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The captain of the seal-hunting schooner named Ghost is Wolf Larsen. There is an abridged backstory of meagerness in childhood, then the “rough fare and rougher usage” from old-country boat captains, then “infinite ambition and infinite loneliness”(p.619-20) to become lord of his own ship. He has a brother—also a seal-hunter captaining a steamer named the Macedonia—called Death Larsen, who, judging from the text, is aptly titled. Fortunately, the reader never meets him, although his actions are pivotal to the novel.
But we get to know Wolf, real, real well.
The first-person protagonist is Humphrey van Weyden, a literary critic and a scholarly “gentlemen”—as he refers to himself—who is picked up by the Ghost after drifting out to sea from a shipwreck in San Francisco Bay. Physically delicate and a trust-fund baby—a “scarecrow” who “stands on dead man's legs”(p.581-2)—he is immediately abused and humiliated by the captain and a crew of seasoned ruffians. It is
Like the Pequod, the Ghost becomes a universe condensed. It is Nature stripped to its most corporeal tether; it is de Sade's lynching knot for Survival of the Fittest; it is the indifferent playground from which Wolf enjoys ultimate selfishness and brutal sensation. Yet, he has a compelling intellect, which he weaponizes into abstrusive word bouts with his “toy”. Humphrey becomes “Hump”, and moves from castaway to cabin boy to first mate, as “king and jester”(p.616) chess-move topics like immortality, hedonism, and the defense of savagery, all while pursuing the “wanton slaughter”(p.642) by a “semi-human, amphibious breed”(p.591) of seal hunters. These on-board debates prime the thematic conflicts that discharge through the action of the novel.
The most celebrated conflict is between the philosophies of Materialism and Idealism, and its presence bookend the novel. Van Weyden's initial observation of Wolf Larsen is with a dying man on the deck of the Ghost when he first comes aboard. He's impressed with Wolf's massive physical strength, emphasized by his “gorilla-like” build. Being an idealist, Humphrey promptly intuits a mental or spiritual “strength, savage, ferocious, alive in itself, the essence of life . . . the elemental stuff”(p.579), and when the man dies, that “virility of spirit”(p.581) expresses itself in raging anger by Wolf now that he is short-handed. The forthcoming burial at sea is remarkable by containing nary a mention of spirit, or soul, or God. For Wolf, “and the body shall be cast into the sea”(p.587) will suffice, as now this sailor is useless meat. Life is nothing more than grubbing for experiences, sensation, material goods and profit. Life after death is merely a self-preserving instinct. “Of what use or sense is an immortality of piggishness?”(p.595), Wolf sneers. But by the end of the novel, Wolf Larsen has lost all physical usage of movement and power, even unable to feel mere sensation. Even the “biggest big of the ferment”(p.736) becomes inanimate, yet “within that tomb of the flesh still dwelt the soul of the man”(p.742), our narrator homilizes, “he is a free spirit surely”(p.745). He is sent into the sea with the same, short eulogy Wolf gave to his first mate at the beginning of this voyage, with Maud adding, “good-by, Lucifer, proud spirit!”(p.746).
Along with this metaphysical stand-off, it is expected that moral justifications for behavior are on a collision course as well. This is seen in Wolf's handling of crewman Leach's mutiny. Wolf believes
When Wolf is jumped in the forecastle yet carries the day against seven men, he boasts “it gives a thrill to life, when life is carried in one's hand.” On Leach's vehemence to kill him, he furthers an amoral position:
Hump van Weyden—always the judgementalist—ruminates that “it would be a most moral act to rid the world of such a monster. Humanity would be better and happier for it, life fairer and sweeter”(p.640). Yet, in the end, even knowing he has murdered Leach and his mate in extreme cruelty by abandoning them at sea, van Weyden cannot take the opportunity to kill Wolf Larsen who, although quite diminished, is still a formidable threat. “The code of my group was stronger than I”(p.720), he concludes, as his conscience wins out over egotism.
Although Humphrey comments earlier that “coarseness and savagery are the inevitable results”(p.631) in men without a womanly influence, the antithesis doesn't show until the entrance of Maud Brewster. Like Hump, she has been shipwrecked and brought aboard in the midst of the seal hunt. They immediately form an ideological alliance, as she is a poetess—“a delicate, ethereal creature, swaying and willowy”(p.670)—and of like, ethical beliefs. They manage an ocean-bound escape to a desolate seal rookery, although Wolf—cast to sea on a de-masted Ghost without crew by his brother, Death Larsen—makes a final appearance to test their physical, mental, and spiritual strength.
Marooned on the self-named Endeavor Island is the culmination of a new order for Humphrey and Maud. In a sea of callous disregard for anything that is not for self profit, it is a consensual notion that the Earth is something to live within, not preside over. Survive they must, of course, but the irony is not lost that coming from a world where the indigenous seals are butchered to “adorn the fair shoulders of the women of the cities”(p.642), a woman walks among them in the natural role as predator to prey.
Wolf's world is one of toil for monetary rewards, where nature is to be fought against and the spoils taken. This conflict of masculine and feminine principles can only be satisfied by embracing both through the harmonization of love. Thus, as Humphrey gains in physical strength by facing the horrible adversities presented to him, he also achieves the mental will, self determination and courage to survive the ordeal. But not alone. Maud has nurtured and directed his energy with her cooperation and proved their “mastery over matter and attained to the truest comradeship which may fall to man and woman”(p.744).
Yeah, in the end, it's another love story, and the persona of Maud Brewster is compromised in modern eyes with an overflow of Victorian sentimentality, pushing her perilously close to the cliffs of caricature. But, with the domination of Wolf Larsen's peremptory actions, very few novels compel such an overwhelming need for the attributes embodied in Love as does The Sea Wolf.