Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Jack London's Optimistic View of the Law: A Reading of 'The Son of the Wolf.'

Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Jack London's Optimistic View of the Law: A Reading of 'The Son of the Wolf.'

Article excerpt

At issue to Jack London's first collection of short stories, The Son of the Wolf (1900), is the connection between the theory and practice of the law. In theory, the law achieves justice in its alignment of rules with principles. In practice, one may argue that American law sustains this alignment in the process of competition, a process that involves an implicit cooperation between individuals even as each individual is given the fair chance to achieve his goals. Although it is by no means consistent, London's point of view throughout The Son of the Wolf emerges as essentially optimistic.

In order to approach each of the stories of The Son of the Wolf, one may consider law as it structures the means by which individuals act and authority reacts. Broadly speaking, legal theorists focus on how rules are created, legitimized, and applied.(1) Within a given society, legal rules have universal, public, and tangible implications; to some extent, these qualities distinguish such rules from those of other social systems associated with religion, politics, and the like. Ultimately, rules (of whatever kind of system) are based on principles, which refer to substantive objectives. As London's stories demonstrate, individuals emphasize rules in their decisions and actions, while authority, as it is manifest in the role of judges, emphasizes principles in its reactions.

In their 1993 essay, "A Journey Through Forgetting: Toward a Jurisprudence of Violence," Austin Sarat and Thomas R. Kearns argue that legal theorists rarely consider the violence as it may be integral to the practice of law. In other words, no matter how well formulated may seem the law, its ultimate effectiveness depends on the threat that it imposes. Sarat and Kearns conclude:

There is a deep schism between a jurisprudence of rules and principles, whether traditional or critical, and the practice of legal violence, a schism rarely noted and nowhere bridged. The former is always concerned with law's rhetorical justifications and with the question of whether assent and obedience are warranted, the latter with pain, bloodletting, and the role the pervasiveness of violence plays in the constitution of the legal subject. (265)

In fact, Sarat and Kearns ask whether, in the face of such violence, individuals have any real choices.

One potential bridge spanning the "deep schism" between legal theory and practice is the process of competition. When individuals compete, they do so, of course, in a social context. This context involves rules of law that promote both individual goals and collective development. When the law is formulated to achieve these ends, individuals submit to it and thereby implicitly cooperate with each other. This condition presumes that no individual has a vested interest in the formulation of the law - for certain, a slippery presumption. When competition becomes wasteful, society stabilizes the results with status, but not so much that individual goals become disproportionately difficult. For his part, London well understood the process of competition. As he wrote to his friend (and newspaperman) Cloudesley Johns in a 1900 letter: "Man must have better men to measure himself against, else his advance will be nil, or if at all, one-sided and whimsical. The paced rider makes better speed than the unpaced" (167).

London's sense of the law began with his demand for "fair play" between individuals and authority. However, stories as early as those of Tales of the Fish Patrol (1905) reflect that he increasingly considered the threat of violence as necessary to the law's effectiveness. In "The King of the Greeks," Big Alec "open[ly] and flagrant[ly]" uses illegal "Chinese lines," which capture all sturgeon that touch them, until he is captured (2: 825). In "Yellow Hankerchief," London questions the predictability of his Chinese captives, for "fair play was no part of their make-up" (2: 890). In the stories that comprise a collection like When God Laughs (1906), he repeatedly illustrates the reductive conclusion to all systems of rules and principles: as the character Carquinez expresses the thesis of the title story, the gods "make new rules for every system that is devised. …

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