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J A M E S E L L I S University of North Carolina A New Reading of The Sea W olf Very soon after publication of The Sea Wolf, Ambrose Bierce wrote a critique of the novel, which reads in part: It is a most disagreeable book, as a whole. London has a pretty bad style and no sense of proportion. The story is a perfect welter of disagreeable incidents. Two or three (of the kind) would have sufficed to show the character of the man Larsen. . . .* Bierce’s suggestion that Larsen’s character is in microcosm a “dis­ agreeable incident” has been generally endorsed by the few sub­ sequent critics who have written on The Sea Wolf.2 It is true that London gives to Larsen many speeches which suggest the brute. For example, Larsen in an oft-quoted passage tells Hump: “I believe that life is a mess. . . . It is like yeast, a ferment, a thing that moves and may move for a minute, an hour, a year, or a hundred years, but that in the end will cease to move. The big eat the little that they may continue to move, the strong eat the weak that they may retain their strength. The lucky eat the most and move the longest, that is all.”3 a letter to George Sterling, February 18, 1905. Quoted in Philip S. Foner, Jack London: American Rebel (New York, 1947), pp. 61-622For Robert Spiller, Larsen is the “amoral superman . . . [who] knows only the prim i­ tive law of survival through predatory ruthlessness. . Literary History of the United States (New York, 1960), p. 1036. Alfred Kazin sees Larsen as a “primitive” hero who expresses London's desperate love of violence and its undercurrent of romanticism. . On Native Grounds (Garden City, New York, 1956), p. 87. Similarly, Charles W alcutt finds that Larsen recognizes “no values of laws, but those of his own life-impulse or ‘will’ [and] acts upon a program of complete selfishness” American Literary Naturalism, A Divided Stream (Minneapolis, 1956), p. 107. Finally, Maxwell Geismar judges Larsen “a cruel and to a large degree corrupt ‘natural m an’ ” Rebels and Ancestors (Boston, 1953), p. 153. sJack London, The Sea Wolf, ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli (Boston, 1964), p. 37. Subse­ quent references will be incorporated into the text and will refer to this edition. 128 Western American Literature This speech, however, represents only a partial view of Wolf Larsen and fails to account for the complexity of the man. Complex Larsen certainly is, for though he glories in his pri­ macy upon the miniature floating world of the Ghost, he is any­ thing but at peace with himself and his world. Rather like Hamlet (who Van Weyden tells us is Larsen’s favorite Shakespearean char­ acter) Larsen is disgusted with his world. He judges it as “piggish­ ness” and asks: “ ‘Of what use or sense is an immortality of pig­ gishness?’ ” Larsen, furthermore, makes even more explicit his dissatisfaction with life. Citing Ecclesiastes, he says: “For the Preacher loved life, and did not want to die, saying, ‘For a living dog is better than a dead lion.’ He preferred the vanity and vegation to the silence and the unmovableness of the grave. And so I. To crawl is piggish; but not to crawl, to be as the clod and rock, is loathsome to contemplate. It is loathsome to the life that is in me, the very essence of which is movement, the power of movement. Life itself is unsatisfaction, but to look ahead to death is greater unsatisfaction” (p. 76). While Wolf Larsen can judge his materialistic world as “pig­ gish” and “unsatisfaction,” he can at the same time ecstatically rejoice at the natural beauty to be found in the world. In that passage early in the novel when both Hump and Larsen are pre­ sented captivated by the effect of the trade winds upon the schooner (in Hump’s words, “the unending glory of what I never dreamed the world possessed”), Larsen tells Hump: “Do you know, I am filled with a strange uplift; I feel as if all time were echoing through me, as though all powers were...


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