Glossary of Critical Terms for Interpreting London
By Jennifer Straw and Dr. Clarice Stasz
The following terms appear frequently in literary criticism of London's
works and and historical analysis of his life:
Sonoma State University
A major cultural theme in U.S. history, expressing salvation through
a return to or recreation of the pure, pastoral Garden of Eden. In London's
day, expressed materially through the move from the city to suburbs or
farms. See his Burning Daylight for a typical example.
A view of maturity that requires humans to integrate the male (rational,
efficient, scientific) and female (affective, compassionate, artistic)
elements of their nature in order to achieve balance. Often associated
with Carl Jung, the idea is evident in London's writings well before Jung
published his theory.
against the economic system in which investment in and ownership
of the means of production, distribution, and exchange of wealth is made
and maintained primarily by private individuals or corporations. See The
Iron Heel for a classic example.
from Jungian psychology, symbols and themes of such universality
that they seem to be part of human psychic inheritance. These include the
Anima, Animus, the Mother, the Trickster, the Old Man and other characters
common to fairy tales and myths, as well as such themes as Initiation and
the reappearance in an individual of characteristics of some distant
ancestor that have not been present in intervening generations, such as
a hand appearing like a hairy paw.
Usually associated with Carl Jung's theory of personality, it represents
psychic material present in the personal unconscious transmitted through
heredity. London expressed similar ideas, with the inheritance being tied
to a race. See his Before Adam.
A view of society developed by Laurence Gronlund, and expanded by
Edward Bellamy in his influential book Looking Backward. The emphasis
is upon replacing self-interest with sympathy for others and the good of
the State. Each citizen becomes an equal shareholder in society and has
an equal income. London often lectured favorably on this topic.
the theory referring to biologist Charles
Darwin's beliefs that the origin of species is a result of variation
due to a genetic mutation from the parents, such that individuals who are best
adapted to survive are chosen through the process of natural selection. "Survival of the Fittest"
requires cooperation among a species in order to adapt to changing conditions, which is why socialists of London's day accepted
Darwinian science as proof of the correctness of their politics.
the principle that all information and events embody natural laws. Human will has little role against the forces of nature and environment. It is a key component of naturalist writing.
the belief that one shapes one's basic nature through the direction
of life one chooses to live. Compare this idea with determinism.
writing based upon vivid imagination, illusion, invention, visionary ideas.
to be sexually aroused by an individual of the same sex, though not
necessarily act upon this feeling. For example, see Humphrey Van Weyden's
admiration of Wolf Larsen's physique in The
the policy of imposing the rule or command of an empire or nation
over foreign countries, or of obtaining and occupying colonies and dependencies.
American imperialism came of age during London's lifetime, beginning with
Cuba and the Phillipines, and he supported this foreign policy.
a social theory that stands for the freedom, rights, or independent
action of any human being.
the multiple ways in which a text is entangled with or contains references
to other texts, such as London's references to the Bible, Milton, or Robert Burns,
all sources with which his contemporary readers would be familiar.
words are expressed in a way to convey the opposite meaning; to use incongruity between what a reader might expect and what actually occurs. It is a kind of verbal wink to the reader, and is a favorite technique of humor in London's social commentary.
the philosophy that there is one causal determinant in history; the
idea of a single component as the chief factor in determining individual
behavior, societal activity, or organizational relationships. London at one time called
himself a "materialist monist," although his beliefs do not reflect that belief in every case.
a philosophy that the only reality is the physical universe, so that thought, mind, and will can be explained by physical laws. Idealism is its contrasting belief, that there exist objects beyond what can be seen or measured, such as beauty or the soul.
a style of fiction first prominent in such French writers as Honore
Balzac and Emile Zola, whom London read extensively in translation. Posits
that an individual lives completely in the order of nature and does not
have a spirit nor way of partaking in a spiritual realm outside of the
natural world; a human being is just a high-order animal whose identity
and manners are entirely predestined by one's surroundings and genetics.
Naturalists emphasized rich descriptions of even the basest social life
without attaching moral commentary. the use of innovative and unique features in theories, forms, style, themes,
and topics; involves an intentional and revolutionary break with conservative
recognized styles of literature. London's crisp, short sentences were a
break from the "purple prose," overly elaborate, of the Gilded Age, as was his choice of naturalist
a belief common in London's day that the "true" Americans were those
of earlier Anglo-Saxon descent, that this "race" was under threat from
the growing influx of Central European (Catholic and Jewish) and Asian
immigrants. This attitude toward immigrants has repeated itself throughout American history. The philosophy of Social Darwinism underlies this belief.
adherence to the doctrine of Friedrich
Nietzsche which stresses the "will to power"as the primary motivating
impetus of society and the individual. Note the character of Wolf Larsen
in The Sea-Wolf, who expresses this philosophy.
the style of creating a nostalgic picture of harmony and innocence;
the life of rural people in an perfect natural environment. Exemplified
in London's Sonoma ranch stories, such as Burning Daylight or The
Valley of the Moon.
A belief system honoring or urging improvement, change, growth, and
reform. It was a prominent social movement in London's day, when activists lobbied
for slum improvement, public health, women's suffrage, elimination of prostitution,
child labor laws, destruction of urban political machines, and so forth.
Most socialists, like London, supported Progressive causes but added a
class-based analysis to their arguments, one that argued for a change in capitalism.
The false science of London's day, Social
Darwinism, argued human races possessed distinguishing traits that
determined their particular behavior and achivement in society. Racialism
was common among Progressives and Socialists of London's era. It is important
to distinguish racialism from racism, which adds the additional belief
that people of "inferior" races deserve slavery, segregation, unequal treatment,
or neglect. Though a confirmed racialist, it is debatable whether London
could also be called racist because he wrote against lynching and similar practices.
a depiction of existence as it appears, without euphemism or evasion;
evokes the idea that the things or occurrence that are portrayed may actually
exist. It is a key component of naturalist writing. Contrast it with Fantasy.
originally a late 18th century literary movement that emphasized the role of personal or subjective experience and feelings. Sometimes it includes a portrayal of life as the writer wishes it would be, more idealistic.
mocking disapproval, cutting and biting. It often using irony, the use of comments opposite to what is intended.
Another of London's favorite devices for social commentary. (It is also a form of speech students use to put down one another.)
the notion that the methods and theories of the physical and biological
sciences are just as suitable and vital to the humanities and social sciences; also, holding to the primacy of science over religious, mythical, or spiritual
interpretations of life.
the application of selected Darwinian ideas to society, including the
evolutionary survival of the fittest, usually defined by race, in a world
marked by struggle and competition. Promulgated by Herbert
Spencer, a best-selling sociologist of the late 19th century.
Although much of his Yukon writing emphasizes these themes, London was not
a pure social Darwinist.
adherence to the theory social organization which believes the proprietorship
and the authority of the means of production, capital, land, etc. should
belong to the entire community. The Socialist Party in London's day was
considered a respectable alternate political party, and socialists were elected to office at all levels of government. London emphasized the
improvement of working conditions, the need to redistribute wealth more
fairly, and the destruction of the power elite or "iron heel." Socialists also supported Progressive causes, but wanted larger changes in politics and the economy. London was
more radical than most socialists in his preference for change by way of
a revolution started by the workers, rather than just through election into office.
This page may be duplicated for classroom use.
Send suggestions, additions, or corrections to: Clarice Stasz.
Updated 26 May 2013.