Jack London’s novel, The Sea-Wolf, has many different interpretations. The story can be read as a combination of the naturalistic novel and the sentimental romance, both very popular around the turn of the century. London also brings into play literary naturalism, in which human beings are characterized as just another species in nature, subject to all of Her cosmic forces. The Sea-Wolf fits almost perfectly the archetypal pattern of an initiation story. Depth and interest are added to The Sea-Wolf by successfully integrating these three elements -- the combination of two popular genres, literary naturalism, and the initiation story.
One of the characteristics common to most naturalistic novels is the theme of survival of the fittest. This novel is very much in concordance with this theory, set up by Charles Darwin and his theory of natural selection. Both Humphrey Van Weyden and Maud Brewster are individuals who have never known physical hardship. They are both people "of the books", and find themselves in a foreign environment when stranded on this boat with a "regular devil" (49), Wolf Larsen. Humphrey Van Weyden, after going through an "initiation process" to be discussed later, finds himself unable to remember clearly anything else. "It seems as though I have lived this life always. The world of books is very vague, more like a dream memory than an actuality. I surely have hunted and forayed and fought all the days of my life" ( 229). Humphrey makes an almost perfect allusion to Darwin's survival of the fittest idea when talking to Wolf Larsen, "You were once, and able to eat, as you were pleased to phrase it; but there has been a diminishing, and I am now able to eat you" (249). Even Maud ...
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...led Hump. Hump survives this so-called "ordeal" and makes it to third stage of the initiation process -- the return to the group. With the beginning of this stage the initiate is transformed. "Hump" becomes Mr. Van Weyden, as Wolf Larsen promotes him to first mate to replace Johansen. He is now accepted as part of the group and he, unlike Larsen, has good rapport with all the crew members. After this last stage is complete is when he gets up the courage to flee the Ghost and Larsen, and run away with Maud Brewster.
The Sea-Wolf is one of the richest, and most interesting, novels ever written. Jack London has used a variety of literary techniques to bring his story to life. Through the combination of two popular genres of the time (naturalistic and romance), the use of the literary naturalism, and the story of an initiation, London brings the characters to life.
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