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C L A R I C E S T A S Z California State College, Sonoma Androgyny in the Novels of Jack London Around the turn of the century, new possibilities were beginning to open up for American women.1 A type popularly referred to as the “New W oman” began to appear: well-educated, athletic, unchaperoned. Most middle-class women seemed to prefer marriage and domesticity, but the New Women were proud of single independence. The women in Jack London’s life illustrate both role choices. Both Mabel Applegarth, his fiancée, and Bess M addern, his first wife, followed the conventional pattern, while his friend Anna Strunsky, his sister, Eliza Shepard, and most distinctly his second wife Charmian Kittredge resembled the New Woman in some respects. Men at the time also faced problems concerning their identity. Work moved from outdoors to the bureaucracy, a setting which gave men little opportunity to display the ‘manly’ virtues of self-reliance, courage, or resoluteness. Few could achieve material wealth, the measure of success. Men were raised to think of themselves as beasts driven by sexual appetite, yet also were encouraged to be sexually pure. Media critics attacked men for the social ills of the new urban-industrial society and for neglecting their homes. Obviously, the pressures on individual males were considerable, and somewhat contradictory. London’s life again illustrates these ambivalences. He drank to be a man, a stout fellow, while secretly he disliked alcohol. He married and became a father, but was not responsible to his family in the way society demanded. Material wealth did not bring satisfaction, because he still felt the need to express superior self-reliance and courage in many endeavors. Nothing that he did seemed sufficient to make him a ‘m an.’ 1See Peter Gabriel Filene, H im /H e r/S e lf (New Y ork: H arcourt Brace, Jovanovich , 1974) ; R obert W. Smuts, Women and Work in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1959); Theodore P. Green, America’s Heroes (New York: Oxford U niversity Press, 1970). 122 Western American Literature His male friends, George Sterling for example, also exhibited signs of personal strain in trying to meet the unclear expectations concerning masculinity. London’s writings reflect, among other things, an attempt to resolve some of the cultural contradictions and ambiguities concerning gender behavior. Most notably, his novels display the development of a radical, visionary conception of masculinity and femininity. In this paper I shall examine some of London’s novels chronologically so that developmental changes in his thought can be identified. The societal ambivalences concerning sex roles appear in London’s first novel, A Daughter of the Snows.2 Frona Welse, the heroine, is a dynamic woman of a type rare in American fiction. In the first chapter she proudly brags how she can swing clubs, box, fence, swim, do high dives, and walk on her hands. Having returned to Alaska from college, she displays her knowledge of the frontier on the trek inward to Dawson, during which men drop injured and dead around her. Once ensconced in her father’s home, she becomes the Lady, entertaining guests, playing piano, and performing as Nora in The Doll’s House. Yet she wears short (ankle-length) skirts and even befriends a town prostitute. Though “independent in some ways” Frona accepts a future of domestic life. As the book develops, she puts aside her athletic antics and increasingly represents woman as a moral force. Critics call her ‘unrealistic’ as a character because of her physical prowess. But if she is unrealistic it is because it is more likely that a woman of her type would have become a ‘bachelor woman’ and ruled the area as her father did. To call her prowess ‘unrealistic’ is to overlook the fact that other women of the day did match Frona’s accomplishments. The male characters in this novel are more notable. Frona’s father, Jacob Welse, is the patriarch of the colony, a man who succeeded through what was then called ‘character’ — the application of his brains in a tough, competitive, yet honest way. He also succeeded at home, as is indicated by his loving relationship with...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 121-133
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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