Jack London’s The Sea Wolf is in some ways a philosophical text and a product of its time. The strain it puts on the reader between a social Darwinist and utilitarian perspective against that of a more idealistic one is great. Many times the character of Wolf Larsen is a more consistent articulator of the Darwinian position and seems to always be getting the upper hand argumentatively. However, it is due to a phenomenological outlook on the events presented within The Sea Wolf that the alternative becomes intelligible. After all, the endeavor to improve is one thing which identifies us as human. The understanding of what constitutes this improvement varies, however, and only upon further inspection and in light of increasing experience can a multitude of modes be viewed as possible ways to improve oneself. In the end it is the realization of all things as possible modes of improvement, as well as their acceptance, which leads to a true improvement of the self. And it is this reasoning which leads to the character of Humphrey Van Weyden as being more correct.
One thing which identifies us as being human is the endeavor to improve. This endeavor is definitely present in both Hump and Wolf. Hump is a man of letters, as right in the beginning, he notes that “instead of having to devote my energy to the learning of a multitude of things, I concentrated it upon a few particular things, such as, for instance, the analysis of Poe’s place in American literature,” (1). We also know that Wolf has been educating himself in his own time when Hump sees the evidence in Wolf’s cabin. “Against the wall, near the head of the bunk, was a rack filled with books … ...
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...h and ideals, reconciled in the ways of being in the world.
Humphrey Van Weyden’s character undergoes a long transformation from the humble beginning of being in a single mode of idealism that is thrown in opposition to the stark material and social Darwinism of Wolf. Though Humphrey soon begins to see an alternative to his position and even takes pride and joy in dwelling in these alternative modes at times. He takes in each experience, and on that basis begins to formulate an ancillary mode that is inclusive of a multitude of modes. In the end, Humphrey Van Weyden exists in a mode of being which is superior in that it accounts for any and all subdominant modes of emotional, physical, and metaphysical being. This is the point of a true understanding of what it means to improve one self.
London, Jack. The Sea Wolf. New York: Bantam, 1991.
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