Death in Jack London's 'The Law of Life'

Term Paper, 1995

9 Pages, Grade: good


1. The Author :

Jack London (really John Griffith) was born 1876 in San Fransisco and is believed to have been the illegitimate son of William Henry Chaney, an astrologer. Flora Wellman, his mother, married John London soon after Jack's birth. He grew up on the waterfront of Oakland and his schooling was intermittent. Much of his youth was spent on the wrong side of the law. Among other things he was an oyster pirate, and he also spent a month in prison for vagrancy. At the age of 17 he signed on a sailing ship which took him to the Arctic and Japan. Despite his lack of formal education he also became a voracios reader, especially of fiction, as he reported in his autobiographical novel, Martin Eden (1909).

In 1896 he joined the gold rush to the Klondike, where he found no gold but gathered ample material for the brutal, vigorous life he portrayed in The Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1906), novels of man and beast struggeling against the overwhelming forces of nature.

From Social Darwinism London had absorbed the idea that to survive, man must adapt to irresistible natural forces. Although his writing is often described as an example of literary naturalism, London was most deeply influenced by the seemingly irreconcilable opposites of Nietzsche and Marx. From Nietzsche he borrowed the idea of the super human, evident in its most destructive form in Wolf Larsen, the predatory hero of London's The Sea Wolf (1904). From Marx he took the idea of the need for social reform and of the power of economic determinism, concepts he embodied in his socialistic treatises, The war of the Classes (1905) and The Human Drift (1907), and in his terrifying vision of the coming of totalitarianism, The Iron Heel (1907).

From 1900 to 1916 London wrote more than fifty books, earning a million dollars, which he spent quickly and easily as he earned it, in a frantic search for contentment. But London found gratification neither in his writing nor in his personal life, and his last years were marked by struggles with alcoholism and mental disintegration. He died, probably by his own hand, when he was forty.1

2 The Short Story The Law of Life :

Jack London's The Law of Life is a story that deals with the approach of death to Old Koskoosh, an Indian who has been once an able warrior, and who is now abandoned in the snow by his tribe to meet his final fate. While he is sitting there he dreams stoically of the old days and especially about his experience with a grand old moose, which he saw struggle with wolves until it finally died. During these meditations the old Indian gets surrounded by wolves himself, to which he has to surrender in the end, in order to obey the law of life.

The first striking aspect when reading this very short short story is, that all the events are conveyed through the protagonists's point of view, particularly through the sense of listening. Especially through questiones like "What was that ? Oh, the men lashing the sleds and drawing tight the thongs" (p.877), indicating the free indirect discourse, with which the whole narrative is written, the reader slips inside the character and experiences immediately while reading, what is happening to the Indian.

London thematizes the last hours of an old man, who cannot keep up with the pace of life anymore and who is abandoned by those who are still young and strong to take part in existence. This seems very brutal and heartless, those people being members of his own family and tribe and they are indeed described as careless. His grandchild is "too busy to waste a thought upon her broken grandfather" (p.877), and "If Sitcum - to - ha had only remembered her grandfather, and gathered a larger armful [of wood], his hours would have been longer." (p.880).

From these sentences the reader could understand that the old man is about to die because his family wants it like that, but this is not the case. They are only doing what they consider to be natural : If the task of life is done the individual has to face the inevitable. The problem is, that nature, which has set this one task, does not care if one performs it or not. It has no concern for the individual but for the species and the race.

"To perpetuate was the task of life, its law was death. . . There were plenty who were obedient, and it was only the obedience in this matter, not the obedient, which lived and lived always." (p.878). This means that death is inevitable for the individual but living should be inevitable for the species, and the race. This has to be continued and is still being continued.

It is evident that London is very strongly influenced by the theories of Darwin, who said that the origin of a specieslies in the survival of the fittest, because only those can live and perpetuate who are best adapted to the conditions of their environment. These individuals are naturally selected.

London however continues this theory to that extend that no matter how well one is euipped for life, nature takes everything gradually away, until the end approaches. This is because one is only alive for one reason : to perform the single task, all other things are unimportant, and one has to face this fact. It does not matter if one is "a maiden full breasted and strong" or "headmen of the tribesmen and a mighty hunter" (p. 878. 877), one has to obey nature with its law of life.

This is something which also Old Koskoosh knows, but although being "very close to deathnow; the thought makes the old man panicky for the moment." (p.877). Inside he is not ready to cope with his ending, for he clings to every little item which still connects him with life. Already in the beginning of the story we see him listening "greedily" (p.876). He says he is "as a last year's leaf clinging lightly to the stem" (p.877), but this is not true altogether, because he clings to it with all the rest of strength which nature has left him : He controls the fire taking care that it will not go out, for he knows that cold is the beginning of the ending.

Then his hand crept out in haste to the wood. It alone stood be- tween him and the eternity that yawned in upon him. At last the measure of his life was a handful of faggots. One by one they would go to feed the fire, and just so, step by step, death would creep upon him. When the last stick had surrendered up its heat, the frost would begin to gather strength. First his feet would yield then his hands; and the numbness would travel, slowly, from the extremities to the body. His head would fall forward upon his knees and he would rest. It was easy. All men must die. He did not com- plain. It was the way of life, and it was just. He had been born to the earth, close to the earth had he lived, and the law thereof was not new for him.2


1 All biographical data taken directly from Salzman, Jack (edit.). "The Cambridge Handbook of American Literature". Cambridge : University Press, 1986. And from McMichael, George (edit.) et al. "The Anthology of American Literature Volume II." New York, London : 1980.

2 ibid The Law of Life (p.877, 878).

Excerpt out of 9 pages


Death in Jack London's 'The Law of Life'
University of Frankfurt (Main)  (Institute for England und America Studies)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
368 KB
This essay deals with death symbolism in London´s short story, "The Law of Life."
Death, Jack, London, Life
Quote paper
Didem Oktay (Author), 1995, Death in Jack London's 'The Law of Life', Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Death in Jack London's 'The Law of Life'

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free