The Sea-Wolf Summary & Study Guide

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The Sea-Wolf Summary & Study Guide Description

The Sea-Wolf Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

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In the late nineteenth century, Humphrey "Hump" Van Weyden is aboard a ferry that is involved in a collision. Hump is cast into the ocean and swept to sea but rescued by a passing seal ship. Hump's request to be returned to land is ignored by the cruel Captain Wolf Larsen, who counts Hump as one of the crew. The seal ship proceeds across the Pacific Ocean while the self-educated Larsen tyrannizes the crew and engages in lengthy philosophical discussions with the bookish Hump. The crew reaches the seal grounds and begins a grim harvest. Then another lifeboat is found, and the crew rescues four men and Maud Brewster, whose ship had lately foundered in a gale. Larsen views the lovely Brewster somewhat as a trophy and rejects her request to be put ashore. Instead, the seal hunt continues even as Hump falls in love with Brewster. Larsen finally makes an amorous advance on Brewster, who resists. Hump then deserts the ship with Brewster, and they take to the high seas in an open boat. After days of hardship, they are driven ashore on a deserted and rocky island. They survive for several weeks on seal meat until Larsen's dismasted ship washes up on the shore. The ship is abandoned except for Larsen, who is blind and in failing health due to a brain tumor. Hump and Brewster repair the ship, and as Larsen dies, Hump and Brewster sail from the island until a passing steamship rescues them.

The Romantic Entwicklungsroman focuses on three principle characters, Hump, Larsen and Brewster, nearly to the exclusion of all other characterization. It can properly be classified as an Apprenticeship Novel because only Hump's character undergoes substantive development. Larsen enters and leaves the novel essentially unchanged, and although Brewster's character is developed, the change is relatively minor and parallels nearly exactly the early changes experienced by Hump's character. Hump, at thirty-five, is markedly older than most Apprenticeship Novels' protagonists, but his life has been spent in bookish pursuits. He enters the "real" world of Wolf Larsen as a relative adolescent in attitude and experience.

The central conflict of the novel revolves around the friction between the materialistic philosophy of the tyrannical and cruel Wolf Larsen and the ideological but largely impractical philosophy of the intellectual Hump. Larsen, entirely self-educated, is a brilliant man with a magnificent physique. He establishes an entirely materialistic philosophy wherein he routinely compares humans and life to yeasty particles eating one another in the ferment. For Larsen, life's only value lies in the enjoyment of besting others and holding as much as one can take. He entirely disregards the notions of right and wrong in favor of simple strength - if one can take it, one should own it. Hump initially contests that justice and love are pure ideals that transcend ordinary life and invest it with meaning and fulfillment. Throughout the novel, however, the difficult reality of life aboard a seal ship markedly tempers Hump's philosophy, and the end of the novel sees Hump claiming Larsen's ship as his own because Larsen is physically unable to prevent it. Although Hump will retain a measure of ideology, his worldview essentially becomes Larsen's.

Another dominant theme in the novel involves the inspiration derived from love. The fairly cowardly Hump becomes courageous and determined only through his love for Brewster. Many times, he arises from the verge of collapse or the brink of defeat because he refuses to fail before his beloved. The novel undergoes a remarkable transformation after the introduction of Brewster. Instead of contending with Larsen on a philosophical level, Hump contends with him on a practical level. As Hump and Brewster make good their escape, the novel changes pace from a high seas adventure to a castaway romance. The prose becomes somewhat stifled and tedious as Hump ponders his platonic but intense love for the idealized Brewster. The novel concludes with the horrible death of Wolf Larsen and the triumph of Hump as he finally gains salvation with Brewster at his side.

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