Book Reviews by Heidi Boudro

The Sea Wolf

Reviewed by Heidi Boudro

In the first half of Jack London's 1904 novel The Sea-Wolf, the crew of the sailing ship The Ghost advances toward mutiny against its sadistic captain, the title character, "Wolf" Larsen. Only the well-armed seal hunters on board stand between the crew and Larsen.

The escalating events are observed by wealthy dilettante Humphrey Van Weyden, who's been shanghaied as cabin boy for the amusement of Larsen. Van Weyden finds that the self-taught, well-read Larsen is desperate for intellectual discussion.

London skillfully presents a realistic atmosphere of oppression and violence; he makes odd events believable and the conflict between personalities inevitable. I was in awe: a remarkable and compelling narrative.

Then the second half of the novel. I would have guessed that London wrote the first half, got stuck, walked away, and completed it years later under duress; but in the introduction to my edition, Lewis Gannett assures me that the novel was written in a few months as a hasty follow-up to The Call of the Wild.

The second half interrupts what promised to be an inevitable and disastrous mutiny. It also includes: an incredibly poorly written female castaway; unconvincing survivalism; sentimentality and Victorianism of various kinds; poetry; and the strangely romanticized apotheosis of Larsen.

I even re-read the halfway point of the novel--could Van Weyden have died, or been knocked on the head, and simply imagined the rest of the novel? No such luck. To be fair, the voice, tone, and general philosophy are maintained, the prose is competent and entertaining; it's just a tremendous let-down from what preceded it.

Captain Wolf Larsen, a charismatic sociopath, is considered to be the most vivid character of London's creation. According to Gannett, London complained before his death in 1916 that no one understood that the novel was intended as criticism, not praise, of Nietzsche's "Superman." Of course, in the 1941 movie of The Sea Wolf, Edward G. Robinson memorably evoked both gangsterism and fascism in his portrayal of a sadistic and evil Larsen.

But in the book, Van Weyden finds Larsen just a little too attractive, and he lingers on Larsen's manly and Nordic charms. Although Van Weyden is the narrator, I think he is intended to be as an extreme a character as Larsen--conventional morality meets a psychopath. But I'm unable to work out exactly what the novel is trying to say.

The plot of the second half just seems to fail to serve its characters. (This flaw was addressed in the 1941 movie by simply changing the plot.) The first half, though, a terrific sea narrative, is worth it.

Copyright © 2009 by Heidi Boudro