is dying. Right up until his last breath, Wolf denies the existence of a soul and the need for morality. "The Sea Wolf" ends as Maud and Humphrey declare their love for one another.

In the end "The Sea Wolf" is really a story about good triumphing over evil. It is also a story about the resilience of the human spirit. The narrator of "The Sea Wolf" was given many opportunities to forsake his feelings and kill the man who had persecuted him and attempted to murder him. However, Humphrey makes it through his ordeal with his morality, and his soul, intact, thus proving that Wolf was wrong. Maybe he was not necessarily right about the existence of the human soul, but about the fact that you do not need to forsake your humanity to succeed.

Shelly Barclay 



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