In Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf, the fierce seal-hunting captain Wolf Larsen is surprisingly well read for such a tough sailor, and one of the authors on his shelf is Charles Darwin. In the late 19th century to early 20th century (around when Jack London wrote The Sea-Wolf), there was a movement called Social Darwinism, which sought to apply Charles Darwin’s biological theories of natural selection and survival of the fittest to the fields of sociology and politics (but which is today generally considered a racist pseudoscience). One may interpret Wolf Larsen as a fierce proponent of social Darwinism, since he encourages competition on his boat to weed out weak or unfaithful sailors, and he even sometimes uses language similar to Darwin, such as when he claims life is a “mess” where “the strong eat the weak [so] that they may retain their strength.” But Wolf doesn’t offer a wholly positive portrayal of social Darwinism—despite Wolf’s early success as a captain, he is frequently cruel to his crew, and more often acts to satisfy his own whims instead of for the good of the whole ship. Ultimately, Larsen’s cruelty and selfishness lead his crew to maroon him.
Wolf Larsen is obsessed with power. His goal is to dominate others, and he forces many of his sailors, including Humphrey Van Weyden, to work for him under conditions that are comparable to slavery. Though London portrays some elements of Wolf’s sheer strength in a positive light, he also shows Wolf’s ruthless quest for domination as destructive—both for those around him, and for Wolf himself. In one instance, for example, Wolf escalates a rivalry with Death Larsen (Wolf’s brother) and ends up losing his whole crew in the process. Jack London further challenges Wolf’s ideas about survival of the fittest at the novel’s end, when Van Weyden—who, on the surface, is much less “fit” than Wolf Larsen—outsmarts the powerful Wolf Larsen. Ultimately, The Sea-Wolf challenges the tenets of Social Darwinism, using the demise of “fit” men like Wolf Larsen to argue that survival of the fittest is about more than physical strength, and that an unhealthy pursuit of strength and power often leads to grave consequences.
Survival of the Fittest ThemeTracker
Survival of the Fittest 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.
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.
“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?”
“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.’”
“No,” Wolf Larsen answered, with an indescribable air of sadness. “And he is all the happier for leaving life alone. He is too busy living it to think about it. My mistake was in ever opening the books.
“You are afraid of him now. You are afraid of me. You cannot deny it. If I should catch you by the throat, thus,”—his hand was about my throat and my breath was shut off,—“and began to press the life out of you thus, and thus, your instinct of immortality will go glimmering, and your instinct of life, which is longing for life, will flutter up, and you will struggle to save yourself. Eh? I see the fear of death in your eyes.”
The last twenty-four hours have witnessed a carnival of brutality. From cabin to forecastle it seems to have broken out like a contagion.
Then Wolf Larsen’s other hand reached up and clutched the edge of the scuttle. The mass swung clear of the ladder, the men still clinging to their escaping foe. They began to drop off, to be brushed off against the sharp edge of the scuttle, to be knocked off by the legs which were now kicking powerfully.
“I don’t think it was worth it,” I said to Wolf Larsen, “a broken boat for Kelly’s life.”
“But Kelly didn’t amount to much,” was the reply. “Good-night.”
“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.”
He stopped abruptly, and then on his lips formed one of his strange quizzical smiles, as he added:
“It’s from my brain I envy you, take notice, and not from my heart. My reason dictates it. The envy is an intellectual product. I am like a sober man looking upon drunken men, and, greatly weary, wishing he, too, were drunk.”
“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.
“Hump,” he said slowly, “you can’t do it. You are not exactly afraid. You are impotent. Your conventional morality is stronger than you.”
Giving over his attempt to determine the shadow, he stepped on deck and started forward, walking with a swiftness and confidence which surprised me. And still there was that hint of the feebleness of the blind in his walk. I knew it now for what it was.
“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: