Though primarily an adventure novel, Jack London inserts a romantic subplot into The Sea-Wolf when the crew of the Ghost rescues Maud Brewster, a poet who becomes the love interest of the narrator, Humphrey Van Weyden. Though the love story may seem like a departure from the sea adventures of the first part of the book, it serves as a logical continuation of Van Weyden’s character arc, illustrating how he has changed from the helpless intellectual he was at the beginning of the book into a hardworking person who has the confidence and competence to uphold his responsibilities to himself and others. The turning point in Van Weyden’s relationship with Maud is when the two of them escape from the Ghost, only to become stranded on an uninhabited island. Away from the Ghost, Van Weyden finds that he is responsible for Maud’s wellbeing in a way that he’s never been for another person before. Though Van Weyden delays confessing his love to Maud for a long time, their shared hardships and responsibilities to each other draw them closer together.
By contrast, Wolf Larsen exemplifies a different sort of “love” and duty, employing violence, coercion, and manipulation to force his crew to remain dutiful and loyal to him. Yet once his health fails him and he can no longer force people to serve him, he loses everything and everyone, ultimately suffering an agonizing, lonely death. At the end of The Sea-Wolf, Humphrey Van Weyden and Maud Brewster manage to escape their small island, catch the attention of a passing American vessel, and return to safety. Larsen tries to force them to stay, but because Van Weyden’s previous sense of duty toward Larsen was based on fear (rather than a moral obligation) Larsen cannot command duty and respect in the way he once did. Van Weyden’s and Larsen’s opposite attitudes toward duty, responsibility, and relationships, highlight the limitations of Larsen’s coerced sort of “love” and responsibility. Meanwhile, the book’s espousal of Van Weyden’s approach to love suggests that choice and personal agency form stronger, more meaningful bonds.
Love, Duty, and Choice ThemeTracker
Love, Duty, and Choice Quotes in The Sea-Wolf
But life and death were in that glance. I could see the vessel being swallowed up in the fog; I saw the back of the man at the wheel, and the head of the other man turning, slowly turning, as his gaze struck the water and casually lifted along it toward me. His face wore an absent expression, as of deep thought, and I became afraid that if his eyes did light upon me he would nevertheless not see me. But his eyes did light upon me, and looked squarely into mine; and he did see me, for he sprang to the wheel, thrusting the other man aside, and whirled it round and round, hand over hand, at the same time shouting orders of some sort. The vessel seemed to go off at a tangent to its former course and leapt almost instantly from view into the fog.
Then a most surprising thing occurred. The captain broke loose upon the dead man like a thunderclap. Oaths rolled from his lips in a continuous stream. And they were not namby-pamby oaths, or mere expressions of indecency. Each word was a blasphemy, and there were many words. They crisped and crackled like electric sparks.
Who earned it? Eh? I thought so. Your father. You stand on dead men’s legs. You’ve never had any of your own. You couldn’t walk alone between two sunrises and hustle the meat for your belly for three meals. Let me see your hand.
He absurdly insisted upon my addressing him as Mr. Mugridge, and his behaviour and carriage were insufferable as he showed me my duties. Besides my work in the cabin, with its four small state-rooms, I was supposed to be his assistant in the galley, and my colossal ignorance concerning such things as peeling potatoes or washing greasy pots was a source of unending and sarcastic wonder to him. He refused to take into consideration what I was, or, rather, what my life and the things I was accustomed to had been.
“I believe that life is a mess,” he answered promptly. “It is like yeast, a ferment, a thing that moves and may move for a minute, an hour, a year, or a hundred years, but that in the end will cease to move. The big eat the little that they may continue to move, the strong eat the weak that they may retain their strength. The lucky eat the most and move the longest, that is all. What do you make of those things?”
I have made the acquaintance of another one of the crew,—Louis he is called, a rotund and jovial-faced Nova Scotia Irishman, and a very sociable fellow, prone to talk as long as he can find a listener. In the afternoon, while the cook was below asleep and I was peeling the everlasting potatoes, Louis dropped into the galley for a “yarn.” His excuse for being aboard was that he was drunk when he signed. He assured me again and again that it was the last thing in the world he would dream of doing in a sober moment. It seems that he has been seal-hunting regularly each season for a dozen years, and is accounted one of the two or three very best boat-steerers in both fleets.
“One hundred and eighty-five dollars even,” he said aloud. “Just as I thought. The beggar came aboard without a cent.”
“And what you have won is mine, sir,” I said boldly.
He favoured me with a quizzical smile. “Hump, I have studied some grammar in my time, and I think your tenses are tangled. ‘Was mine,’ you should have said, not ’is mine.’”
She seemed to me like a being from another world. I was aware of a hungry out-reaching for her, as of a starving man for bread. But then, I had not seen a woman for a very long time. I know that I was lost in a great wonder, almost a stupor,—this, then, was a woman?—so that I forgot myself and my mate’s duties, and took no part in helping the new-comers aboard.
“I was not thinking of taking them aboard when I made that promise,” he answered. “And anyway, you’ll agree I’ve not laid my hands upon them.”
“What of the Macedonia?”
“Not sighted,” I answered.
I could have sworn his face fell at the intelligence, but why he should be disappointed I could not conceive.
I looked at my watch. It was one o’clock. I had slept seven hours! And she had been steering seven hours! When I took the steering-oar I had first to unbend her cramped fingers. Her modicum of strength had been exhausted, and she was unable even to move from her position. I was compelled to let go the sheet while I helped her to the nest of blankets and chafed her hands and arms.
“Hump,” he said slowly, “you can’t do it. You are not exactly afraid. You are impotent. Your conventional morality is stronger than you.”
“I am still a bit of the ferment, you see,” he wrote a little later.
“I am glad you are as small a bit as you are,” I said.
“Thank you,” he wrote. “But just think of how much smaller I shall be before I die.”
“And immortality?” Maud queried loudly in the ear.
Three times the hand essayed to write but fumbled hopelessly. The pencil fell. In vain we tried to replace it. The fingers could not close on it. Then Maud pressed and held the fingers about the pencil with her own hand and the hand wrote, in large letters, and so slowly that the minutes ticked off to each letter:
“One kiss, dear love,” I whispered. “One kiss more before they come.”
“And rescue us from ourselves,” she completed, with a most adorable smile, whimsical as I had never seen it, for it was whimsical with love.