- Jack London, The Sea-Wolf, and the Natural History of Love
The Sea-Wolf (1904) has been, and remains, one of Jack London's most often taught and analyzed novels. Its exalted place among the vast London canon is certainly deserved: the blend of action and adventure with philosophical speculation and cutting-edge ideas makes the book both a page turner and intellectually provocative. To the extent that the purpose of narrative art is to entertain and instruct, London accomplished those twin tasks in his tale of violence and intrigue about the Ghost. Having said that, The Sea-Wolf is not without its mysteries, the foremost of which concerns the strange manner of Wolf Larsen's death.1 A second mystery—or, perhaps, problem—concerns the sentimental love story that develops in the novel. If the problem of Wolf 's strange death is primarily an interpretive problem, this second issue seems more structural or aesthetic. Doesn't it get just a bit too drippy with sentiment in the end—too much love conquers all silliness? Consider this summation of the novel by Bert Bender in Evolution and "The Sex Problem" (2004):
Having made Van Weyden a more-or-l ess-worthy competitor with the splendid Wolf, London introduces Maud Brewster as the determining factor in sexual selection. Of course she selects against the merely brutal but beautiful Wolf, and for Van Weyden, whose superiority inheres in his moral sense, the highest evolutionary development according to The Descent of Man. Thus, when Wolf dies of a blinding headache, London completes his plan of rendering the brutal male extinct. Then, sending the Ghost into the evolutionary future with the vigorous and highly developed lovers, Maud and Van Weyden, London ended his most optimistic—and ridiculous—narrative of sexual love.(76).
It is the and ridiculous aside that is particularly poignant for the current discussion. There is something that strikes many contemporary readers as [End Page 171] simply too much about the love story aspects of London's narrative. This can be seen perhaps most clearly in the declaration of love that concludes the novel:
"My woman, my one small woman," I said, my free hand petting her shoulder in the way all lovers know though never learn in school.
"My man," she said, looking at me for an instant with tremulous lids which fluttered down and veiled her eyes as she snuggled her head against my breast with a happy little sigh.
I looked toward the cutter. It was very close. A boat was being lowered.
"One kiss, dear love," I whispered. "One kiss more before they come." "And rescue us from ourselves," she completed, with a most adorable smile, whimsical as I had never seen it, for it was whimsical with love.(331)
Bert Bender was perhaps generous when he called it ridiculous.2 Lest the reader of this essay proceed with high hopes that I'll be able to make this ending less charged with sentiment, there is likely nothing in what follows that will convince anyone that Bert Bender's summary judgment is not apt. What I will argue, however, is that in developing the love story between Humphrey Van Weyden and Maud Brewster, Jack London was working out some of the implications of an array of ideas informing the intellectual climate of his time. Therefore, there is, at least, an intellectual framework—r ooted in Darwinian sexual selection, but moving beyond Descent of Man—that frames and contextualizes this charming bit of sentiment that concludes The Sea-Wolf. Love is the thorn in the side of the evolutionary theorists of the nineteenth century who grappled, as Darwin did in The Descent of Man (1871), with the "sex problem." If a biologically reductionist application of evolutionary theory has the effect of marginalizing love as a kind of strange epiphenomenon, then how can one explain the benefit of love as an inherited, and persistent, trait within an evolutionary framework? Sexual selection and subsequent theories offered the late nineteenth century potential answers. During the period of his life when he was writing The Sea-Wolf, London was grappling with these questions, and in The Sea-Wolf he...