The Sea-Wolf

The Sea-Wolf

"The Sea-Wolf" is a novel written in 1904 by American author Jack London. An immediate bestseller, the first printing of forty thousand copies was sold out before publication. Of it, Ambrose Bierce wrote "The great thing—and it is among the greatest of things—is that tremendous creation, Wolf Larsen... the hewing out and setting up of such a figure is enough for a man to do in one lifetime."


Like "The Call of the Wild", "The Sea Wolf" tells the story of a soft, domesticated protagonist, in this novel's case an intellectual man named Humphrey van Weyden, forced to become tough and self-reliant by exposure to cruelty and brutality. The story starts with him onboard a San Francisco ferry, which collides with another ship in the fog and sinks. He is set adrift in the sea, eventually being picked up ("rescued" is not the right word) by Wolf Larsen. Larsen is the captain of the seal-hunting schooner "Ghost". Brutal and cynical, yet also highly intelligent and intellectual (though highly biased in his opinions as he was self-taught), he rules over his ship and terrorizes the crew with the aid of his exceptionally great physical strength. Van Weyden adequately describes him as an individualist, a hedonist, and a materialist. As Larsen does not believe in the immortality of the soul, he finds no meaning in his life save survival and pleasure and has come to despise all human life and deny its value. Being interested in someone capable of intellectual disputes, he somewhat takes care of "Hump" while forcing him to become a cabin boy, do menial work, and learn to fight to protect himself from a brutal crew.

A vast majority of the story concerns itself with Humphrey's growth as a character, from self-described wimp to self-sufficient individual. Such episodes include his learning of the ship's workings, his rivalry with Thomas Mudgridge (the ship's cook, which climaxes with a standoff that Humphrey wins), and his tense relationship with Wolf Larsen. He is promote throughout the story, from cabin boy to mate.

A key event in the story is an attempted mutiny against Wolf Larsen by several members of the crew. The organizers of the mutiny are Leach and Johnson. Johnson had prior been beaten severely by Larsen, and Leach was a close friend of Johnson, motivating the two. The first attempt is by sending Larsen overboard, however he manages to climb back onto the ship. Searching for his assailant, he ventures into the sleeping quarters, located beneath the main deck, the only exit being a ladder. Several, at least seven men, take part in the mutiny and attack Larsen. Larsen however, demonstrating his inhuman endurance, strength, and conviction, manages to fight his way through the mob, climb the ladder with several men hanging off him, and escape relatively unharmed. He later gets his vengeance by torturing his crew, and constantly claiming that he was going to murder Leach and Thompson at his earliest convenience, being after the hunting season is done, as he can't afford to lose any crew. He later allows them to be lost to the sea when they attempt to flee on a hunting boat.

Following this, the "Ghost" picks up another set of castaways, including a woman poet named Maud Brewster. Both Wolf Larsen and Humphrey immediately feel attraction to her, due to her intelligence and "female delicacy". Humphrey sees her as his first true love. He strives to protect her from the crew, the horrors of the sea, and Wolf Larsen. As this happens, tension begins to rise between Wolf Larsen and his brother, Death Larsen, with the two aggressively competing for seals. Wolf goes as far as kidnapping several of Death's crew and forcing them into servitude to fill his own ranks. During one of Larsen's intense headaches, which render him near immobile, Humphrey steals a boat and flees with Maud.

The two eventually land on an uninhabited island, heavily populated with seals. They hunt, build shelter and a fire, and survive for several days, utilizing the strength they gained while on the "Ghost". The "Ghost" eventually crashes on the island, with Wolf Larsen the only crew member. In vengeance, Death Larsen had tracked his brother, bought his crew, destroyed his sails, and set Wolf adrift at sea. It is purely by chance that Humphrey and Maud meet Wolf again.

Wolf headaches only grow worse, and they are revealed to be strokes. The three coexist to some extent. Humphrey obtains all of the firearms left on the ship, but cannot bring himself to murder Larsen, who does not threaten him. After one stroke, Larsen is rendered blind. Humphrey and Maud decide they can repair the ship, but Larsen, who is intent to die on the island and take them with him, sabotages any repairs they make. He feigns paralysis, and attempts to murder Humphrey when he foolishly draws within arms reach, but just then is hit with another stroke that leaves the left side of his body catatonic. His condition only worsens, he loses usage of his remaining arm, leg and voice. Maud and Humphrey, unable to bring themselves to leave him to rot, care for him. Despite this kindness, he continues his resistance, setting fire to his mattress. Finally, during a violent storm, Wolf Larsen passes away.

Humphrey finishes repairing the "Ghost", and he and Maud set sail. They give Larsen a burial at sea, an act mirroring an incident Humphrey witnessed when he was first rescued. The story ends with them being rescued by an American revenue cutter.

Humphrey van Weyden

Humphrey starts the book weak of body but strong of mind. He grows stronger as the story progresses, physically through the manual labor, and spiritually as he endures the various hardships. Upon meeting Maud, he realizes just how much he has changed, gaining muscle mass, a more rugged appearance, and a different outlook on life.

Humphrey has a unique relationship with Larsen. Though he is in effect the captain's prisoner, Larsen shows him favoritism and occasionally acts as a father figure, giving advice on how to survive aboard the ship. Though Larsen claims to take Humphrey aboard primarily because he needed an additional hand, he also seems to genuinely believe he is doing something good for Humphrey. He claims that Humphrey has never "stood on his own legs", meaning he has never had to work and always relied on his inheritance from his father to survive. Throughout the book, Larsen compliments Humphrey on his growth, eventually telling him he is proud of him, and calling him a real man, able to stand on his own.

Humphrey has an ideology that is in sharp contrast to Larsen's. He believes in the internal soul, inherit goods, and that men should act justly under all circumstances. His views are constantly being challenged by Larsen, who encourages him to give into his desires and behave in an immoral fashion. By the end of the story, Larsen is annoyed that Humphrey still clings to his beliefs and refuses to murder him, despite all the suffering Larsen has put him through.

Wolf Larsen

Larsen is a complex character. Physically, he is described as approximately five foot ten with a massive build: broad shoulders and a deep chest. Humphrey describes Larsen as beautiful on more than one occassion, perfectly symmetrical, a perfect specimen of masculinity. Yet, despite this, his true strength is described as somethign more primal, more primitive and animalistic. He is extremely intelligent, have taught himself a variety of fields, including mathematics, literature, science, philosophy, and technology. Throughout the story, he displays almost inhuman amounts of strength, even for a man of his size and build.

Larsen was born in Norway, though is of danish descent. He spent his entire life at sea; cabin-boy at twelve, ship's boy at fourteen, seaman at sixteen, able seaman at seventeen. It is unclear when he obtained the "Ghost" and became captain. He claims to have several brothers, but only Death Larsen is mentioned.

Larsen displays characteristics of a sociopath. He has absolutely no fault with manipulating and bullying people to better serve his needs. He routinely takes men hostage, castaways like Humphrey or seal hunters from other ships, and uses them to fill his own ranks when needed. He murders and abuses people without hesitation, seeing no value in life. He enjoys the intellectual stimulation that Humphrey and Maud provide, but Humphrey describes their relationship as one between a king and his jester. He is only a toy to Larsen.

Despite his immense internal strength, Larsen at times show signs of weakness and depression. He is envious of his brother, because his brother is simple minded, and so is able to enjoy life unburdened. He also claims he is envious of Maud and Humphrey's faith, but later says it is only his mind, and he knows he is better off without it. He also speaks of frustration that he never amounted to anything great. He claims he had all the determination and will, but was never given the proper opportunity.

Interestingly, Wolf is not Larsen's real given name, his real given name is never spoken. Dialogue heavily implies that he is called "Wolf" because of his nature and viciousness, similar reasons that his brother is called "Death".


The personal character of the novel's antagonist "Wolf Larsen" was attributed to a real sailor London had known, Captain Alex MacLean. London, who was called "Wolf" by his close friends, also used a picture of a wolf on his bookplate, and named his mansion "Wolf House." Given that Hump's experiences in the novel bear some resemblance to experiences London had, or heard told about, when he sailed on the "Sophia Sutherland", the autodidact sailor Wolf Larsen has been compared to the autodidact sailor Jack London.

London's intention in writing the "The Sea-Wolf" was "an attack on Nietzsche's super-man philosophy." The novel also contains references to Herbert Spencer, Omar Khayyám, Shakespeare, and John Milton.

Captain Alex MacLean was the inspiration for the title character, Wolf Larsen, in London’s bestselling novel, The Sea-Wolf. Originally from Cape Breton [Nova Scotia province, Canada] , MacLean sailed to the Pacific side of North America when he was just twenty-one and worked there for thirty-five years as a sailor and sealer. His achievements and escapades while in the Victoria [British Columbia province, Canada] fleet in the 1880s laid the foundation for his status as a folk hero.

Although MacLean is a colourful character both in his own right and as mythologized by London, his biography reveals more than the construction of a legend. Biographer Don MacGillivray opens a window onto the complex world of pelagic sealing in the North Pacific. The sealing dispute brought the United States and Britain to the brink of war, with Canadian sealing interests frequently enmeshed in espionage, scientific debate, diplomatic negotiations, and vexing questions of maritime and environmental law. This vivid account brings history into focus.

MacLean’s story will appeal to maritime historians, historians of the Pacific Northwest, and readers interested in the history of sealing, international relations, and environmental politics. It will also appeal to readers interested in this fascinating character, both in his own right and as mythologized by Jack London.

Film adaptations

Jack London's novel has been adapted for motion pictures many times:

*"The Sea-Wolf" (USA, 1913), starring Hobart Bosworth, with Jack London himself appearing as an unnamed sailor;
*"The Sea Wolf" (USA, 1920), starring Noah Beery (Larsen) and Tom Forman (Van Weyden);
*"The Sea Wolf" (USA, 1926), starring Ralph Ince and Claire Adams (Maud);
*"The Sea Wolf" (USA, 1930), starring Milton Sills;
*"The Sea Wolf" (USA, 1941), starring Edward G. Robinson (Larsen), Ida Lupino (Maud), and John Garfield;
*"Wolf Larsen" (USA, 1958), starring Barry Sullivan and Peter Graves;
*"Der Seewolf" (Germany, 1972, TV, 4 part miniseries), starring Raimund Harmstorf and Edward Meeks;
*"Il Lupo dei Mari" (Italy, 1975, "The Legend of the Sea Wolf"), starring Chuck Connors and Giuseppe Pambieri;
*"Morskoj volk" (Russia, 1991, TV), starring Liubomiras Lauciavicius and Andrei Rudensky;
*"The Sea Wolf" (1993, TV), starring Christopher Reeve and Charles Bronson;
*"The Sea Wolf" (1997), starring Stacy Keach.
* "The Sea Wolf" (Germany, 2008), starring Tim Roth, Neve Campbell and Sebastian Koch Produced by TeleMuenchen. [ [ Shooting on The Sea Wolf to start in Halifax ] ]
*"The Sea Wolf or Wolf Larsen" (Germany, 2008), starring Thomas Kretschmann As the result of a court case won by TeleMuenchen the producers of the version above this version is called Wolf Larsen in Germany by ProSeiben. [ [ TMG wins 'Sea Wolf' battle] ]


External links

*gutenberg|no=1074|name=The Sea-Wolf
* [ Full Text of The Sea Wolf]

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