The Seawolf

by Jack London

Hardcover, 1904

Call number




The Macmillan Company (1904), Edition: First Edition


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

User reviews

LibraryThing member RandyStafford
My reactions to reading this novel in 1991. Some spoilers follow.

A very enjoyable novel to read -- for about the first half. Brutal, brilliant, relentlessly Darwinian Wolf Larsen, captain of the Ghost, is one of fiction’s great characters. His utter reasoned, selfishness, malicious ruthlessness, and passion for life’s struggle are charismatic. Brutal he may be (and London explicitly compares him to Milton’s Lucifer) but, like Humphrey van Weyden and Maud Brewster, we are fascinated by him, his body, mind, and the soul he would deny. Larsen stands as an eloquent exponent of the pure Darwinian struggle where a man is rewarded by elation for living, for moving. He owes only himself gratification (“piggishness” as Larsen calls it) and knows he must live by preying on other life. But, unlike van Weyden, he makes no distinction between man and the rest of life. Man struggles and preys and is as amoral as any other animal. This great story of dramatized philosophical conflict between Larsen and “sissy” van Weyden’s bookish (Larsen is impressively versed in many matters), civilized, spiritual values is compelling.

Then the character of Maud Brewster is introduced and the novel degenerates. It is not enough that, through contrived coincidence, Brewster and van Weyden know each other. They have to develop a sappily described romance. Granted their demeanor may have seemed natural to London, and Gilligan's introduction indicates his displeasure, but he says London’s personal life was often filled with such nonsense. Brewster is Larsen’s antithesis. This is explicitly stated, and London does an implicit contrast between Larsen’s finely developed body and Brewster’s perceived fraility. Larsen's materialism is compared with Brewster's spirituality. But the dialogue and romantic description is overblown to modern ears. I think London could have portrayed the same events in less grating, shorter ways.

Gilligan is also right in seeing this as sort of a brutal, adult Captain Courageous where Larsen, in his own words, teaches van Weyden to stand “on his own legs”. Unlike Gilligan, I don’t have any particular problems with van Weyden transforming from scrawny, pretensious, bookish, isolated, pampered literary critic to hardened, practical man of the sea who has seen man’s brutality and accepted a bit of the vista Larsen has shown of life. He is willing to revert to the primitive in protecting his “woman”.

This savagery of the animal kingdom shows up elsewhere in the novel. Leach’s constant challenges to Larsen seem like a young pup challenging the alpha wolf of a pack. Van Weyden’s protectiveness of Brewster is mirrored in the seal bulls protecting their harem. But Brewster is annoying. I kept hoping Wolf would throw her over the side or somehow shut her up. And both van Weyden and Brewster refuse, being the sensitive, civilized, literary types they are, to gun Larsen down. A shortcoming that Larsen himself berates and mocks. He mocks van Weyden’s squimishness, his inability to act out of self-interest to preserve his interest, to forsake morality and convention for self-gain, to forsake, I suppose, government for anarchy (Larsen, towards the novel’s end, calls himself an anarchist).

I find the conflict for van Weyden’s soul between Larsen and Brewster interesting in terms of London’s own values. To an atheist, materialist Larsen represents a view of life’s struggle, its self-contained value apart from notions of immortality and soul and life’s unfairness towards those less fortunate and the tragedy of brilliance like Larsen’s wasted due to the circumstances its born into. Larsen is unswayed by Brewster sentimental, spiritual arguments right up to the end, even though his body is imprisoning him and the essential quality of life for him -- movement -- is being taken. To London, Brewster’s caring, her gentleness, even towards Larsen, must temper the Darwinian universe and make it a better place for man, but he personally rejected her and van Weyden’s religious values. A brilliant character in Larsen that transcends the book’s faults -- including the Ghost coincidentally showing up on Endeavor Island or the obvious symbology in Larsen’s illness.
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LibraryThing member jwhenderson
“Many consider The Sea-Wolf by Jack London to be among the best sea stories ever written. I found it a moving and epic tale. Not only did it achieve great popular and literary success, but it also was effectively realized in several cinematic versions (most recently as a TV mini-series). The story ranks in the great tradition of one of London's literary influences, Herman Melville, while I saw similarities to another story of a life changed by sea voyage, captured by Rudyard Kipling in Captains Courageous.

Drawing upon his experiences seal hunting in the North Pacific, London created a story with a lot of realism. He put himself and his contradictory nature into the two opposing characters, the captain Wolf Larsen, a ruthless and rugged individualist, the superman, and Humphrey van Weyden, a weak, but highly cultivated and virtuous gentleman. It is in the clash of these two forces that London gives vent to his innermost struggles: idealism versus materialism, conscience versus instinct, desire versus soul. Humphrey joins Larsen's crew when a ferry he is on sinks. Later in the story he and the captain are joined by a young woman, Maude Brewster who, like Humphrey, is well-educated and literate. During one of their discussions Brewster and Larsen take opposite positions on the importance of desire versus soul. The argument is concluded when Humphrey says:

The man's soul is his desires. . . There lies the temptation. It is the wind that fans the desire until it leaps up to mastery. That's temptation. It may not fan sufficiently to make the desire overmastering , but in so far as fans at all, that far is it temptation. And, as you say, it may tempt for good as well as for evil. (pp. 674-75)

But the main philosophy demonstrated in the novel is a form of Social Darwinism. It is this that is the philosophy espoused by Wolf Larsen as justification for his tyrannical domination of others. Larsen's library is noted to contain works by Darwin, Malthus and Spencer - all seminal theorists of the concept. Darwin himself rejected the concepts of Social Darwinism even though his biological theories were generally used to support and inform the sociological concept that social inequality is the inexorable result of meritocratic division of available resources. Larsen summarizes the concepts of Social Darwinism in his extended analogy of a yeasty ferment of existence.

The novel's drama proceeds to a resolution of this elemental conflict through van Weyden's struggle toward fulfillment and mastery of life's forces and Larsen's ultimate deterioration. Ironically, the majority of the critics and the public misunderstood the work, thinking it a glorification of the superhuman and individualism, and London later wrote, ". . . I attacked Nietzsche and his super-man idea ... no one discovered that it was an attack upon the super-man philosophy. " In the death of Wolf Larsen and the survival of Van Weyden and Maude Brewster we see the confirmation of London's claim.
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LibraryThing member LibraryCin
3.75 stars

Humphrey is "rescued" from drowning by a ship called the Ghost, captained by a very brutal man, Wolf Larsen. After Humphrey is rescued, he is forced to stay aboard the Ghost, despite being a "gentleman" and not knowing a thing about ships. Larsen figures it will build character and he'll learn something. Wolf Larsen, however, is a man who will do whatever he wants/needs to to get what he wants, including murder. Surprising to the bookish Humphrey, is how intelligent and well-read Larsen is. However, it's a hard life, at sea, especially under Larsen.

I wasn't sure if I would like this one or not, not being about animals (in comparison, of course, to The Call of the Wild and White Fang). I was very surprised at how much I liked it. It was good and it picked up in the second half. It was also very quick to read.
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LibraryThing member CassandraT
I really liked the reflective and philosophical aspects of White Fang. In this, listening to the sea Wolf pontificate gets a little old, but it's equally interesting. I've come to appreciate how lucky i am to live in an age and society and class that is less physically base. The rich protagonist is Shanghaied and survives a dysfunctional crew and devil captain. The voyage ends much like it begins (definitely a high school talking point). You question your humanity and wonder if you could have made it through.… (more)
LibraryThing member HankIII
I didn't like it as much as I did when read many years ago; still, Wolf Larsen is a character not soon forgotten.
LibraryThing member hemlokgang
Fabulous! This is the story of prmal, existential survival. The battle for survival occurs at sea, aboard a ship called "Ghost", captained by Wolf Larsen, better known as "The Sea Wolf". He is indeed a wolf of a man and takes all comers in his battle to remain supreme. He faces off with "Hump", a man of letters found shipwrecked off San Francisco. Given no alternative to staying aboard and becoming a seaman, he does so, and thereby begins the battle of wits, intellect, morality, and courage fought to the end between the two men.

As he has in other books, London has an amazing ability to whittle away all that is superfluous about living life and in story form is able to throw into question the very core values of "civilized" folk by forcing their hearts and minds back to the primitive. I could hardly put this book down!
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LibraryThing member Eohna
"The first two-thirds of this book is great fun... a battle of mind versus muscle, altruism versus hedonism, fought between Humphrey van Weyden and Wolf Larson. Van Weyden is the pansiest pansy who’d ever got an inheritance and a manicure and Larson is all that is Man. Had I been reading tawdry slash fan fiction instead of a well-respected classic of literature, the homo-eroticism between van Weyden and Larson would have ended in syrupy confessions of love and much making out.

And then Maude Brewster entered the scene. She has to be one of the most insipid, unlikable characters I’ve ever read and she ruined what was a perfectly good gay sea adventure. Van Weyden forgets to ogle Larson entirely, spending most of the last 80 pages ruminating on how “fragile,” “delicate,” and “womanly” Brewster was. Ugh."


I am sorry to say that this is not my work of genus above but this review fits my assessment to a T. For the first two thirds of the book its all great fun and then "Ms. Maude" shows up and spoils it all, it goes from a great swashbuckling sea adventure interspersed with some of the most fascinating philosophical dialogue to a horrid sappy love story for the last third. All storyline issues aside though, Wolf Larson is one of the single most wonderful antagonists I have ever read or probably ever will read, he's like the evil Count in "The Women in White" he is horrible but you can't help but love him. Humphrey van Weyden is almost a complete opposite except in intellectual where-withal and the conversation between them is always fun and the not-so-sub text is even more fun.
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LibraryThing member cweller
This story is an allegory of the human condition. The story is filled with philosophical ideals that are played out throughout the story. Jack London does an incredible job of telling a story while causing the reader to question his own values in contrast with the primitive instinct of survival.
LibraryThing member Bridgey
My second book by the author. I have to agree with many of the other reviewers, in that the first part of the book is a cracking sea adventure, although a little too philosophical at times. However, when Brewster is introduced my interest in the plot wained and just found myself reading to get to the end of the book instead of for enjoyment.

I normally stay clear of books with love themes and am more of an adventure fan. Just a pity London decided to introduce a woman into the seafaring plot.
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LibraryThing member wScott
I was expecting a stark, "call of the wild" and "red tooth in claw" story, but the main character (in contrast to the ship's captain, Wolf Larson), turned out to be a warm and genuinely likeable man.
Don't be deceived by the title, this is an enjoyable novel.
LibraryThing member enemyanniemae
I listened to this on audio, having enjoyed another audiobook by Jack London, hoping for it to be half as good. I was not disappointed. What a raw and exciting book it was!

Humphrey Van Weyden, a young gentleman, is rescued from the San Francisco sea after the ferry he is aboard collides with another vessel and sinks. He expects the captain of the seal hunting schooner to take him directly to shore and offers him compensation to do so. However, he soon learns that Wolf Larsen, captain of the Ghost, has no intention of returning to shore until hunting season is over. Van Weyden is forced to become the ship's cabin boy and assist the cook. He is fascinated by the captain, even as he is repulsed by him and fears him. Wolf Larsen reads poetry and speaks of philosophy in one breath and terrorizes his crew in the next. He is sheer brutality, unfettered by any human emotions like kindness or empathy. He has no respect for human life as he has no belief in the immortality of the soul. His only belief is "Eat or Be Eaten." He is cruel and fearsome.

The book is beautiful in the characters' will to survive. Hump, as Larsen calls him, learns humility, self sufficiency and self reliance and soon commands the respect of the entire crew. While Wolf is pleased with his growth and enjoys their philosopical discussions, it is obvious that the captain respects Hump no more than his crew respects Larsen. The struggle for survival is what this story is all about. It is probably one of the best sea adventure novels ever written. Recommended.
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LibraryThing member Prop2gether
I had forgotten how readable and thrilling Jack London could be--The Sea Wolf is a thrilling story of survival on multiple levels, with a sadistic (and yet sometimes sympathetic) title character, a "young man grows up" narrator, and full-on nautical descriptions based on London's own experiences. Highly recommended.
LibraryThing member dele2451
A gentlemen is taken aboard a schooner full of seal hunters captained by a much-feared and revered Wolf Larsen who kidnaps him who replace a fallen crew member. It is a wonderfully told tale although I must admit that, having only a minimal amount of nautical experience, I found some of the more detailed sailing terminology a bit confusing. Fans of Mr London's other notable works will certainly not be disappointed by this one.… (more)
LibraryThing member AliceAnna
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.
LibraryThing member ChrisNorbury
From one of my favorite authors. An intriguing tale of good vs. evil, embodied in a sea voyage and pitting a ruthless animal of a sea captain against a soft, weak, untested gentleman. Their battle of wits and will makes for powerful reading and the sailing descriptions and terms are well presented and believable.

A definite must read for Jack London fans.… (more)
LibraryThing member BambambooTC
A classic tale of adventure at sea, The Sea-Wolf tells the story of the naïve young Humphrey van Weyden, whose ship is wrecked in a terrible storm. He is rescued by the mysterious Captain Wolf Larsen of the ship Ghost. Humphrey’s new life aboard Ghost will test him to the limits of his endurance but also bring him the greatest happiness he has ever known. Captain Wolf Larsen is a powerful, brutal man with a razor sharp intelligence. When there is an attempted mutiny on board he shows no mercy to the would-be mutineers, and when his brother Death Larsen attempts to take over the Ghost by force, there is no love lost between them in their vicious battle. Wolf’s cruel manner is thrown into sharp relief by the gentle spirit of the beautiful poetess also rescued, Maud Brewster, who charms both Wolf and Humphrey. As Humphrey falls in love with Maud, he must contend not only with the dangers of being at sea but with competition from his cruel and scheming captain. The Sea-Wolf is a dramatic tale of mutiny and shipwreck, but at its heart is the story of a love that flourishes in the unlikeliest of places. Jack London’s thrilling narrative of the seven seas remains just as gripping today as it was a hundred years ago.… (more)
LibraryThing member la2bkk
Apparently the adage that reasonable minds can differ is true.

I found this book quite disappointing. The characters were simplistic, and the story line was overplayed and unrealistic. An excellent adventure novel for those of high school age, but in my opinion little more. For those who appreciate subtlety and sophistication, better to look elsewhere.… (more)
LibraryThing member BrokenTune
“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?”
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LibraryThing member jmcdbooks
Rated: B+
Love Jack London. Vivid writing. Heroic men. True adventure. Classic battle between green well educated gentleman lost at sea picked up by autocratic Sea Wolf -- Wolf Larson. A tale of contrast, overcoming and romance. Loved it.
LibraryThing member steve.clason
I'll quickly forgive incredible plot-lines if something else redeems a novel -- interesting characters, good sentences, snappy dialog. Here, London moves solidly towards redemption, with excellent passages about the handling of sailing ships and insight into the lives of isolated men doing difficult, demanding work. But he doesn't get there.

Humphrey Van Weyden, a "man of letters" is shipwrecked and picked up by the sealing schooner Ghost with the brutal (but smart and beautiful) Wolf Larson as master, headed off to the sealing grounds in the North Pacific. Van Weyden is made cabin-boy, then mate (with no sailing experience and without objection from the crew), from which position in a couple of months he learns everything he needs to know to later re-fit a beached and de-masted wrecked ship and sail it out of a small cove on a lee shore. Then Maude Brewster, a poet beloved (in her poetry) by Van Weyden is also picked up by the Ghost, also a victim of shipwreck. They escape the Ghost on one of the hunting boats and are shipwrecked on a small island deserted except for thousands of seals. Then the Ghost, with only Larson, now blind, on board, wrecks in the same small cove Brewster and Van Weyden have settled in. While Larson slowly dies, Van Weyden and Maude refit the ship and sail it off, declaring their love just before they are picked up by a mail boat.

Uh huh.

It's worth reading, for the yarn and for some of the dialog (not, though, the philosophical discussions) -- I'm sure that like me, everyone thrills to cries of "Boat Ho!" and "Stand by that jib with Johnson and Oofty! The rest of you tail aft to the mainsheet! Lively now! or I’ll sail you all into Kingdom Come! Understand?" And there's this appreciation of being at sea in a storm: "And oh, the marvel of it! the marvel of it! That tiny men should live and breathe and work, and drive so frail a contrivance of wood and cloth through so tremendous an elemental strife."

London covered the intellectual matter better in Martin Eden, I think, but whereas that's a better story, this one is better told.
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LibraryThing member kimberwolf
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.… (more)
LibraryThing member StevenJohnTait
Home of probably my favourite character in fiction. This book is a lesson in characterisation. Jack London can do so much with words. He writes description in detail but it doesn't slow you down. I would've given it five stars but the plot wasn't quite as good as I think he could've made it. Well worth a read though.
LibraryThing member endersreads
Just as Wolf Larsen at times wished to trade in his individualism, hedonism and materialism for Van Weyden's idealism and belief in an eternal soul, Van Weyden overtly admired and envied Wolf.

I only wish that all people such as Van Weyden might have their eyes opened by the Wolf. By way of Wolf and Van Weyden's mutual experiences together, each man was able to grow intellectually and philosophically. It is obvious that for all of Wolf's physical and mental power, he was internally weak. Van Weyden was internally strong and externally weak. Both men were isolated.

I enjoyed the story very much until Maud Brewster came aboard. I cannot relate to you how annoying I found her and especially Van Weyden's ridiculous coddling of her. I was sickened. It would have been much more interesting if rather than act as each others nanny, Maud and Van Weyden continued philosophical conversations, perhaps digressing on their own similar perceptions or theorizing upon Wolf Larsen and his capacity for cruelty and poetry.

The story began embracing raw masculinity, ice cold intellect, and the making of one's own legs. It ended in a pile of mush with the most interesting character stroked-out and the newly-made man so giddy that surely the first thing he did when reaching land was not to go about analyzing and restructuring himself as a man, but to give his life over to nursing Maud.

I'm sure the only books either of them wrote henceforth were on putrid subjects such as child care and marriage. Never again did either walk upon their own legs. They gave themselves over to procreation and progeny—sustenance unto Wolves.

“. . . there was about him a suggestion of lurking ferocity, as though the Wild still lingered in him and the wolf in him merely slept.” -Jack London
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