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This novel, by the great American writer Jack London,
followed on the heels of his extraordinary success, The Call of the Wild. Written in 1904, the first printing of forty thousand copies were sold out
before publication, according to
Is it a great book? Well, probably. Did I like it? That would be pushing it. London is not known for his pretty stories,
but the brutality here takes me to my toleration threshold. It is not for the faint of heart! Still, as in all London's
books, it is well-written in simple English, making it easy to fly through.
I wonder why London named his character "Wolf." The Wikipedia article states that it was London's own nickname, which I can understand, due to his choosing that magnificent animal as the star of many of his books and stories. But wolves aren't sadistic. They kill to provide food for themselves and their young, not because they enjoy the cruelty. In fact, I can think of no animal that would behave as Wolf Larsen. He was a heartless monster, killing and maiming the members of his own crew just for the sheer joy. A sick, sick man, indeed. What is even more distressing is that the same article mentioned above also says Larsen was based on a real person London knew, named Captain Alex MacLean, or McLean. I would hope London was exaggerating. It would chill my soul to think that he actually knew a person that was even remotely like Larsen.
The story begins as Humphrey van Weyden is travelling on a ferry, the Martinez, off the coast of San Francisco, when it collides with another boat and sinks. Van Weyden cannot swim, but is wearing a life-preserver. He is freezing cold and becoming numb and unconscious, when he finds himself awakening on a strange ship with someone rubbing the life back into him. It is the Ghost, on a seal hunting expedition to Japan, and it is the ship from hell, mostly due to its captain, "Wolf" Larsen. Van Wyden assumes he will be returned to land, but he finds himself instead a working prisoner on this vessel. He quickly learns that there are few human qualities in the rest of the crew. They behave as primitive animals—brutal, hateful, spurred on by the constant antagonism of their captain who enjoys the constant state of terror in which he keeps his crew, not only of him, but violence within themselves. Wikipedia calls this novel a psychological adventure. That is an understatement.
In a brief synopsis, Larsen decides to make a "man" out of van Weyden, who, since he is rather well-off, Larsen believes he doesn't earn his money, but has it given to him. (This isn't true—he is actually a literary critic.) So he puts him to work in the kitchen under the cook, a dirty, disgusting, Cockney named Thomas Mugridge, who hates him, and actually tries to kill him. Van Weyden is now nicknamed "Hump." But he eventually works his way into the captain's respect, or as much as that word is possible to use with such a person. They begin having intellectual/philosophical conversations. Larsen, in addition to being a monster with a body the strength of steel, is also well-read, which shocks Hump at first. However, it is Larsen's distorted views on the value of life that are most disturbing. In fact, he places no value on life whatsoever, and certainly doesn't believe in any after-life.
There are two other men on board that do have a sense of morals—Leach, and the mate Johnson, a Swede who does not allow anyone to call him "Yonson." They both find themselves in constant turmoil with Larsen, and after word gets to the captain that Johnson has complained about something, Larsen beats him to a pulp and appoints Hump as mate, a job he certainly doesn't want. From that point on, most of the crew want to kill Larsen, including Hump.
By this time they are at the seal hunting grounds, near the coast of Japan. Two important events happen that change the circumstances considerably. One, they come upon a boat of survivors from a ship wreck, and it includes a woman.. Quickly van Weyden realizes it is the poet, Maud Brewster, and his whole outlook suddenly changes. Since they are so near Japan, Maud asks the captain how soon before they will reach land. She is shocked when he tells her it will be two or three months. He has no intention of accommodating her wishes, and puts her to work on his ship. The other men rescued are seal hunters, so he puts them to work for him. Hump is determined to escape with Maud.
The other event that changes the scene is the appearance of Larsen's brother, "Death" Larsen, who is even worse than Wolf, and whose seal-hunting ship, the Macedonia is much bigger. It is expected by the crew that they will cross paths, and the level of violence now increases considerably. Leach and Johnson escape in one of the boats, and during a storm, attempt to re-board the Ghost. Everyone fears the worst brutality, so van Weyden (he is no longer "Hump" since becoming mate) makes the captain promise he will not beat them up. He does promise, but the fact is, he has no intention of allowing them back on board, and each time they exhaust themselves to approach the Ghost, Larsen orders to move off. They capsize in a storm and die. And the rescued hunters whom Larsen had ordered into his service, also escape and are rescued by another ship.
One other factor makes a difference in the outcome of the lives of Maud and van Weyden. Larsen is now being plagued with tremendous headaches which come on all of a sudden and completely disable him. It is during one of these, as Larsen is attempting to abduct Maud, that she and van Weyden escape in one of the boats. Their horror doesn't end there, as a storm hits, and without navigation equipment, they have no idea where they are. They drift and end up on an undiscovered island near Alaska. They expect to find government buildings somewhere, but do not, so they build themselves two little huts, stock up on seal, and prepare to brave the winter. But that doesn't happen, and I won't give the rest away.
I think maybe the one thing that made this story less likeable to me, even more than the brutality, was the relationship between Maud and van Weyden. He falls in love with her, and that's okay, but his attitude toward her becomes, really, quite silly. I hope London did not view women the way van Weyden did. Every little thing she does with her dainty little hands is a miracle of strength for this weak little women. OMG. Gag me with a spoon. London should have stuck to the adventure part, and saved the romance for Margaret Mitchell and Daphne du Maurier. Yuk.
As I said, I won't reveal how it all ends, but will leave you with some choice quotes. The first one is Larsen speaking to van Weyden, before he begins to like him. Keep in mind that, as is typical with London's writings, they are filled with social commentary, and here Larsen accuses van Weyden of living off the work of other people. Van Weyden, in fact, does have a job—as a literary critic, though it does not include the physical labor that Larsen thinks is so important.
You have slept in soft beds, and worn fine clothes, and eaten good meals. Who made those beds? and those clothes? and those meals? Not you. You never made anything in your own sweat. You live on an income which your father earned. You are like a frigate bird swooping down upon the boobies and robbing them of the fish they have caught.
Later on he basically accuses Maud of the same thing, even though she is quite well off with money she has earned herself as a writer. The next quote is from the same conversation as the one above, (and I agree about the wastefulness), but here he begins to reveal his spiritual (or lack of it) philosophy, and also to reveal his warped mental state.
You have made no food. Yet the food you have eaten or wasted might have saved the lives of a score of wretches who made the food but did not eat it. What immortal end did you serve? or did they? Consider yourself and me. What does your boasted immortality amount to when your life runs foul of mine? You would like to go back to the land, which is a favorable place for your kind of piggishness. It is a whim of mine to keep you aboard this ship, where my piggishness flourishes. And keep you I will. I may make or break you. You may die today, this week, or next month. I could kill you now, with a blow of my fist, for you are a miserable weakling.
In the next quote, also by Larsen to van Weyden, Larsen is mocking the value of life because nature produces so much of it. There is quite a bit here I agree with, too. Keep in mind London was somewhat of an environmentalist and animal rights activist.
Why, if there is anything in supply and demand, life is the cheapest thing in the world. there is only so much water, so much earth, so much air; but the life that is demanding to be born is limitless. Nature is a spendthrift. Look at the fish and their millions of eggs. For that matter, look at you and me. In our loins are the possibilities of millions of lives. Could we but find time and opportunity and utilize the last bit and every bit of the unborn life that is in us, we could become the fathers of nations and populate continents.
And following that, Larsen refers to a recent incident where he made a man climb in a life-threatening situation.
Take that man I had aloft. He held on as if he were a precious thing, a treasure beyond diamonds or rubies. To you? No. To me? Not at all. To himself? Yes. But I do not accept his estimate. He sadly overrate himself. There is plenty more life demanding to be born. Had he fallen and dripped his brains upon the deck like honey from the comb, there would have been no loss in the world. He was worth nothing to the world. The supply is too large.
Even though Larsen's speeches make us cringe inside, for
anyone who is paying attention, here in 2017, we can see that the value of life is low for most people, excepting their own life or those immediately closest
In any case, that gives you an idea of the deep issues explored in this book, and while many people may find the subject matter, and especially the personality of Larsen repugnant, the book is well-worth reading, if you can emotionally handle such horror.
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