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Syracuse University C H A R L E S N. W A T S O N , J R . Sexual Conflict in The Sea-Wolf: Further Notes on London’s Reading of Kipling and Norris As a novel of initiation, The Sea-Wolf is concerned with Humphrey Van Weyden’s achievement of “manhood” — a term that for Jack London implies not only intellectual but, even more strongly, physical and sexual maturation. This bias toward red-blooded masculinity was of course a part of the temper of the times, at least of the phase of turnof -the-century Anglo-American literature that was repelled by the deca­ dent estheticism of the Yellow Book artists and was attracted instead to the ideals of the strenuous life and the supremacy of the Nordic or AngloSaxon male. The two chief influences on this vein of London’s fiction were Rudyard Kipling and Frank Norris; and, initially at least, The Sea-Wolf seems to have been conceived along the lines of Kipling’s Captains Courageous ( 1897) and Norris’s Moran of the Lady Letty (1898) . Although these lines of influence have been recognized by previous scholars, their dimensions have not yet been fully explored.1 1Since London had been reading Kipling enthusiastically for several years, it seems almost certain that he would have read Captains Courageous, and in an 1899 letter to Cloudesley Johns he described Norris’s Moran as “well done” (Letters from Jack London, ed. King Hendricks and Irving Shepard [New York: Odyssey, 1965], p. 36). Franklin Walker has noticed that London’s Humphrey Van Weyden resembles both Kipling’s Harvey Cheyne and Norris’s Ross Wilbur (“Afterword” to The SeaWolf and Selected Stories [New York: Signet, 1964], p. 343). James R. Giles, in “Some Notes on the Red-Blooded Reading of Kipling by Jack London and Frank Norris,” Jack London Newsletter, 3 (1970), 57, asserts that the opening of Norris’s Moran was “obviously borrowed from Captains Courageous” and that “London, in turn, ‘stole’ Norris’s opening for The Sea Wolf.” A careful comparison of all three 240 Western American Literature In the present essay, after touching on some minor influences from Kipling’s novel, I shall move on to the more important influence of Norris’s Moran. As others have observed, the two novels share the theme of atavism. But what may have given a more important stimulus to London’s imagination is the sexual confusion experienced by Norris’s protagonist as he confronts the bisexual Viking princess, Moran Sternersen . Taking his cue from this undeveloped curiosity in Norris’s novel, London carries Humphrey through several stages of sexual development and conflict which parallel and reinforce his intellectual development. Beginning as a sheltered idealist who is strongly attached to his mother, he must confront the real world in the person of the brutal nihilist Wolf Larsen, to whom he is increasingly attracted both sexually and ideologically. This potentially destructive relationship, however, is finally overcome through the agency of Maud Brewster, with whom he achieves sexual and philosophical maturity. London thus provides The Sea-Wolf with a pattern of symbolic action consistent with some of the insights of twentieth-century psychoanalysis. The initial hints for the central motif of The Sea-Wolf may have come from the adventures of Harvey Cheyne, the protagonist of Kipling’s Captains Courageous. The pampered, egotistical son of an American railway tycoon, Harvey is sailing to Europe to complete his education when he becomes sea-sick, falls overboard, and is picked up half-drowned by a Gloucester schooner out for a months-long fishing voyage off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. In the ensuing chapters, the greenhorn Harvey learns the ropes and finds acceptance among the crew and a sense of his own manhood, returning eventually with sufficient muscle and character to assume his place as a more legitimate heir to his father’s millions. The general resemblance between Harvey’s adventure and that of Humphrey Van Weyden is clear enough, but there are also some parallels of detail. Both protagonists begin their adventures on the apparent safety of passenger vessels sailing through dense fog. Once in the water, both experience the sensation of drifting off to sleep...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 239-248
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
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