The hungry maw of master, slave, and beast: Eating, ecology, and political economy in the life and works of Jack London
Layman, Erika S.
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This study examines the motifs of hunger, consumption, and predation that pervade Jack London’s written works. These motifs illuminate the author’s political economic and ecological worldview by exposing his conception of power, his social values, and his views with regard to nature. Because London understands consumption as a site of violent exchange between hierarchical levels in the class-based hierarchy of capitalism and the trophic hierarchy of nature, this motif is an important point of fusion between London’s naturalism and his socialism. To show the personal significance of these themes to Jack London, my first chapter investigates his development into an author, arguing that the experience of hunger fundamentally influenced the trajectory of his life. This chapter reveals London’s conviction that wage slavery to the predatory economic masters of society was gradually eating him alive. The following three segments of my treatise engage in a close reading of the novels Martin Eden, The Sea-Wolf, White Fang, and The Call of the Wild, progressing from my analysis of London’s social works to an exploration of his nature novels. My study of these core texts examines London’s writings in the light of critical theory and continental philosophy, highlighting comparisons between London’s fiction and political economic concepts from the works of Nietzsche, Hegel, Marx, and Bataille. In relation to the novel Martin Eden, I expose the ways in which the consciousness of the titular protagonist undergoes various transvaluations —to borrow Nietzsche’s term—relative to the near-starvation he experiences during his attempts to write for a living. Drawing on the theories of Marx, I reveal how Eden’s subsequent fame as an author leads him to become conscious of the ways in which he is both consumed and overfed by the same society that had been willing to let him starve. This awareness drives Eden to reject what he calls “the bourgeois standard of valuation,” leading to a dissolution of his prior values that results in his suicide. Next, I will examine the theme of mastery in relation to the motif of predatory consumption in the novel The Sea-Wolf, analyzing this work via a comparison with the master-slave dialectic presented in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. I argue that London inscribes the theme of mastery throughout this novel by portraying power as an ability to prey upon the weak. The last chapter of my study engages in an ecocritical analysis of London’s depiction of nature in the novels White Fang and The Call of the Wild. I highlight the extreme experience of ecstasy and agony that London ascribes to his canine protagonists as they express their predatory natures in the wild. The extremity of this depiction leads me to parallel my analysis of London’s nature fiction with an examination of the ancient Greek mythological figure, Dionysus, arguing that London’s portrayal of animals in the wild mirrors the same natural reality represented by the Dionysian. Ultimately, I argue that the themes of eating, predation, and consumption that dominate London’s writings evince a political economic viewpoint that harmonizes with the theories of Georges Bataille. By privileging consumption over production, London inverts and significantly amends the Marxian critique of capitalism that views liberation from enslavement and alienation as arising from the human’s capacity to labor and produce. London’s passionate desire for freedom from predatory capitalist masters and from the servility of labor—a freedom much like Bataille’s conception of sovereignty —drove him to make consumption the object of his personal and societal strivings.