Two figures loom in the backdrop of Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf (1904): Nietzsche and Darwin. These are the governing texts for this fascinating and ungainly novel: übermensch and evolution. Nietzsche is mentioned in the first paragraph, and Darwin is on the bookshelf of one of the main characters.
Early on this novel echoes a familiar story—a pampered literary critic, Humphrey Van Weyden, plunged into a difficult, hostile situation for which he is unprepared. Survival requires fortitude, manliness. He rises to the challenge. He is transformed. We saw something similar but less desperate in Captains Courageous, and the grand incarnation of this plotline is Heart of Darkness. And of course this is the story in animal form of The Call of the Wild.
Van Weyden is cast adrift when the ferry he is on sinks. He is rescued by a seal vessel, the Ghost. Its captain, Wolf Larsen, refuses to deliver him to the nearest port and instead enlists him as a member of the crew. He explains that he wants to save Van Weyden.
Wolf Larsen is the center of this novel. He is working class, formally uneducated, but he has taught himself, reading widely from great literary works and philosophers. He believes in nothing but brute force. Larsen is the übermensch of this story.
Ven Weyden represents moral and civilized values and believes in the human soul, while Larsen believes in an amoral world governed by Darwinian law. Larsen believes in achieving his own ends by whatever means possible, even when it requires brutal treatment of his crew. He believes in nothing but himself. Although Van Weyden argues for civilized values, the course of events in this novel make clear that it takes Larsen’s view.
And there is Maud Brewster, a poet and journalist whose own boat sinks and who is rescued by Larsen. Until her arrival, the story moves forward well enough. Van Weyden (“Hump” as Wolf calls him) is learning the ways of the sea, coming to understand if not accept the brutal methods of Larsen. He’s becoming hardened. But when Maud comes aboard, he melts into vanilla custard, fawning over her delicate femininity, gradually falling in love with her. He wants to protect her from the “horrors” that he and she both think Larsen represents for her (I think this means sex). Maud’s arrival interrupts the tone of the narrative and essentially breaks it in half. It’s as if London decided the opposition of Van Weyden and Larsen couldn’t sustain the story, and he had to introduce another element. And though the connection that develops between Maud and Van Weyden essentially demonstrates the truth of Larsen’s philosophy, it leaves the novel unbalanced.
When Hump and Maud are marooned on an island after they escape the Ghost, they have to struggle to survive and to overmaster Larsen when he arrives. Here we have an early kind of D. H. Lawrence story, wherein a man learns to be a man and a woman learns to be a woman. There’s deep Victorianism here—the closest to candor London can manage in describing Hump’s feelings about Maud is to tell us that he felt his masculine self stir: “I shall never forget, in that moment, how instantly conscious I became of my manhood. The primitive deeps of my nature stirred.“