Thursday, June 6, 2013
The Sea Wolf by Jack London
My rating: 1 of 5 stars
How many ways did I loathe this book? Well, first there was the constant theme that in order to be a "real man" (I'll save discussion of women for later) that one has to work with his hands, and has to brave the elements, and laugh in the face of danger, and be cruel, sadistic and amoral, and that these are all things to be admired! Oh, and don't forget that you have to have the body of a Greek god and a a self-taught intellect that is only used to back up one's own views, not to explore other views. This, basically, is the description of Wolf Larsen, captain of the Ghost, a seal-hunting ship in the early 1900's. Our protagonist, Humphrey van Weydon is an intellectual and a scholar, who never "worked a day in his life", according to the illustrious captain. (Hump was 'rescued' from a shipwreck and immediately, and illegally, pressed into service aboard the Ghost - where the first thing he sees is the captain killing the first mate.) Hump is shown to be in every way inferior to the brutish captain.
Needless to say, the captain and 'Hump' disagree on morality, duty, bravery, and just about anything else. So the first part of the book is full of long discussions between the two of them, where the captain always seems to get the better of Hump. This was point two of what I loathed. The arguments were facile; Hump was never very convincing of the 'Christian' or even moral point of view. In all ways, Wolf Larsen is portrayed as superior (despite, or even because of, his cruelty to his crew).
Next we have an amazing coincidence of a rescue at sea of a damsel in distress, Maud, with whom Hump immediately falls in love. This really lacked in believability. At least Maud does not fall for the epitome of all that is male (Wolf) and sees him for what he is - a sadistic monster, who uses his intellect to justify his cruelty.
The next bit of the book was at least interesting, when Hump and Maud escape and are marooned on an island and have to fend for themselves to survive. Their struggles to make shelter and find food seemed quite realistic, and at least at this point their blooming love for one another seemed more realistic. But, even here, the descriptions of Maud as the weaker sex and Hump's feelings toward her were simply laughable: [Hump thinks to himself] "I shall never forget in that moment how instantly conscious I became of my manhood. The primitive deeps of my nature stirred. I felt myself masculine, the protector of the weak, the fighting male. And best of all, I felt myself the protector of my loved one. She leaned against me, so light and lily-frail, and as her trembling eased away it seemed as though I became aware of prodigious strength. I felt myself a match for the most ferocious bull [seal] in the herd, and I know, had such a bull charged upon me, that I should have met it unflinchingly and quite coolly, and I know that I should have killed it." All I can say is, ugh.
Then, a still more amazing coincidence occurs - the Ghost crashes on the island, bereft of all crew except for Wolf Larsen. He, however, is suffering from some sort of brain ailment (possibly a tumor of some kind) and is blind, and then slowly becomes paralyzed. Hump and Maud both bemoan the tragedy of such an "alive" person becoming weak and helpless. When he finally dies, Maud even feels sorry for him!
Look, I realize this was written over 100 years ago, when the ideals of masculinity and femininity were different, but this was just WAY over the top. There was nothing, NOTHING admirable about Wolf Larsen, except maybe his hot body. He was a bully, a sadist, and a criminal.
Oh, and one more thing I loathed - the edition I read had an afterward written by some English professor who seemed to practically glow with admiration for Wolf Larsen and what and example of the Heroic Man he is in literature.
So, why did I even finish it - well, Jack London is a decent story teller and I wanted to see how it was going to end. But I found the first half of the book difficult to read, between the endless (and pointless) arguments about morality and manhood, and the horrible cruelties inflicted on the crew. This was NOT a rousing sea adventure, a la Horatio Hornblower or Master and Commander. If that's the kind of sea-faring tale you like, do NOT bother with this book.