Essay analysis: What Life Means to Me, by Jack London
by Radhamani Sarma
What Life Means to ME.(1905)
Jack London, the versatile writer of many fiction, non-fiction, poems, short stories
and remarkable essays, was born on 12 th June,1876. By birth an American, nurtured
in California, he rose to the eminence of an intellectual writer from his humble beginning of working class. In this essay what Life Means To Me’, Jack London,
candidly traces his working class origin and experience, how he earned a precarious
living to support his family, his ventures in cannery and oyster piracy, his unflinching
loyalty to his socialistic tenets, his uncolored observations on intellectuals etc.,
One can see, his agony in his predicament, Jack’s forthright statements, and his soul
craving for spiritual life in Apposition with the growing corruption and materialism
Prevalent everywhere around him.
The very first paragraph brings out the sordid realities of life and his working class
in which he was born, but amidst growing ambition and an urge to thrive in life,
yet restrained by adverse circumstances. The narrative technique is in first person
full of poignant situations and expressed in individualism.”I was born in the working-class. Early I discovered enthusiasm, ambition, and ideals; and to satisfy these became the problem of my child-life. My environment was crude and rough and raw. I had no outlook, but an uplook rather. My place in society was at the bottom. Here life offered nothing but sordidness and wretchedness, both of the flesh and the spirit; for here flesh and spirit were alike starved and tormented.”
When Jack London says “for here flesh and spirit alike starved and tormented” he means that misery stemming out of poverty and hunger and dearth in spiritual
Upliftment both are haunting him. He wants to escape from the colossal, pitiable
Situation that his “place in society was at the bottom.”
In the next stanza he talks about the intellectual upliftment, the vital necessity for him
to climb,to come out of the rut, ethically, morally: Jack London is all appreciation of this everlasting beauty of this world, a spirit that sustains all of us, worshipping the
Sun, Moon and Nature, nurturing every one of us. He makes it quite distinct that
He had that enormous capacity for learning which gave him an exposure to the
external world. In an elite language he proceeds,
” Then there were the
things of the spirit. Up above me, I knew, were unselfishness of
the spirit, clean and noble thinking, keen intellectual living. I
knew all this because I read “Seaside Library” novels, in which, with
the exception of the villains and adventuresses, all men and women
thought beautiful thoughts, spoke a beautiful tongue, and performed
glorious deeds. In short, as I accepted the rising of the sun, I
accepted that up above me was all that was fine and noble and
gracious, all that gave decency and dignity to life, all that made
life worth living and that remunerated one for his travail and
Jack understood that with the ideals and principles of working class system
that is ingrained in him, it is difficult to climb up,and hence he must save money
and earn earnest, to build up his station in life; though he decided not to marry.
When he ought to be going to school, he was on the streets as a newsboy,
Earning his meager income, by precarious living. Life continues to be with the
Sordid and sad realities of impressions. He thinks of new business, business
ladder of augmenting his income.
In a style and language particularly his own, he follows thus:
“But the life that was in me demanded more than a meager existence of
scraping and scrimping. Also, at ten years of age, I became a
newsboy on the streets of a city, and found myself with a changed
uplook. All about me were still the same sordidness and
wretchedness, and up above me was still the same paradise waiting to
be gained; but the ladder whereby to climb was a different one”
There is a blatant candidness when he admits that in the oyster piracy, he
gave only a little to the one man crew though he worked harder.
“As captain and owner I took two-thirds of the spoils, and
gave the crew one-third, though the crew worked just as hard as I did
and risked just as much his life and liberty.”
Now, the narration takes the role of anecdotes, the pitfalls and bitter experiences
which he encountered during the process of climbing up the ladder of business.
He raided the affluent fishermen and secured the costly nets and ropes which was
by means of gun and which is tantamount to robbery at the cost of the lives of the
victims. His windfall is only short-lived, for due to the inefficiency of the one man
crew his mainsail was set on fire and he incurred heavy loss and his new boat was
also captured by those bay-pirates and his anchors were also destroyed. For a new
beginner, who is tying to build up his career this setback is unbearble. Simultaneously
he is fighting the urge to learn and wants to establish his identity.
He goes on to say how his hard labor was exploited and his muscle helped him to
Earn his living. He worked in canneries, cleaned the carpets, wiped the windows
Yet, he did not receive the reward or money due to him.
“I looked at the daughter of the cannery owner, in her carriage,
and knew that it was my muscle, in part, that helped drag along
that carriage on its rubber tyres. I looked at the son of the factory owner,
going to college, and knew that it was my muscle that helped, in part, to pay
for the wine and good fellowship he enjoyed.
Elsewhere he worked so hard he says, that his heartless employer made
an electrician of him. He merely slogged for thirsty dollars. He fled, he says.
In a most remarkable pathetic passage, full of poignancy and candidness,
he traces the following remarks.
” I became a tramp, begging my way
from door to door, wandering over the United States and sweating
bloody sweats in slums and prisons.
“I had been born in the working-class, and I was now, at the age of
eighteen, beneath the point at which I had started. I was down in
the cellar of society, down in the subterranean depths of misery
about which it is neither nice nor proper to speak. I was in the
pit, the abyss, the human cesspool, the shambles and the charnel-
house of our civilization. This is the part of the edifice of
society that society chooses to ignore. Lack of space compels me
here to ignore it, and I shall say only that the things I there saw
gave me a terrible scare.”
It is a pity that at a time when he is supposed to learn, he toiled to earn,
Caught in the debris of working class system, he is the victim of abysmal
He distinctly pictures the nadir of civilization in which men sold their
Decency and dignity for their living. Flesh played a vital part in human
lives. Right from shoemaker down to politician, and women sold their
“The honour of labor had no price in the marketplace. Labor
had muscle, and muscle alone, to sell.”This statement is for all times indeed and sententious too.
As a laborer he could not continue in unhygienic conditions and
Preferred to be brain seller. He came back to California and
Associated himself with the books he took to socialism and a
Revolutionary ideal. He was happy to associate himself with the
Professors, wits, and preachers. Here life gave a rosy picture
and here life was noble, dignified, clean and pure and a total
Metamorphosis could be seen.
” I was in touch with great souls who exalted flesh and spirit over dollars and cents, and to whom the thin wail of the starved slum child meant more than all the pomp and circumstance of commercial expansion and world empire. All about me were nobleness of purpose and heroism of effort, and my days and nights were sunshine and star shine, all fire and dew, with before my eyes, ever burning and blazing, the Holy Grail, Christ’s own Grail, the warm human, long-suffering and maltreated, but to be rescued and saved at the last.”
Here in this prose passage there is poetry, soul’s outpourings, a glowing rhythm,
a shift from a life of jejune to full of rhapsody.
As a brain seller one shocking revelation which he had was that though he had the
Privilege of mingling with the rich, affluent and masters the women of the cellors
And these ruling classes are all made of the same clay’.
Regarding their materialism he observes
“They assisted in all kinds
of sweet little charities, and informed one of the fact, while all
the time the food they ate and the beautiful clothes they wore were
bought out of dividends stained with the blood of child labour, and
sweated labour, and of prostitution itself.”
Everywhere around him there were uncouth, unclean lives, rotten ness, and men
With less intellect. Men who indulged in adulteration of food and men who secretly
robbed widows and orphans’. There were hypocrites who preached for hours
together on God and Godliness behaving in a ghastly business minded way. Everywhere around him is business, money, crime and betrayal.
“It was the same everywhere, crime and betrayal, betrayal and crime-
men who were alive, but who were neither clean nor noble, men who
were clean and noble, but who were not alive. Then there was a
great, hopeless mass, neither noble nor alive, but merely clean. “
In the final section of the essay there is a realization and wisdom dawned
Upon Jack and he says that he desires to go back to working class society.
He was feeling bored and a sickness already crept in, though he remembered
His days of sunshine and warmth and comfort in parlour and romance..
” I remembered my days and nights of sunshine
and starshine, where life was all a wild sweet wonder, a spiritual
paradise of unselfish adventure and ethical romance. And I saw
before me, ever blazing and burning, the Holy Grail.”
Hence he admits that he went back to working class where he would not
Meet squalor, dirt he is sure with the passage of time he would quell
Selfishness and materialism and sordidness.
The wrier is optimistic that one day the world would become a sanguine
Place of paradise where refinement woud rule.
“I believe that spiritual
sweetness and unselfishness will conquer the gross gluttony of to-
day. And last of all, my faith is in the working-class. As some
Frenchman has said, “The stairway of time is ever echoing with the
wooden shoe going up, the polished boot descending.”
To conclude, he began with a working class, and ended with the