Some years ago, I saw one of the movies adaptations of The Sea Wolf, the one starring Charles Bronson and Christopher Reeve. I remember liking the movie a lot, mostly the philosophical talks between Wolf Larsen and Humphrey Van Weyden, and because at that time I was studying Milton’s Paradise Lost, I mostly enjoyed the PL allusion in the Sea Wolf. Some years later, having finally just read the Sea Wolf, I must say it hasn’t quite lived up to my expectations…

Humphrey Van Weyden, " a scholar and a dilettante […] in things artistic and literary" is on board a ferry-steamer to San Francisco when the ferry sinks. After spending some time at sea between life and death, Humphrey is spotted by a sailor of a seal-hunting schooner and his life is saved. At least, temporarily… On the schooner, the men are uncivilized and uneducated brutes who only believe in the law of the strongest. The worst of them is their captain, Wolf Larsen. A superman in the Nietzschean sense of the term, he has a feline strength and grace. Self-educated, he can discuss literature and philosophy with as much precision and discernment as Humphrey, but he has no morals. Not immoral, he is just amoral. He doesn’t believe in the immortal soul, he just believes in "yeast", in the instinct of life which is to preserve itself, to strive and prosper, often at the detriment of other lives. This justifies the cruel treatment of his men, who all fear him, and whom he doesn’t hesitate to kill if necessity or simply if his whim drives him to it.

Humphrey is employed on the boat against his will, first as a cabin boy, and then, involuntarily climbing his way in the hierarchy, as a mate. He survives a bit like Scheherazade, not because of the stories he can tell, but rather because of the arguments he can oppose Wolf Larsen’s in their philosophical talks. Starved for knowledge, Larsen needs the company of a man more erudite than himself. Bound for the Japanese coast, Larsen’s schooner, The Ghost, soon begins a cat-and-mouse game with The Macedonia, commanded by Death Larsen, Wolf’s brother…

Among the many literary allusions, I was able to find the Milton’s allusion I remembered from the movie: like Milton’s Satan, Larsen does not want to live by the arbitrary rules established by someone more powerful than him. Satan led the rebellion of some angels and was thrown into hell and said: "Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven". Likewise, Larsen prefers to command brutes at sea, and, like a god, to have a right of life and death over them, rather than be a nobody in a society where he would have to abide by the rules. Unfortunately for him, Wolf won’t die a wolfish death, at the hand of a stronger, more apt "animal". Rather, he will know the indignity of having his own body failing him bit by bit, becoming the ghost of himself, like the name of his schooner seemed to foretell…

I enjoyed the first part of the book and the discussions between the two men, but, from the moment Maud Brewster, a young woman saved from the tempest near the coast of Japan, entered the scene, I started to lose interest in the novel. I almost laughed at London’s description of the woman as "frail-lily", or better yet, "sunshine and dew to [Humphrey’s] manhood". I understand that this objectification of the woman, who exists only in her function of making a man feel like a man, does not stand necessarily for London’s own perception of women, but rather as an emphasis on the fact that "Sissy" Van Weyden (as he was called by his schoolmates) has a lot of trouble with his manhood. Not only is he sensible to feminine beauty in some of his ship companions (not to mention his very ambiguous reaction before Wolf Larsen’s naked torso and his more general attraction to his appearance), he also admits, at the age of 35, never to have had  "amorous" feelings for a woman. After some time on the schooner though, and after meeting Maud Brewster, protecting the frail woman seems to awaken his manhood: "I shall never forget, in that moment, how instantly conscious I became of my manhood [he just passed an arm around Maud because she is afraid]. The primitive deeps of my nature stirred. I felt myself masculine, the protector of the weak, the fighting male […]". How can we, today readers, read this and keep a straight face? The trouble is, I do not think London intended it to be funny…  On a more serious level and keeping aside the narrator’s view on women (it was hardly the beginning of the twentieth century when he wrote the book after all, one could hardly have expected London to feature a feminist character), I wonder what final statement London intended to make about Humphrey’s sexual ambiguity and if this subject has already been discussed in some essay: it would be an interesting one indeed …

I think the character of Wolf Larsen is one of the unforgettable characters in literature, even though I was disappointed by his unworthy demise (I did not remember this from the movie). I would gladly have been spared the "love story" too, since, in my opinion, it did not add anything of interest to the novel. I still recommend The Sea Wolf to lovers of nautical novels, and because, despite its flaws, it is a classic…

Rating: 3/5