A Piece of Steak by Jack London, 1911

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by Jack London, 1911

Jack London is generally regarded as a master of naturalistic fiction. His stories deal with the larger assumptions of naturalism that are based on both Darwinism and Marxism. In London's fiction humanity is ultimately reduced to representing the larger forces of class struggle and the survival of the fittest.

In this view humanity is reduced to presumptions about its brutish, animalistic faculties and motives. It is involved in a struggle with external forces, both social and cosmic, that by design or neglect will inevitably squelch optimism, hope, and significant achievement. If reached, success and attainment will be experienced only for a short time because of the powerful forces of attrition and defeat that are at work in the naturalistic scheme of things.

Such assumptions, even about the natural, inherent qualities of animals, are even more problematic when applied to human nature. London's story "A Piece of Steak," collected in When God Laughs and Other Stories, dramatizes the strength and weakness of such naturalistic assumptions in an obvious but quite effective way. Because of its technique and its theme, "A Piece of Steak" is a classic work of naturalism as well as being a classic story about boxing and the attendant imagistic and metaphorical implications of prizefighting.

The focus of the story is the last attempt by an Australian boxer named Tom King to win a fight with an up-and-coming New Zealand challenger named Sandel. The prize in question is 30 quid. But winning would give Tom more than money to buy groceries and to provide for his wife Lizzie and their two children; it would also enhance his drastically waning career as a prizefighter. Sandel, as Tom's human antagonist, hardly needs the money. His motive is to climb the ladder as a challenger, a position Tom in past years enjoyed. In terms of larger forces the story dramatizes a fight between youth and age, between stamina and conditioning. As he contemplates the fight—before, during, and afterward—Tom knows that "youth was the nemesis … and would be served." Thus, the outcome of the fight and the story is not a surprise. Tom loses in the final moments. He loses because he had no money before the fight for a piece of steak, which would have served him when he needed the power for a decisive knockout punch. And he would never again have the money for a piece of steak. Steak is only for winners, for the wealthy.

London masterfully allows us to follow Tom King's expectations, anguish, and resignation both from an external, omniscient perspective and from Tom's own point of view as he is mentally and physically defeated. He was never really a champion, and King's name is offered ironically throughout the story. Tom remembers that early in his fighting career he defeated a veteran boxer named Stowsher Bill and reduced him to tears. The "stake" for that fight had also ultimately been for more than a piece of steak. It had meant the end of Bill's boxing career, and London drives home the parallelism with that event. At the end of the story Tom is in his dressing room, where he covers his face and cries for the loss to Sandel, for his previous defeat of Bill, for Lizzie's now dashed expectations, and for the fight and the plight of humanity. Short on meliorism, London counts out the story with utter pessimism. Even Sandel has a youthful challenger, Pronto, waiting to fight him, and this character's name is not lost on the reader. Every person's time comes fast, comes pronto.

London's plotting of the story reinforces other ironies and progressions of theme, style, characterization, and setting. The animal attributes of Tom are clear from his looks, especially his eyes, as well as from his actions. The story opens as he wipes his plate with a final morsel of bread and chews slowly in meditation. As discussed above, in the end he cries more from the pain of a broken spirit than from the pain in his hands and knuckles. Tom controls the pain and at least partially transcends it because of his experience, his wiles as a boxer, the strategies he has for preserving his strength and energy, and his attempts to wear down the youthful enthusiasm of his opponent.

London takes Tom and the reader through a blow-by-blow, round-by-round account of the boxer's demise. At the age of 40 Tom's life is essentially over. He will now have to find work as an unskilled laborer, assuming that his battered hands can hold a shovel. At the end of the story Tom is hungry for food and for a future. The assumptions and forces of naturalism defeating Tom have won yet again. As pure story, however, "A Piece of Steak" is a triumph.

—Robert Franklin Gish

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