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Written by Timothy Sexton
Evolution v. De-Evolution
Lying at the heart of the London’s story is an allegorical analysis of the nature of man. Is man merely a primitive animal working on sheer instinct: an animal no different from a wolf? Or is man capable of evolving beyond primitive instincts that keep animals unchanged and free from moral and ethical dimensionality? Hump represents the aspiration of societal evolution, while Larsen represents the fear that the primitive quality hardwired within our DNA might be an obstacle incapable of being overcome.
The Maturation of Humphrey van Weyden
The Sea-Wolf can be read as an atypical spin on the classic themes of maturation associated with the genre of the bildungsroman. Most examples of this type of novel feature very young protagonists who experience a life-changing event or events that charts their progression from innocence to experience. Unlike, say, Scout Finch or Holden Caulfield, however, Hump is no fresh-faced kid or teen. He is, however, a ruthlessly inexperienced young adult who has been shielded and guarded from the darker world represented by the ruthlessly experienced Capt. Larsen. Humphrey van Weyden comes to know love for the first time in his life as well as getting an up-close look at the depths of profane evil for the first time in his life.
The thematic philosophical force that drives Captain Wolf Larsen is materialism. This should not be confused with economic materialism; Wolf Larsen is a devout believer in the concept that those things which can be touched do not exist in any material way that should matter in the course of life that one chooses to follow. For Larsen, the physical manifestation of the world is the only aspect that matters. Or, in other words, non-material distractions like belief in a soul, ethics, morality and love are all just phantasm and illusions to be avoided at all cost.
Wolf Larsen is a prototype for the 20th century manifestation of the literary anti-hero. His vulgarity, almost satanic cruelty and dismissal of non-material philosophical components of life serve to paint him as the story’s antagonist, especially as it situates him as the polar opposite of Hump. Both Hump and Maud, however, arrive at a point in which express a grudging respect and even admiration for Larsen’s charismatic intelligence that drives his materialism from an intellectual perspective rather than from a point of mere ignorance. From an evolutionary point of view, Larsen also gains their respect as an example of physical strength verging almost on a level of human perfectionism that, ultimately, gets betrayed by his own anatomical flaws.
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