The Sea-Wolf summary and themes

 The Sea-Wolf summary and theme

The Sea-Wolf begins with Humphrey Van Weyden flung into the ocean just outside San Francisco after the passenger ship he was travelling on sinks. He is rescued from drowning by a passing schooner and brought aboard. Once recovered, Humphrey learns from the crew that he is aboard the Ghost under the command of Wolf Larsen. Rather than satisfy Humphrey’s request and bring him safely to port in San Francisco, Larsen decides to keep Humphrey as the new cabin boy. Unable to escape from the ship as it sails farther from land, and justifiably afraid of Larsen, Humphrey accepts his fate. He becomes part of the Ghost’s crew.

Humphrey settles into his new role as cabin boy with bitterness. His social class and educational status starkly differ from the working-class men around him; furthermore, he knows nothing about seafaring life. Larsen accuses Humphrey of never having had to work for his money or food, and though the tension between these two characters never abates, they engage in near-continuous dialogue on topics of philosophy, morality, and literature. Larsen shows himself to be intellectual, materialistic, cold-blooded, and incredibly physically strong. His brutality terrifies the crew and prompts two sailors, Johnson and Leach, to attempt to kill him. When their attempt fails but the mate dies, Humphrey is promoted to mate on an increasingly hostile ship.

The Ghost reaches the sealing grounds outside Japan and begins hunting the seals for their skins. Each day, the hunters and sailors go out on small boats, leaving Larsen, Humphrey, and the cook, Thomas Mugridge, to sail the Ghost. By this point, Humphrey has learned much in the way of sailing and feels himself to be improving, even if his antagonism towards Larsen is deeper than ever. Johnson and Leach attempt to escape the ship. While the crew searches for them, the Ghost comes upon another boat of refugees from a recent shipwreck. The refugees are taken aboard the Ghost and assimilated into the crew—all but Maud Brewster, a prominent writer and literary critic, who was travelling to Japan for her health.

The crew track down Johnson and Leach in a boat. Instead of killing them outright, Larsen leaves them in their escape boat and toys with them, ignoring their pleas for help as the weather on the sea worsens. The two are lost at sea. Maud joins the philosophical discussions that Humphrey and Larsen have. Humphrey quickly realizes that he has fallen in love with Maud and begins to plot their escape. The crew engages in a small territorial battle with hunters belonging to the Macedonia, a steamer captained by Larsen’s brother, Death Larsen, and succeeds in taking Death Larsen’s crew aboard the Ghost. To help the new men assimilate into the crew, Larsen allows the men to drink copiously, himself suffering a debilitating headache that evening. With everyone else distracted, Humphrey and Maud take one of the hunting boats and escape.

They try to sail straight for Yokohama, the nearest Japanese port, but after long trials of wind and storm, they are blown well off course. Eventually, they find a deserted island with an unknown seal rookery on its shores. They name it Endeavor Island. They immediately begin constructing huts and foraging for winter, including killing seals for meat. One morning, Humphrey discovers that the Ghost is washed up on their beach. Only Wolf Larsen is aboard—a Wolf Larsen blinded and weakened by his severe and unpredictable headaches. Humphrey sets to repairing the Ghost despite Larsen’s repeated attempts to thwart his progress. As the repairs near completion, Larsen suffers several strokes, his body falling slowly to paralysis. Eventually, Larsen dies, just as Maud and Humphrey strike out on the newly repaired Ghost. They give Larsen a burial at sea as they spot another ship on the horizon, signaling their rescue.

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Humphrey is the first-person protagonist in Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf. Prior to the start of the novel, 35-year-old Humphrey was known as the Dean of American Letters, the Second, a prominent literary critic and intellectual. He lived with his mother and sister but was largely solitary in his habits, preferring to view the world through the discursive lens of literature. At the start of the narrative, Humphrey is book-learned, a gentleman, and ignorant of the realities of life outside his middle class society.

The development of Humphrey’s independence and sense of self are the driving factors behind plot development. Larsen keeps Humphrey aboard the Ghost instead of bringing him to San Francisco precisely because of Humphrey’s bookish character; Larsen desires to show Humphrey what it means to work, earn his own money, and stand on his own feet without parental support. Though Humphrey is briefly in danger of falling completely to Larsen’s brutal influence, Maud’s introduction allows Humphrey to reconcile the new halves of his identity: that of an educated gentleman and that of a hard-working mate of the Ghost. Humphrey discovers his independence and escapes the Ghost with Maud, demonstrating his newly established self-reliance and self-confidence.

Humphrey’s character entails a merging of identities to create a more productive and well-balanced man, a process best seen in his successful repair of the Ghost. Not only was he able to employ remembered book learning as well as the physical labor he learned from the crew of the Ghost, but his vocabulary expanded greatly to include numerous seafaring and sailing terms. At the conclusion of his narrative, Humphrey’s character incorporates both gentlemanly and working-class attributes, a strong sense of capability and independence, and the confidence to confess his love for Maud.


As captain of the sealing ship the Ghost and the narrative’s main antagonist, Larsen’s reputation at the start of the narrative is largely violent, belligerent, and devoid of compassion. Murders and betrayals are the norm for him, and many of the crew aboard the Ghost act as guinea pigs for his philosophical ideas on brutality, willpower, and command. He is a self-taught intellectual in possession of a keen mind but unrefined sentiments—a heartless genius, from Humphrey’s point of view. Little is given of Larsen’s background beyond a brief description of a hard Scandinavian childhood and the beginning of his seafaring career when he was only 10 years old.

Larsen’s personal philosophy regards spirituality with contempt, life with skepticism, and willpower as paramount to living a purposeful life. Though he is an avid intellectual and enjoys debating with Humphrey and Maud, he often expresses frustration that he ever started a course of learning in the first place. He is aware that the life available to him in his social and financial position does not coincide with the pursuit of knowledge. The life that he could’ve had—with better access to money and education—continually frustrates him. He wishes he lacked the reasoning power required to recognize this discrepancy.

Larsen’s character remains static throughout Humphrey’s narrative. Though Humphrey himself is obviously influenced by Larsen, the effect is unreciprocated. Up until his death, Larsen remains as stubborn and willfully brutal as he was at the beginning of the narrative.


A respected and well-educated literary critic, 27-year-old Maud Brewster enters The Sea-Wolf as the romantic interest for Humphrey (and, briefly, for Larsen). She is the only female in the novel. From a wealthy middle class-background, Maud epitomizes Humphrey’s ideal of genteel femininity: frail yet compassionate, submissive yet witty, artistic, moral. As her character is described through Humphrey’s eyes, she appears to perfectly accord with the expectations he has for a society woman. Humphrey says of Maud that “she had a way of looking one in the eyes and demanding the truth” (203), of holding Humphrey morally accountable for his actions. Maud’s purpose in the plot is to instigate Humphrey’s character development, remaining relatively static herself through the narrative.

The nature of Maud’s character is immediately hinted at in her first appearance, wherein Humphrey describes her: “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” (139). This description is enormously telling in its figurative language; to Humphrey, Maud is a figure of salvation. Likened to a “being from another world,” she is almost divine, and the idea of starvation for “bread” is a direct allusion to Christ. These connotations are part of the novel’s spiritual (and ultimately religious) tenor, and the symbolic comparison of the feminine with salvation—or the chief salvific quality of the Christian god, grace—is part of the Western literary tradition.

It is equivocal whether Humphrey’s privileged literary education informs his perception of Maud—but from his ruminations on fictional female characters in the literature he’s read, it is clear that Humphrey’s vision of women in general has a significant and romanticized literary basis. Nevertheless, even beyond Humphrey’s subjective descriptions, Maud is a source of transformation and, in some ways, salvation; through his relationship with Maud, Humphrey redeems the aspects of himself he feared were lost to the Ghost’s cruel culture, and he discovers an unprecedented self-sacrificial love within himself (and is thus figuratively reborn) as he decides to protect her. On a more literal level, Maud helps Humphrey return to land, which is a basic physical salvation.


An idealistic sailor, Johnson is a “heavy Scandinavian type” (10) who greatly admires the ocean and the mechanics of sailing. He often looks out at the sea, idolizing the beauty of his natural surroundings and the ship’s place in it. This idealism is reflected in his relationship with the rest of the Ghost’s crew. He is made something of a rebellious hero in Humphrey’s discourse, emulating the decorum of a gentleman while still being working class. Though he and his partner, Leach, stage several coup and escape attempts, their will is no match for Larsen’s own.

Similar to Johnson, George Leach is a working-class sailor with idealistic dreams of overthrowing Larsen as captain of the Ghost. He actively and aggressively pursues mutiny out of disgust for Larsen’s brutality. Leach succeeds in convincing the other sailors to look to him for leadership, despite this being his first time contracted to a hunting ship. He has a rough sort of gallantry, being more outspoken and prone to violence than Johnson, but he is nevertheless unable to fully distance himself from Larsen’s command. He dies with Johnson, abandoned on the sea during an escape attempt.

Mugridge runs the kitchens aboard the Ghost. From an extremely poor and uneducated background, Mugridge’s history is a long list of mishaps, beatings, and disappointments that he frequently complains about. He is a second antagonist to Humphrey and hates him from the beginning because of Humphrey’s social class. He sees Humphrey as born with luck, in contrast to himself, whom he believes to have been created by God offhandedly; he feels completely luckless and unprotected from the evils of the world. Humphrey describes his personality as oily: “this oiliness, or greasiness, as I was later to learn, was probably the most salient expression of his personality” (11). He is fearful, vindictive, and self-defeating.



One of the first things Humphrey reveals about himself is his relief at a certain division of labor between men. Instead of having to learn a myriad of skills, Humphrey can board a ship and have someone else take him to a far place: “I remember thinking how comfortable it was, this division of labor” (1-2). Humphrey enjoys the freedom innate to his inherited social class. He has benefactors who supplied his passive income, allowing him to write about art and literature at his leisure.

Larsen’s introductory question for both Humphrey and Maud asks after how they feed themselves, how they make money, and what job they work. In fact, Larsen’s main motivation for keeping Humphrey aboard the Ghost—and thereby instigating the novel’s entire plot—is to teach him a lesson on the realities of Humphrey’s idealized division of labor. Rather than being a peaceful, respectable demonstration of how separate spheres of knowledge can work in a society, class-based division of labor produces unequal distributions of resources, wealth, food availability, and career advancement.

Life on the Ghost, first as a cabin boy and later as mate to Larsen, introduces Humphrey into a working-class environment heretofore alien to him. The necessity of each man working hard to keep the Ghost from disaster is impressed upon him from the first day; furthermore, Humphrey is struck by how uncannily feuds, resentments, rivalries, and plots dissipate when the ship struggles against natural elements; the travail requires each and every crew member to do their part, producing a unity. During a storm while the boats are out seal hunting, Larsen tells Humphrey: “Expect all hell to break loose [...] but don’t mind it. Yours is to do your own work and to have Cooky stand by the foresheet” (127). On the Ghost, Humphrey participates in physical work unlike any he would have ever encountered on land.

Larsen continues to encourage Humphrey to more critically consider how his seemingly benign social class affects those less privileged: “You never made anything in your own sweat [...] You are one with a crowd of men who have made what they call a government, who are masters of all the other men, and who eat the food the other men get and would like to eat themselves” (41). The concept of class-based labor division perpetuates an unequal society that, at its root, wants men like Larsen, Leach, and Johnson to be stuck in a never-ending cycle of work so that Humphrey’s class may live more leisurely.

By the end of the narrative, Humphrey has assimilated into the society of seafaring men completely in that he is able to repair the Ghost single-handedly. What is significant is that the practical knowledge Humphrey learned aboard the Ghost is paired with book knowledge that both he and Maud remember. Rather than promoting a division of labor that excludes specificity, Humphrey’s repair of the Ghost marks the necessity for a balance between book-learning and practical knowledge.


Humphrey exudes a classism, representing the middle class sentiments in which he has lived his entire life previous to the Ghost. This kind of life—and this unexamined, privileged prejudice—separates him from the crew. Immediately after being rescued from nearly drowning in San Francisco Bay, and before he even knows what ship he is on, Humphrey’s interactions with Mugridge in the kitchen are rife with classism. Humphrey’s language in narrating his interaction with Mugridge is condescending, demeaning, and prideful; he assumes that Mugridge must come from a line of servile workers. Not only does he paint this in a negative light as if to render Mugridge’s working class background villainous, but he condemns Mugridge for wanting to make money where he can. Humphrey makes these judgments without considering Mugridge’s likely poverty.

The novel’s exploration of classism continues between Humphrey and Mugridge, as Mugridge animatedly expresses his disgust for gentlemen, the upper classes, and social classes in general. Humphrey, acknowledging the extraordinarily poor luck Mugridge has faced in his life, is finally at a place where he can express sympathy for the man: “What chance had he to be anything else than what he was?” (97). Mugridge repeatedly argues that Humphrey was born lucky and that he himself, born into squalor and poverty, has carried the burden of misfortune his entire life.

As the Ghost is its own self-contained world, there is undoubtedly classism between the ranks of men, indicating the inevitability of separation based on perceived social value; it is a microcosm of society on land. Larsen, Humphrey as mate, and occasionally the hunters are the upper class, enjoy prepared meals in a comfortable cabin. In contrast, the sailors are decisively inferior and live in scraped quarters in steerage, made to bend themselves to the harder tasks of sailing. When Maud comes on board, she is instantly incorporated into the upper class based on her gender and her appearance of wealth.

Maud herself comes to represent the middle- and upper-class idealization of a woman. Humphrey often notes Maud’s incredible fragility and physical weakness but celebrates her wittiness and intelligence. The contrast between Maud’s femininity and the femininity perceived in lower social classes is exemplified in Humphrey’s thoughts on building the hut on Endeavor Island: “There was something heroic about this gently bred woman enduring our terrible hardship and with her pittance of strength bending to the tasks of a peasant woman” (222). Her involvement in physical labor is presented as “heroic,” whereas there were countless women worldwide in lower classes undertaking more strenuous tasks daily.


Larsen shares several heated philosophical discussions with both Humphrey and Maud, but in the end, they tend to center around the question of whether the soul is immortal and, if so, what this immortality implies about the purpose of life. Larsen is a stubborn intellectual, unable to entertain the ideas that Maud and Humphrey present to him, instead doggedly upholding his cynical and materialist worldview.

For Larsen, the idea of the soul’s immortality is absurd. It requires full belief in salvation, religion, and the continuation of the soul after death. However, if Larsen were to embrace all these requirements, then having an immortal soul would call into question his experience of life. The indifference of nature, the unpredictability of chance, the brutality of living beings—all of these things undermine the idea that there is any governing order to the world. Furthermore, Larsen spends time expanding on his theory of fear as a justification for the soul’s mortality: If the body feels fear or if a person is threatened with death and fights to stay alive, then the soul must not be immortal. Otherwise, maintains Larsen, the individual would not be afraid of death. An immortal soul diminishes death and, by extension, fear of death.

Humphrey and Maud both reveal their Christian leanings by arguing for the immortality of the soul regardless of the fear that Larsen inflicts on them. As Humphrey falls in love with Maud, he finds that love motivates him to stay alive more than fear ever did, because this aliveness entails a desire to assume responsibility for Maud’s safety and happiness. These two competing perspectives on the soul are never fully reconciled in London’s writing: To the very moment of his death, Larsen actively refuses to believe in the continuation of his soul beyond bodily death. Meanwhile, Maud and Humphrey follow their own beliefs, giving Larsen a burial at sea and considering his soul as having passed on intact.


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