“The Sea-Wolf” by Jack London is a trilling adventure novel, and is a bright exemplar of the genre indeed. Besides being a wonderful and absorbing sea voyage epic, it is also an intricate novel full of profound ideas and philosophical reflections. Do not only London introduces in the novel one of his most intriguing, complex fully realized characters, the schooner’s captain Wolf Larsen, but also explores profoundly remarkable themes of desire, bravery, and the inborn will to survive. Through amazing transformation of one of its central characters, Humphrey Van Veyden, London illustrates how circumstances form human personality, and how one never knows the hidden resourcefulness of own soul and flesh. One of the fundamental ideas the author promotes in the novel is how being outside the comfort zone can contribute a lot to one’s self-development.
“The Sea-Wolf” is the dramatic story of a gentleman intellectual, Humphrey Van Weyden, who is saved by a seal-hunting schooner named “Ghost” after being involved in an accident caused by collision of two ferryboats in San Francisco Bay. Being rescued by Wolf Larsen, a captain of an ill-fated schooner, he is then forced to become a cabin boy, do menial work, and discover how to fight to defend himself from a brutal crew. Being kept on the ship by force, Van Weyden goes through all kinds of adventures, becomes a member of a crew, participates in seal hunting and falls in love with another schooner “prisoner”, Maud Brewster, till finally escapes the “Ghost” and breaks out of Wolf Larsen’s ruthlessly brutal domination.
At the core of the plot lies the conflict between two drastically different individuals: Humphrey, who is weak of body yet strong of mind, a bookworm as he calls himself, used to living a life of comfort and wealth, a “sissy” with little understanding of how real life looks like; and Wolf Larsen, brutal, cynical and amoral, who crushes anyone standing in his way, displaying tremendous physical strength, spending his entire life at sea, knowing perfectly well how it is to earn one’s own living and to struggle to survive. As the story proceeds, the readers observe how Humphrey turns into a different individual, how he adjust to the circumstances being imposed on him by powerful captain and how his personality is being uncovered in the most surprising way.
The transformation Humphrey experiences consists of two major parts: physical and moral one. Practically the very moment he gets on the schooner, he is forced to change attitude to own physical state. Having trouble with his knee, he experiences pain and learn to fight it on his own, unaided. “Under ordinary circumstances, after all that I had undergone, I should have been fit for bed and a trained nurse… I would have been lying on the broad of my back, with a surgeon attending on me, and with strict injunctions to do nothing but rest… I should undoubtedly have given vent to my anguish; but this new and elemental environment seemed to call for a savage repression,” he argues (London 28). Restraining own pains and keeping from suffering out loudly seems to be a new experience to him, yet he has nothing to do but to submit to the unspoken rules established on the Ghost.
Humphrey is forced to do a lot of hard manual work for which he is totally unsuited. The author describes how he is getting more and more physically tough and able to deal with tasks he was completely unaware of before becoming one of Ghost’s crew members. Unused as he is to work, he starts to realize the true value of comfort: “Rest! I never before knew the meaning of the word. I had been resting all my life and did not know it. But now, could I sit still for one half-hour and do nothing, not even think, it would be the most pleasurable thing in the world.” (London 42) His muscles are being developed, his previously pale tender skin is getting suntanned and rough, and he is watching own body changing with a great deal of surprise. By paying attention to these details the author is most probably implying that true masculinity is impossible without appropriate physical fitness.