Many of Jack London’s books are loosely autobiographical, so his own story is a major theme in his work. In fact, he said as much in a letter to a friend:
No; I’m damned if my stories just come to me. I had to work like the devil for the themes. Then, of course, it was easy to just write them down. Expression, you see - with me - is far easier than invention.
If many of Jack London’s novels have one theme in common, it’s the Northland. Because he knew it well, it was one of his favorite settings. In discussing the themes of his work in the letter quoted above, London wrote, “I shall have to stick to the Northland for some time yet.”
Jack London was born in 1876 and began life as a sailor at the tender age of fourteen. He traveled to Siberia, Alaska, and Yukon Territory, among other places. He spent a winter surviving in a primitive cabin in the Klondike and nearly died of scurvy. These northern adventures figure heavily into the autobiographical themes in his books.
Although many of Jack London’s books and stories have elements of his life in the events and settings, there are a few that are notably autobiographical. These include the following:
- The Road (1907)
- “To Build a Fire” (1908)
- Martin Eden (1909)
- The Cruise of the Snark (1911)
- John Barleycorn (1913)
While part of what Jack London's novels are based upon is his life, there are also some themes that could arguably form the basis of many of London's works. These include evolution, socialism, animal activism, and a return to the land.
Jack London was committed to fighting animal cruelty and was an activist during his lifetime. You can see themes of animal activism and animal cruelty within many of his stories and novels:
- In White Fang, the title character must engage in forced dog fights, and the vivid storytelling reveals the cruelty of this practice.
- In The Call of the Wild, the main character, Buck, must endure near starvation and cramped quarters in a shipping crate. Another dog is heartlessly killed because he can no longer perform his duty.
- In Jerry of the Islands, a terrier is chosen as a sacrifice and endures other hardships.
A serious believer and scholar of Charles Darwin's theories of evolution, London considered survival of the fittest to be at the core of everything he wrote about - and, indeed, at the core of most situations in life. You can see this theme in much of his writing, including the following:
- In The Call of the Wild, London writes about Buck, who must embrace his wild nature to survive. Other characters who refuse to become wild are killed.
- In White Fang, the title character must endure many hardships that would have killed a weaker dog or wolf. His survival is the heart of the story.
- In The Sea-Wolf, London directly refers to the theories of Darwin and uses this as a basis for a character who survives against all odds.
Jack London was also a political philosopher and had a deep passion for social theories that shaped the way that people lived in conjunction with one another, removing them further and further from a natural state of being. London believed in the theories of Karl Marx, and this can be seen in some of his earlier writings in a subtle way. In some of his novels, Jack London explores the theme of socialism in detail:
- In Martin Eden, the main character is an individualist, but embracing this philosophy instead of socialism leads to his demise.
- The Iron Heel explores a fictional future in which socialism has a prominent place in American politics.
- In The Sea-Wolf, London specifically mentions Nietzsche, and the story may be a rebuttal to the idea of the “superman” proposed by Nietzsche and the ideals of individualism.
Perhaps, the most pervasive theme in Jack London’s novels was the ideas of returning to the land. London believed in a return to the land as the solution of many of society’s problems. The central conflict of man against the surrounding environment was, to him, the essence of existence, and he had strong beliefs against any societal organization that took humans further away from that by interfering with the natural pace of their lives.
This can be seen again and again in all of his novels, each of which, in its own way, tells the story of a person - or animal - returning to his roots within the natural earth in order to restore sense and rhythm to life.
If you want to explore the themes of Jack London’s books in greater detail, you can read all of them. Here’s a list of the novels published in his lifetime:
- The Cruise of the Dazzler (1902)
- A Daughter of the Snows (1902)
- The Call of the Wild (1903)
- The Kempton-Wace Letters (1903)
- The Sea-Wolf (1904)
- The Game (1905)
- White Fang (1906)
- Before Adam (1907)
- The Iron Heel (1908)
- Martin Eden (1909)
- Burning Daylight (1910)
- Adventure (1911)
- The Scarlet Plague (1912)
- A Son of the Sun (1912)
- The Abysmal Brute (1913)
- The Valley of the Moon (1913)
- The Mutiny of the Elsinore (1914)
- The Star Rover (1915)
- The Little Lady of the Big House (1916)
- Jerry of the Islands (1917)
- Michael, Brother of Jerry (1917)