The Sea-Wolf


Jack London

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The Sea-Wolf Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Jack London's The Sea-Wolf. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Jack London

Jack London was born in the San Francisco Bay Area and lived with his mother and stepfather. He came from a working-class background and was mostly self-taught, taking an early interest in Victorian novels. London worked various seafaring jobs, including as an “oyster pirate” (a poacher of oysters) and on a seal-hunting schooner called the Sophie Sutherland. In 1897, he traveled to the Yukon region of Alaska to participate in the Klondike Gold Rush. Though he didn’t strike it rich, the experience inspired him to write his famous short story, “To Build a Fire,” which was first published in 1902. As London began his career as a writer, he took an increasing interest in socialism and was active in American socialist political parties. As a novelist, London was critically and commercially successful. His most well-known novels include The Call of the Wild, White Fang, The Sea-Wolf, The Iron Heel, and Martin Eden, and he also wrote short stories, journalism, plays, and memoirs. London died on his porch at age 40. Though scholars debate London’s exact cause of death, he had been ill with numerous diseases he contracted throughout his travels, and he also suffered from alcoholism. His ashes were buried on his Glen Ellen, California, property, which has since become the Jack London State Historic Park.  
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Historical Context of The Sea-Wolf

The Sea-Wolf was inspired in part by real historical events and Jack London’s own experiences at sea. London claimed that the character of Wolf Larsen was based on a real sailor named Captain Alex MacLean, who was also known for his cruelty. Although Wolf Larsen is the novel’s antagonist, he also shares many qualities with London himself. Like Wolf, London went seal-hunting off the coast of Japan, and he was also well-read, a self-taught sailor, an atheist, and even nicknamed “Wolf” by his friends. The ferry wreck at the beginning of the story was likely inspired by a real wreck. In 1901, two ferries, the Sausalito, and the San Rafael, collided in the San Francisco Bay; the disaster became the bay’s worst ferryboat collision in history. More generally, The Sea-Wolf was inspired by the poor labor conditions that London witnessed, particularly in San Francisco, where people at the bottom of the hierarchy often had to work long hours at hard jobs.

Other Books Related to The Sea-Wolf

London references many of the literary works that inspired The Sea-Wolf in the book itself. Perhaps the most important inspiration is Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Darwin’s writings inspired a movement called Social Darwinism. The movement attempted to apply biological principles of “survival of the fittest” and natural selection to human interactions. Although contemporary scholars dismiss Social Darwinism as pseudoscience, it was popular in the late-1800s and early-1900s, and readers of The Sea-Wolf may observe the movement’s core ideas in the philosophy of Captain Wolf Larsen. Wolf Larsen also bears a resemblance to the character of Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Like Wolf Larsen, Milton’s Satan is one of Western literature’s famed individualists—and, in The Sea-Wolf, Maud Brewster even compares Wolf to Milton’s Satan. By 1904, when The Sea-Wolf was published, sea adventure novels were already a well-established genre, with some of the most famous examples including Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.
Key Facts about The Sea-Wolf
  • Full Title: The Sea-Wolf
  • When Written: 1903
  • Where Written: San Francisco
  • When Published: 1904
  • Literary Period: Realism, Naturalism
  • Genre: Adventure Novel
  • Setting: The Pacific Ocean between San Francisco and Japan
  • Climax: Humphrey Van Weyden barely survives Wolf Larsen’s final attempt to kill him.
  • Antagonist: Wolf Larsen
  • Point of View: First Person

Extra Credit for The Sea-Wolf

Ahead of His Time. Though Jack London is perhaps best remembered for his adventure stories, some of his stories could be classified as science fiction, making him an early writer in the genre.

Jack in the Boxcar. While Jack London sometimes exaggerated stories of his childhood poverty, it is true that he lived as a “railroad tramp” for a time, and he was even jailed for a month due to vagrancy.