The Sea Wolf

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On 30 November 1901, an unusually foggy night even by San Francisco standards, the ferry Sausalito collided with the ferry San Rafael in San Francisco Bay in what was the worst ferryboat collision in the history of the bay. Navigating the fog in an era when ferry skippers relied on the sounds of foghorns, bells on buoys, sirens on piers, and echoes of whistles together with compasses and a heavy dose of instinct, the Sausalito never saw the San Rafael before hitting it amidships, the Sausalito's prow slamming into the dining room of the smaller, older San Rafael. The elegant side-wheel steamer—which had a pair of gilt eagles atop decorative masts—sank in twenty minutes. Three people died as a result of the collision, and an old horse named Dick, who was used to move baggage carts around the ferry, refused to leave and went down with the ship. In the midst of the panic, the two captains managed to lash their vessels together long enough to get the San Rafael's passengers onto the Sausalito, but the career of the captain of the Sausalito was ruined.

Jack London (1876–1916) used this wreck as the basis of the sinking of the Martinez at the beginning of his 1904 adventure novel, The Sea Wolf. Aboard the doomed Martinez is Humphrey van Weyden, an amateur literary critic, perusing his latest essay in the Atlantic and thinking of "how comfortable it was, this division of labor," as the sailors toil on the decks of the Martinez so he can spend his time enjoying the repose of his intellectual life (p. 2). But when the collision occurs and the Martinez begins to sink, he is suddenly surrounded not by poetry but by a "screaming bedlam" of terror. The screaming of the women is the worst:

I realized I was becoming hysterical myself; for these were women of my own kind, like my mother and sisters, . . . [but] the sounds they made reminded me of the squealing of pigs under the knife of the butcher, and I was struck with horror at the vividness of the analogy. These women, capable of the most sublime emotions, of the tenderest sympathies, were open-mouthed and screaming. They wanted to live, they were helpless, like rats in a trap, and they screamed. (P. 7)

Van Weyden, half-drowned, finds himself picked up by the sealing schooner Ghost. He is hauled aboard and revived, only to find that this rescue is the beginning of a long and deadly struggle for survival. A new central character emerges in the form of Wolf Larsen, a fierce and ruthless ship captain and, surprisingly, a philosopher. Van Weyden's soft and weak muscles are put to the test as he is forced to join Larsen's brutish crew, and his easy gentility is similarly challenged by Larsen's deterministic materialism and nihilism. To Larsen the question of the meaning of life can be measured in one word, "Bosh!" Life, he says, is mere "piggishness" (p. 97), and no man's achievements can outlast death. Van Weyden is threatened by the crude bully of a cook, and successfully defends himself. Over time, as he grows stronger, he finds himself admiring Larsen's strength, both his piercing intellect and muscular body. After the Ghost rescues some refugees near Japan on its sealing expedition, Larsen and van Weyden come into conflict over the poet Maud Brewster, culminating in van Weyden's successful defense of her when Larsen tries to rape her. Brewster and van Weyden manage to escape to a deserted island together. Yet the Ghost finds them, half-wrecked and without a sail, Larsen having begun to succumb to the pain and blindness of a brain tumor. Van Weyden and Brewster finally manage to repair the ship and sail it away, and Larsen dies the sad and lonely death he expected. They are rescued by a passing ship. In the end van Weyden and Brewster each demonstrate their true natures as moral—and capable—individuals who reject Larsen's crass individualism for the higher ideals of society. The ending, in which the lovers playfully tease each other about sneaking a kiss—Oh!—before the rescue ship comes, is fraught with tensions between the very raw adventure in which they have been engaged, including the ways it has changed them, and their realization that they must now return to the sentimental parlors of San Francisco.


The Sea Wolf, written in the spring, summer, and fall of 1903, was based on London's experiences as a seventeen-year-old able seaman in the North Pacific aboard the Sophia Sutherland ten years earlier, in 1893. The Sea Wolf was London's third novel, written during a burst of creative production impelled by poverty, struggle, escape, and adventure that followed London's finding of his naturalistic "perspective," as he called it, in the Klondike gold rush of 1898. This period of productivity also resulted in two collections of stories, Children of the Frost (1902) and The Faith of Men (1904); the world classic The Call of the Wild (1903); London's sociological exposé of the lives of the British poor, The People of the Abyss (1903); and the provocative study of modern love he coauthored with the Bay Area activist Anna Strunsky, The Kempton-Wace Letters (1903). In addition to its sea lore, adventure, and romance, the tempestuous pages of The Sea Wolf are a-brim with important turn-of-the-century cultural and historical conflicts—naturalism versus romance, philosophical individualism versus socialism, conflicting explorations of gender roles, and the advent of modern psychology.


In January 1904 London embarked for Korea, traveling via steamer, junk, and sailboat, to cover the Russo-Japanese War for the San Francisco Examiner. Perhaps he was especially eager during this time to travel abroad, given his deteriorating marriage to Bess Maddern London. He left his new love interest and later second wife, Charmian Kittredge, and his close friend, the poet George Sterling, to see The Sea Wolf through proofs and serialization in Century Magazine from January through November 1904. He returned from the war in time to supervise book publication by Macmillan in October.

The novel's textual history is complex. Among other issues, it seems that London, like Émile Zola, Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, and Theodore Dreiser, encountered the fusty, outdated censorship of many magazine editors of the day, at just exactly the same time as all of them coped with the enormous rewards of mass-market publication. There are five different versions of The Sea Wolf from which a modern editor might work to produce an edition, beginning with London's manuscript. This, however, exists only as a charred hunk on deposit at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, burned in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake shortly after London gave it to Sterling as a thank-you gift. Perhaps in order to secure copyright before the novel was to be published in serial form in Century, Macmillan brought out a paper-cover edition based on the manuscript (a disbound copy of which is held in the Clifton Waller Barrett Collection at the University of Virginia Library). For the serial publication, Century enforced a number of changes upon an exasperated London, and when Macmillan brought out its edition (now burdened with three copyrights, a technicality that would come back to haunt London in later legal battles with New York and Hollywood), London heavily revised the page proofs and had to pay for the changes.

In the 1964 Riverside edition of the Sea Wolf, Matthew Bruccoli points out that there are "thousands of differences between the serial and book versions" (p. 1). It is impossible, he avers, to determine which of the changes between the serial and book were deletions ordered by the magazine and which were added by London in that summer of 1904. Using London's corrected typescripts, galleys, and marked copy of the book, Bruccoli follows the Macmillan text but also restores sixteen changes London made on galleys before the book publication, largely to do with the profanity turned into dashes by Century editors as well as some philosophizing and a few passages of explicit brutality. He also restores London's daring use of an experimental present-tense style in chapters 6 through 14, which was changed to the past tense by Century. As Bruccoli notes: "In its book form The Sea Wolf begins as a memoir and becomes a diary, but in the serial it is narrated as a completed story in the past. This change in the design of the book is not the result of carelessness, but a deliberate effect introduced by the author to produce a sense of immediacy" (p. 2). The Sea Wolf's "immediacy" of grammatical tense reflects its ties to urgent concerns of its day.


The Sea Wolf remains one of the world's most popular and critically acclaimed novels, having never gone out of print in multiple editions in over one hundred years, a close rival of The Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1906) in sales but outdoing them in motion-picture productions. (Hobart Bosworth's 1913 The Sea Wolf was one of the very first full-length films and has been remade dozens of times.) It is nearly impossible to walk into a medium-size book store and not find The Sea Wolf on the shelf. While early reviewers complained of its "excess of brutality" and of London's habit of portraying "pictures of cruelty and . . . studies of monsters" ("The Sea Wolf," New York Times Saturday Review, p. 768), they also praised its vitality, its characterization of Wolf Larsen, and its "irresistible" suspense ("Literary Notes," San Francisco Argonaut, p. 311). A century after its publication, the novel's dialectical opposition of "superman" individualism to philosophies of socialistic community and reform, its themes of heterosexual and homosexual desire, and its new notions of masculinity and femininity still attract the interest of scholars—a revival of interest reflected in essays published in American Literature, American Literary Realism, and other leading journals.

In The Sea Wolf, the cruel strength of Wolf Larsen, one of London's most memorable characters—a hero-villain with elements of Shakespeare's Hamlet, John Milton's Satan, Herman Melville's Ahab, Friedrich Nietzsche's übermensch, and Robert Browning's Caliban—is pitted against the efforts of the young romantic duo who must mature enough to withstand Larsen's brutality. It seems improbable, to say the least, that the characters, whom London describes as the "dean of American letters" and the "first lady of American poetry," Humphrey van Weyden and Maud Brewster, are thrown together by chance. But their ideological status as representatives of contemporary social mores is important. The novel's attacks upon the eroding values of the Victorians and its doubts about the values of the modern era make it one of London's most cogent works, transmuting abstract philosophical and literary ideas into intensely physical survival, appealing to many classes of readers.

The Sea Wolf combines heroic vitality with themes of initiation and of death and rebirth through the symbolism of a ship-as-microcosm tossing on the archetypal sea. In trying to weave into the fabric of his adventure tale his multiple responses to late-nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century philosophers and scientists, especially Friedrich Nietzsche and Charles Darwin, London also explores new definitions of sexuality, gender, and androgyny in a Freudian analysis of the modern male personality. Some critics have found the characters unsatisfying because they seem to stand woodenly for ideas, and lengthy portions of the early part of the novel are indeed taken up with long philosophical debates among van Weyden and Larsen and later Brewster. But the novel endures in part because of the magnitude of its conflicting ideas.


London intended Wolf Larsen, like his later semiautobiographical hero Martin Eden, to be a warning against Nietzschean individualism, but neither was generally read that way. He wrote to Mary Austin: "In the very beginning of my writing career, I attacked Nietzsche and his super-man idea. This was in The Sea Wolf. Lots of people read The Sea Wolf, no one discovered that it was an attack upon the super-man idea" (Letters,p. 1513). The problem is that despite the virtues of van Weyden and Brewster, Larsen steals every scene he is in and seems to inhabit a reality larger than life.

Larsen is a transitional figure, reflecting London's divided mind when it came to socialism versus larger-than-life individualistic heroes. As his counterpart Captain Ahab reflects both the Byronic hero and the modern antihero, so Larsen crosses over genres. Like the suffering Romantic hero, Larsen is sensitive, intelligent, domineering, arrogant, uninhibited, actively rebellious against conventional social mores, and—above all—alone. An early version of the alienated twentieth-century man, he lacks purpose and direction, except for his course of revenge against his brother, Captain Death Larsen. With no meaningful relationships to appease his tremendous vitality, he brutalizes his crew and revels in nihilism. The animalistic Larsen is a forecast of Eugene O'Neill's brutish Yank Smith in The Hairy Ape (1922) and T. S. Eliot's "apeneck Sweeney" in Sweeney among the Nightingales (1920), but psychologically he has more in common with Eliot's Prufrock and Gerontion, similarly cursed with hyperrational sensibility. Larsen's gradual deterioration—his headaches, blindness, paralysis, and death from a brain tumor—is symbolic of a modern type of antisocial superman psychopathically alienated. As Charmian London describes him: "The superman is anti-social in his tendencies, and in these days of our complex society and sociology he cannot be successful in his hostile aloofness" (2:57). Larsen has not learned, as Conway Zirkle observes, that "strength was increased by cooperation, by union" (p. 331). The atavistic individual, the lone wolf, is doomed to extinction. Larsen is also "transitional" in the sense that as modern technology had made steamships possible (like his brother Death's sailing steamer, Macedonia), sailing captains like Wolf Larsen are soon to be obsolete (Papa, p. 2).

In a Darwinian sense, the importance of "the group," with its evolutionary imperatives of social virtues, altruism, cooperation, even self-sacrifice, is justified in The Sea Wolf as providing the foundation of the real "strength of the strong." The "sissy" Hump van Weyden does not seem destined for greatness, but he turns out to be a hero in a very different sense than Larsen because of his latent adaptability, intelligence, optimism, and capacity to love. As Larsen is drawn toward Death, van Weyden is propelled into self-sustaining maturity; Larsen declines as van Weyden correspondingly becomes a man, the two courses converging when he saves Maud Brewster from Larsen when he attempts to rape her. From this point on Larsen's power declines as the couple embark upon their survival on Endeavor Island. By the time van Weyden again encounters Wolf, they have reversed positions. Larsen has lost his crew and is blind and partially paralyzed; van Weyden has gained a mate.

Van Weyden's development also clearly reflects the ideas of Sigmund Freud. As Thomas R. Tietze has pointed out, the novel follows a full-grown man—who has been raised by women and supported by his father's money—coming into conflict with a father figure, a "self-made individuality." Van Weyden has never seen raw masculinity, but London delineates a classic Oedipal struggle, as described by Tietze:

Here we have the infant drawn from a liquid environment (following screams of women on the sinking ferry) rubbed into life by an effeminate male, hurting himself when "a puff of wind" throws him down, learning to walk all over again, and defeating a bully by sitting opposite him and whetting the blade of his phallic knife until the other retreats in fear. (Is it too obvious a symbol that Hump has obtained his knife by trading some milk for it?)

Van Weyden certainly seems to experience his emergence onto the deck as his birth:

I seemed swinging in a mighty rhythm. . . . My rhythm grew shorter and shorter. . . . I could scarcely catch my breath, so fiercely was I impelled through the heavens. The gong thundered more frequently and more furiously. I grew to await it with a nameless dread. Then it seemed as though I were being dragged over rasping sands, white and hot in the sun. . . . I gasped, caught my breath painfully, and opened my eyes. Two men were kneeling beside me, working over me. My mighty rhythm was the lift and forward plunge of a ship on the sea. The terrific gong was a frying-pan, hanging on the wall, that rattled and clattered with each leap of the ship. The rasping, scorching sands were a man's hard hands chafing my naked chest. . . .

"That'll do, Yonson," one of the men said. "Carn't yer see you've bloomin' well rubbed all the gent's skin orf?" (P. 12)

Van Weyden's adolescence is figured by his initial crush on Larsen, who shows himself naked to van Weyden and invites him to touch his muscles. "Now," observes Tietze, "whether the intrusion is 'believable' or not, Hump's psychological development requires the miraculous introduction of Maud." Significantly, she first appears dressed as a boy.


Defending Brewster from Larsen in the rape scene, van Weyden brandishes his knife and "slays" the "father." As to the often-criticized Endeavor Island housekeeping scenes, which London had to censor heavily for Century, including the separate huts they build, Tietze argues for the serious purpose of these scenes: "Hump cannot become a full person until he forms a community—in this case, a man and a woman working together to survive." Ironically, given his own initial effeminacy, van Weyden recognizes that it is unhealthy to be as far separated from the community of women as someone like Larsen is. There must be a sensible equipoise of both worlds. Until taken aboard the Ghost, van Weyden is only a half-man, lacking in virility because he has been reared in a woman's world. Not until he has viewed woman from a man's world is his perspective complete, for only then may he assume his role in society as a male—as mate and father. As Sam Baskett has stated, he expresses the need for psychic androgyny—and his need explains Brewster's place in the novel. Interestingly, at the time of the composition of The Sea Wolf, London was writing in letters to Charmian Kittredge and Anna Strunsky about his own need for an ideal mate of an androgynous nature who would help him express "the woman in me" (Baskett, p. 9).

Despite the censor's blue pencil, London smugly managed to insert erotic elements, as with the comedy in the erecting of the mast in chapter 37:

I called to her, and the mast moved easily and accurately. Straight toward the square hole of the step the square butt descended; . . . Square fitted into square. The mast was stepped.

I raised a shout, and she ran down to see. In the yellow lantern light we peered at what we had accomplished. We looked at each other, and our hands felt their way and clasped. The eyes of both us, I think, were moist with the joy of success.

"It was done so easily after all," I remarked. "All the work was in the preparation."

"And all the wonder in the completion," Maud added. "I can scarcely bring myself to realize that that great mast is really up and in; that you have lifted it from the water, swung it through the air, and deposited it here where it belongs. It is a Titan's task." (Pp. 349–350)

Though one well-known early reader, Ambrose Bierce, rejected the love element altogether, "with its absurd suppressions and impossible proprieties" (Foner, p. 61), the Darwinian and Freudian contexts make clearer why Brewster must enter the story.

Much has been made of Maud Brewster as a "New Woman," but it is also accurate to say that Humphrey van Weyden also stands for a "New Man." When one meets van Weyden, his capacity as a man seems limited merely to reading his own reviews in the Atlantic Monthly—an activity that serves as a fitting image of the backward-looking qualities of the old century, which the lovers must abandon to live in the new. As he gains the abilities that the circumstances require of him, however, Van Weyden becomes a man of the new century, able to face all of its intellectual, moral, social, and technological changes. Van Weyden and Brewster embody a modern relativism that comprehends both the meanness and magnificence of human potentiality.

See alsoNaturalism


Primary Works

London, Jack. The Letters of Jack London. 3 vols. Edited by Earle Labor, Robert C. Leitz III, and I. Milo Shepard. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1988.

London, Jack. The Sea Wolf. New York: Macmillan, 1904. All references cited in text refer to this edition.

London, Jack. The Sea Wolf. Edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli. Riverside editions. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1964.

Secondary Works

Baskett, Sam S. "Sea-Change in The Sea Wolf." American Literary Realism, 1870–1910 24, no. 2 (1992): 5–22.

Bender, Bert. "Jack London in the Tradition of American Sea Fiction." American Neptune 46 (summer 1986): 188–199.

Boone, Joseph. "Male Independence and the American Quest Genre: Hidden Sexual Politics in the All-Male Worlds of Melville, Twain, and London." In Gender Studies: New Directions in Feminist Criticism, edited by Judith Spector, pp. 187–217. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Press, 1986.

Derrick, Scott. "Making a Heterosexual Man: Gender, Sexuality, and Narrative in the Fiction of Jack London." In Rereading Jack London, edited by Leonard Cassuto and Jeanne Campbell Reesman, pp. 110–129. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1996.

Dooley, Patrick K. "'The Strenuous Mood': William James's 'Energies in Men' and Jack London's The Sea Wolf." American Literary Realism, 1870–1910 34, no. 1 (2001): 18–28.

Foner, Phillip S., ed. Jack London, American Rebel: A Collection of His Social Writings Together with an Extensive Study of the Man and His Times. New York: Citadel Press, 1947.

Gair, Christopher. "Gender and Genre: Nature, Naturalism, and Authority in The Sea Wolf." Studies in American Fiction 22, no. 2 (1994): 131–147.

Heckerl, David K. "'Violent Movements of Business': The Moral Nihilist as Economic Man in Jack London's The Sea Wolf." In Twisted from the Ordinary: Essays on American Literary Naturalism, edited by Mary E. Papke, pp. 202–216. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2003.

Kingman, Russ. A Pictorial Life of Jack London. New York: Crown, 1979.

Labor, Earle, and Jeanne Campbell Reesman. Jack London. Rev. ed. New York: Twayne, 1994. See pp. 58–63.

"Literary Notes: Jack London's Remarkable Book." Review of The Sea Wolf. San Francisco Argonaut 55 (14 November 1904): 311.

London, Charmian Kittredge. The Book of Jack London. 2 vols. New York: Century, 1921.

Mitchell, Lee Clark. "'And Rescue Us from Ourselves': Becoming Someone in Jack London's The Sea Wolf." American Literature 70, no. 2 (1998): 317–335.

Nolte, Carl. "Foggy Ferry Crash Remembered." San Francisco Chronicle, 1 December 2001. Available at

Oliveri, Vinnie. "Sex, Gender, and Death in The Sea Wolf." Pacific Coast Philology 38 (2003): 99–115.

Papa, James A., Jr. "Canvas and Steam: Historical Conflict in Jack London's Sea Wolf." Midwest Quarterly 40, no. 3 (1999): 1–7.

Qualtiere, Michael. "Nietzschean Psychology in London's The Sea Wolf." Western American Literature 16, no. 4 (1982): 261–278.

"The Sea Wolf." New York Times Saturday Review of Books and Art, 12 November 1904, pp. 768–769.

Tietze, Thomas. "A Reply to 'Yuletide on Endeavor Island.'" Jack London Foundation Newsletter 6, no. 2 (April 1994): n.p.

Watson, Charles N., Jr. "Lucifer on the Quarter-Deck: The Sea Wolf." In The Novels of Jack London: A Reappraisal, pp. 53–78. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983.

Woodward, Robert H. "Jack London's Code of Primitivism." Folio 18 (May 1953): 39–44.

Zirkle, Conway. Evolution, Marxian Biology, and the Social Scene. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1959.

Jeanne Campbell Reesman