American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

WOLF LARSEN. The brutal and eloquent captain of the sealing-schooner Ghost in The Sea-Wolf* (1904), a novel by Jack London* (1876-1916), Captain Wolf Larsen rescues effete writer Humphrey Van Weyden from drowning after a ferry accident and then forces him to work on board his vessel. Shipboard isolation allows Larsen to test his notions of survival of the fittest.

According to Larsen, men are no more than bits of yeast devouring each other. Van Weyden—the specimen in this experiment—feebly objects, citing bookish cliches about morality and spirituality. But Larsen, the biggest bit of yeast on his own ship, demonstrates that Van Weyden’s vaguely defined ideals are inadequate to explain the rough life at sea. Larsen’s demonstrations are vivid and sometimes painful. At one point, for instance, he chokes Van Weyden until he loses consciousness just to illustrate the instinct for survival at any cost. Larsen’s bleak philosophy is self-taught, though sometimes he asserts that he would be happier had he, like his equally brutish but intellectually illiterate brother “Death” Larsen, never opened a book. Ironically, Larsen teaches Van Weyden the tenacity and sailing skills he needs to stand on his own feet and eventually overcome his oppressor.

London intended Wolf Larsen’s demise to debunk the philosophy of crass materialism that London had learned about from reading Herbert Spencer and Friedrich Nietzsche. However, many readers continue to find Larsen’s pragmatism more compelling than Van Weyden’s idealism. The novel, they believe, loses vitality and integrity when it shifts its focus from Larsen to a conventional love relationship between Van Weyden and a woman writer, Maud Brewster, conveniently rescued from another accident at sea. Regardless of London’s intent, Wolf Larsen remains one of the most memorable characters in all of sea fiction.

Stephen Curley