Daniel's Reviews > The Sea Wolf

The Sea Wolf by Jack London
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's review
Jun 02, 2009

really liked it
bookshelves: glendale-library-store, books-deserving-rediscovery, 2009

"We were talking about this yesterday," he said. "I held that life was a ferment, a yeasty something which devoured life that it might live, and that living was merely successful piggishness. 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. Life? Bah! It has no value. Of cheap things it is the cheapest. Everywhere it goes begging. Nature spills it out with a lavish hand. Where there is room for one life, she sows a thousand lives, and it's life eats life till the strongest and most piggish life is left."

Those are the words of Wolf Larsen, arguably the baddest bad-ass ever to grace the pages of any seafaring novel, including those by Melville and Conrad, and perhaps any novel overall. Wolf Larsen, captain of a hunting vessel, beats up several men at once, hard-bitten sailors and seal hunters among them; chokes one of his men to win an argument; fixes a shark to starve to death, revenge for the shark having bitten a sailor's foot clean off; wagers which of his men will commit suicide; carries on a conversation as bullets whiz past; and beats the snot out of his brother, rival sea captain Death Larsen. That's right, his brother is named Death Larsen! And the name's not just for show:
He towered like a Goliath above Wolf Larsen. He must have measured six feet eight or nine inches in stature, and I subsequently learned his weight -- 240 pounds. And there was no fat about him. It was all bone and muscle.

Wolf Larsen's a great character because he's not just some mindless, musclebound brute. No, he's highly literate and well-read (and self-educated to boot), and able to clearly explain why he does what he does, as evidenced in the passage above. He's able to spar with his opponents not just physically, but verbally as well.

OK, maybe "The Sea Wolf" isn't great literature, but it is brilliantly trashy fun -- and well-written trash at that. Why isn't this book as widely read as "The Call of the Wild" and "White Fang?" Perhaps because most of us stop reading Jack London after junior high school (for some reason), while "The Sea Wolf" is the manliest of all manly men's books. Lord knows I, for one, was not ready to encounter Wolf Larsen in junior high school. Frankly, I'm probably not ready for him now.

What's interesting about "The Sea Wolf," and I doubt I'm the only reader to feel this way, is that even though we the readers are presumably supposed to see Wolf Larsen as the book's villain and sympathize with the narrator, Humphrey Van Weyden, well, fuck that. Hump -- yes, that is his nickname -- has a bookish, idealistic, romantic view of life. (That final trait comes to the forefront after love interest Maud Brewster shows up halfway through the book.) Those character traits simply pale in comparison to Wolf Larsen's kick-ass, every-man-for-himself pragmatism. I think it's the rare reader -- or at least the rare male reader -- who, even though he likely has much more in common with Hump than with Wolf Larsen, wouldn't, had he the option, choose to be the latter. London may have even intended the book to be read that way.

"The Sea Wolf"'s only real weakness comes in its final pages, when the romance between Humphrey and Maud becomes sickeningly sweet. (Wolf Larsen's reaction, had he read this section of the book, would have been, I'm guessing, "Bosh!") Perhaps London was trying to make up for all the amputations, fisticuffs and testosterone-drenched manliness in the pages that preceded -- or maybe compensate for the homoeroticism in Hump's descriptions of Wolf Larsen's physique. London needn't have bothered. The book was awesome without the romance.

Despite that shortcoming, though, I highly recommend "The Sea Wolf," especially to men who wish they were a bit less like Humphrey Van Weyden and a bit more like Wolf Larsen.
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Reading Progress

June 2, 2009 – Shelved
June 12, 2009 –
page 39
Started Reading
July 1, 2009 – Finished Reading
July 3, 2009 –
page 53
July 4, 2009 –
page 61
July 6, 2009 –
page 85
July 10, 2009 –
page 100
July 11, 2009 –
page 115
July 12, 2009 –
page 136
July 12, 2009 –
page 224
July 14, 2009 – Shelved as: glendale-library-store
July 14, 2009 – Shelved as: books-deserving-rediscovery
August 27, 2009 – Shelved as: 2009

Comments (showing 1-16 of 16) (16 new)

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message 1: by Rose (new) - added it

Rose Awesome review.

Daniel Thanks, Rose!

message 3: by Chris (new) - added it

Chris Great review, Daniel! I think I might bring this book to the beach with me.

message 4: by [deleted user] (new)

This looks extremely boss; great review.

message 5: by Kasia (new) - added it

Kasia Ditto, great review!! I want to read this book NOW.

message 6: by Kirsti (new)

Kirsti Daniel, could reading this book make me pregnant?

Daniel Kirsti, this book not only will make you pregnant, but it will then turn around and pound the crap out of your copy of "What to Expect When You're Expecting."

message 8: by Bram (new)

Bram Wow, it's been so long since I read Jack London. Nice review. I didn't even know he wrote anything besides Call of the Wild and White Fang. Do you think that because those books are assigned so early on in school that it does him a disservice in regards to attracting an adult audience?

Daniel Bram, I would say there's a cadre of writers who are unfairly ignored by adults because their books are so often assigned to schoolchildren -- even though, when those authors were writing, they were writing for adults. Jack London may have suffered the most from this phenomenon, though one could easily throw Twain, Dickens, Defoe and many others onto that list. Not only do adult readers often tend to ignore their books, dismissing them as kiddie literature, but they also may be left with unhappy memories of their books, having been forced to read them rather than having chosen to. What a shame, huh?

Daniel By the way, I'd be remiss if I didn't give credit to Brian's review of "The Sea Wolf," http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/.... Not only is it far funnier than my review, but it's what made me read the book in the first place.

message 11: by Bram (new)

Bram Daniel wrote: "Bram, I would say there's a cadre of writers who are unfairly ignored by adults because their books are so often assigned to schoolchildren -- even though, when those authors were writing, they wer..."

Great points Daniel. I didn't really think about it until now, but I'm pretty sure I've been harboring just such a bias toward London and some others I read early on. I should remedy that soon by checking out some more of their stuff.

Robert Of course, the bolt-on romantic denouement was merely London pandering to convention and the book is purely a discussion of whether it is better to rule in Hell or serve in Heaven.

Larsen is a self-educated sailor; odd, really, because so was London!

London wrote many books and short stories of varying quality, including some SF and quite a few pro-Communist themed ones. (Those two categories overlapping in some cases.) It's weird to think that the same man wrote those far North survival stories, where brutal pragmatism rules, too.

Martin Eden, his semi-autobiographical tale of a young uneducated man who falls for a literary-minded, middle-class and sheltered young woman is well worth reading.

He could really do with a uniform edition of his complete works.

Daniel I have not looked into it myself, Robert, but the Library of America edition wouldn't qualify?

Robert Might do, but is it paperback and on sale in the UK?

Daniel I believe it's only in hardback, unfortunately -- and not an inexpensive hardback at that. As for whether it's sold in the U.K., I'm afraid I can't say.

Robert Darn. I could do withthe same for R.L. Stevenson, too.

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