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The sea-wolf by Jack London

The sea-wolf (original 1904; edition 1961)

by Jack London

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2,655362,250 (3.87)85
Title:The sea-wolf
Authors:Jack London
Info:Printed for the members of the Limited Editions Club by Connecticut Printers (1961), Hardcover, 354 pages
Collections:Read but unowned

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The Sea Wolf by Jack London (1904)

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English (31)  German (2)  Spanish (2)  French (1)  English (36)
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“Do you know the only value life has is what life puts upon itself? And it is of course overestimated, for it is of necessity prejudiced in its own favour. Take that man I had aloft. He held on as if he were a precious thing, a treasure beyond diamonds of rubies. To you? No. To me? Not at all. To himself? Yes. But I do not accept his estimate. He sadly overrates himself. There is plenty more life demanding to be born. Had he fallen and dripped his brains upon the deck like honey from the comb, there would have been no loss to the world. The supply is too large.”

I remember watching the tv adaptation of Jack London's The Sea-Wolf with my gran, but all I remember are images of sails and the ocean. I don't remember anything of the story from that time. So, when The Sea-Wolf came up as a buddy read, I jumped right on it.

The story is told by Humphrey van Weyden, a wannabe author and self-professed gentleman, who is shipwrecked and picked up by the crew of The Ghost and their Captain - Wolf Larsen. Contrary to Humphrey's (Hump's) expectations, he is not set ashore but is Shanghaied by Larsen, who is short of crew and short of time.

While on board, Hump transforms from a man of thought into a man of action, while witnessing the brutality of life at sea and especially the brutality of The Sea-Wolf, Captain Larsen.

“Wolf - tis what he is. He's not blackhearted like some men. 'Tis no heart he has at all.”

It's an interesting book in which London explores human motivation and philosophises about the meaning of life and the value that society attaches to one profession over another. It is not always easy to follow, London's train of thought, however, and it is not at all clear whether some of the views are the author's own.
In some ways, I was reminded of Verne's 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, with its anti-hero Captain Nemo, whose disdain for human society somewhat parallels that of Larsen - except that Nemo had reason that are more relatable than those of Larsen.
The Sea-Wolf remains a mystery until the end.

Despite this, tho, the story works - even as just a simple story of adventure.

The only aspect that really grated on me was that London felt it necessary to add an element of romance into the adventure and side Hump with a lady journalist, who he falls in love with. This is not the grating bit. The grating bit is that she's a pretty strong character and her falling for Hump - who is a patronising wimp - is pretty unlikely. It's Hump's interaction with the lady journalist and his description of her as feeble and weak, even though she does more than her fair share of manual labour on the ship, that really made me want to kick him over-board.

“You are one with a crowd of men who have made what they call a government, who are masters of all the other men, and who eat the food the other men get and would like to eat themselves. You wear the warm clothes. They made the clothes, but they shiver in rags and ask you, the lawyer, or business agent who handles your money, for a job.

'But that is beside the matter,' I cried.

Not at all. It is piggishness and it is life. Of what use or sense is an immortality of piggishness? What is the end? What is it all about? You have made no food. Yet the food you have eaten or wasted might have saved the lives of a score of wretches who made the food but did not eat it. What immortal end did you serve? Or did they?”
( )
  BrokenTune | Aug 21, 2016 |
An adventure on the high seas, awash with philosophical questions. In addition to being a straightforward novel of man against nature and man against man, with detailed descriptions of life aboard a seal hunting vessel captained by Wulf Larsen (aka "Lucifer") the dialogue between the main characters explored major themes, including the value of human life, survival of the fittest, and might vs. right. I enjoyed this story very much. The narrator, Humphrey Van Weyden ("Hump") is a great literary character. ( )
  kimberwolf | Jan 16, 2016 |
There were some character difficulties in this book. Maud and Humphrey as romantic partners are annoying, maybe because Maud as a whole has something about her that is not believable, as does Humphrey in relation to her; these characters feel incompletely constructed. Wolf Larsen appears to be more complete. He is constructed well enough that it is even somewhat believable that he is willing to try to engage in personal violence even in his final moments. The reader is led to sympathize with Humphrey's experiences and to root for him even though something feels off.

This book seems to comment on the need for balance between thinking and doing and on the need for an appropriate moral code. I found it boring, to my surprise, in that it contained the expected result of an isolated group of men in an extreme situation. It felt as though I had read this in better versions in other sea tales (Captains Courageous, Moby Dick, Two Years Before the Mast, Master and Commander). It did have moments of creativity in its portrayal of methods of violence, but I didn't particularly enjoy this book or learn anything new from it and can't particularly recommend it. ( )
  karmiel | Aug 21, 2015 |
A real page-turner. The Wolf Larson character was so evil ... on second thought, he was amoral, I suppose. The plot was a little uneven, but the style was fascinating. ( )
  AliceAnna | Oct 24, 2014 |
I've read quite a few of London's books although it was years ago for most. I've reread a few, but somehow never got to this one. I'm glad I remedied that. Wolf Larsen & Hump are certainly two of the most vivid & interesting characters I've had the pleasure to encounter. The story was all the more intriguing because it explores the meaning & purpose of life through a rousing adventure. London based much of it on a sailing voyage he took to Japan which explains the reality of the setting.

Wolf Larsen is the penultimate materialistic man. He believes life is nothing more than a seething vat of yeast where the stronger eat the weaker for no other reason than they can. He believes in no afterlife or gods. He holds to no law save that of the jungle, but he's completely rejected any sort of society. On top of that, he's the captain (last of the tyrants) of a seal hunting ship, so is the ultimate authority in a small, violent world peopled by fantastically hard & damaged men.

Humphrey (Sissy) van Weyden is so pitifully sheltered that it's amazing he took the ferry without an adult to accompany him, even though he's 35 years old. He quite believably winds up on the Ghost & under Wolf's rule. The story is mostly about the growth of Hump into a man under this harsh tutelage.

I didn't give it 5 stars simply because of the ridiculous Victorian love theme running through it. It was awful. I thought that Maud Brewster was well drawn especially for the times, though. She certainly wasn't the robust, kick-ass heroine of modern fiction, but she grew at least as much as Hump did.

My edition is an old rip from audio book cassettes I got from the library. It wasn't abridged & was read by Frank Muller or Mueller. He did a great job.

This novel is now 110 years old. You should have read it or at least be familiar with the overall story line through one of the movies. Edward G. Robinson (1941) or Charles Bronson (1993) were perfect picks for Wolf Larsen. Christopher Reeves as Humphrey van Weyden was perfect, too. (See update below.) If you haven't, then beware

************ Spoilers Below *************

As far as bad-asses go, Larsen could give lessons. While he completely lacks empathy, he's quite the practical psychologist. He out thinks all his opponents (that means everyone) or beats the crap out of them if that seems the reasonable or most expedient thing to do. He hurt Hump's arm for days simply by gripping it briefly. He killed men without a qualm, usually with enjoyment.

When he decided to poach his brother's hunters, he takes one down to his cabin alone for a 'discussion'.
He towered like a Goliath above Wolf Larsen. He must have measured six feet eight or nine inches in stature, and I subsequently learned his weight -- 240 pounds. And there was no fat about him. It was all bone and muscle.
A fight is heard & Larsen emerges a bit red faced from exertion, but otherwise unharmed. The giant is carried out.

In many ways, Larsen reminds me of one of [a:Ayn Rand|432|Ayn Rand|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/authors/1168729178p2/432.jpg]'s heroes, if he'd been raised as a savage. Larsen certainly acts as if he had to fight for every scrap since he was a babe, which makes his intellectual accomplishments the more amazing & his lack of any hint of empathy or society even worse. Larsen says it is simply a lack of opportunity that he didn't outdo "The Corsican" (Napoleon). I believe him.

Larsen's basic philosophy is described here.

'And the highest, finest right conduct,' I [Hump] interjected, 'is that act which benefits at the same time the man, his children, and his race.'

'I wouldn't stand for that,' he replied. 'Couldn't see the necessity for it, nor the common sense. I cut out the race and the children. I would sacrifice nothing for them. It's just so much slush and sentiment, and you must see it yourself, at least for one who does not believe in eternal life. With immortality before me, altruism would be a paying business proposition. I might elevate my soul to all kinds of altitudes. But with nothing eternal before me but death, given for a brief spell this yeasty crawling and squirming which is called life, why, it would be immoral for me to perform any act that was a sacrifice. Any sacrifice that makes me lose one crawl or squirm is foolish; and not only foolish, for it is a wrong against myself, and a wicked thing. I must not lose one crawl or squirm if I am to get the most out of the ferment. Nor will the eternal movelessness that is coming to me be made easier or harder by the sacrifices or selfishnesses of the time when I was yeasty and acrawl.'

Larsen is a noble creature, though. (Note, I did not write 'human'. He's more akin to a shark in his single-minded voracity than his namesake which is a social animal, although not thought so by London.) If nothing else, he's admirable simply because he's such a perfect bastard, much like Lucifer to whom he is likened.

While he has all his faculties about him, Larsen is almost god-like. When they fail, he becomes an object of pity to Hump & Maud, although he certainly asks for none & does his best to reject it. The hell he descends into is a fitting end, too. Nothing could be a worse punishment for him & he certainly deserves plenty.

Hump & Maud certainly found themselves under Larsen's tutelage. I'd say they owe him a great debt, but one doesn't owe anything to the predator or the natural forces of the world. One survives them or is eaten. At the end of the novel, I can imagine both going on to doing great things. Both were wasted in their previous lives, mere drones that were awakened into their full powers by the adversity they faced & overcame. I doubt much in the way of physical or mental hardship will ever daunt them. They also found their moral limits. Stupid as they were, they owned them well. Like their teacher, they were comfortable with themselves, an awesome state of being.

Update 9Jan2014: I watched the 1993 version of this movie with Charles Bronson & Christopher Reeves. Both were perfect for their parts as I suspected they would be. The movie wasn't entirely faithful to the book, but it did stick to the theme pretty well. The romance was done far better, but Bronson didn't directly give the philosophical speech I quoted above. That was a shame, but it was still well worth watching. ( )
  jimmaclachlan | Aug 18, 2014 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Jack Londonprimary authorall editionscalculated
Aylward, W.J.Illustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gannett, LewisIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Martin, FletcherIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Sutherland, JohnEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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I scarcely know where to begin, though I sometimes facetiously place the cause of it all to Charley Furuseth’s credit. He kept a summer cottage in Mill Valley, under the shadow of Mount Tamalpais, and never occupied it except when he loafed through the winter mouths and read Nietzsche and Schopenhauer to rest his brain.
“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.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0895773384, Hardcover)

In The Sea-Wolf, London's most gripping novel, Humphrey Van Weyden is rescued from the freezing waters of San Francisco Bay by a demonic sea captain and introduced to fates far worse that death. Through this story London recalls his own adventures on a sealing vessel at the age of seventeen. John Sutherland's notes include a history of pelagic seal hunting and an account of the many cinematic versions of this novel.

About the Series: For over 100 years Oxford World's Classics has made available the broadest spectrum of literature from around the globe. Each affordable volume reflects Oxford's commitment to scholarship, providing the most accurate text plus a wealth of other valuable features, including expert introductions by leading authorities, voluminous notes to clarify the text, up-to-date bibliographies for further study, and much more.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:01:49 -0400)

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A young art critic is forced to endure the wrath of Wolf Larsen, captain of the sealing schooner which rescues him after a shipwreck.

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