Van Weyden and Maud Brewster move aboard the Ghost, with Wolf Larsen as their prisoner. Van Weyden discovers that Wolf Larsen is deaf in one ear, and Wolf Larsen tells him that he is in fact paralyzed and will never walk again. Though Van Weyden is wary that Wolf is faking, when Wolf smiles, only part of his face moves, suggesting that the paralysis is real. Van Weyden asks what has caused all these attacks, and Wolf says his brain, perhaps a tumor or cancer.
Wolf Larsen’s sharp physical decline shows that no amount of strength or determination can combat age and disease. Though Wolf Larsen is no longer the strong man he used to be, his strange smile suggests that a disbelief in the soul may have prepared him for what will happen when his body decays.
Despite being close to death, Wolf Larsen maintains that he doesn’t have a soul. Van Weyden tells Wolf Larsen that his smile is crooked. He removes Wolf Larsen’s handcuffs, but he and Maud Brewster are still afraid of what Wolf could do, even though they know he’s helpless.
The fact that Wolf Larsen doesn’t change any of his philosophies, even in the face of death, shows just how uncompromising he is. Though Larsen is a deeply flawed character, his consistency is one of his positive qualities.
Van Weyden makes some final repairs on the sails and believes everything is now close to being in shape to work. He and Maud Brewster are happy, but Wolf Larsen’s slow death frequently interrupts this happiness. Wolf Larsen has another stroke and begins losing his ability to speak. Eventually, he can only communicate “yes” and “no” by pressure from his hand or by writing with his left hand.
As his illness progresses, Wolf Larsen loses more of his identity. Though Larsen no longer intimidates Van Weyden and Brewster physically, he continues to disturb them, perhaps in part because his condition reminds them of their own mortality.
Van Weyden and Maud Brewster complete their work on the masts. But just as they do so, they see dense smoke coming from steerage. Van Weyden goes belowdecks and nearly chokes as he finds Wolf Larsen almost motionless but still responsive to touch. He goes back up without locating the exact source of the smoke.
The smoke from below decks recalls the smoke that appeared when the Ghost first came to Endeavour Island—back then, smoke was the only sign that Larsen was still alive. It is fitting that as Larsen loses his other ways to communicate, he is still able to communicate from a distance with smoke.
Van Weyden returns to Wolf Larsen and discovers that the captain had set fire to his bunk’s straw mattress. He drags the mattress out and puts out the fire. Wolf is unconscious but later writes to Van Weyden that, despite his weakness, he can think more clearly than he’s been able to at any point in his life.
The fact that Wolf Larsen can still start fires suggests that he still has some life in him. Learning how to make fire on Endeavour Island was a triumph for Van Weyden, and in a twisted way, Larsen’s ability to start a fire while half-paralyzed and blind is impressive, representing one last burst of vitality. That Van Weyden manages to put out the first fire suggests that Larsen is past his prime and will only continue to decline.