ritten werds

by Stephen Parrish

We all read novels that leave us with a sense that something profound is being communicated, something we should take away when we close the back cover—and yet we struggle to articulate a theme. My question is, how clearly should the author of fiction communicate his or her theme? Let’s see what Jack London has to say about it.

A Saint Bernard-Scotch Collie named Buck is living a quiet domestic life with his owner in California when he is stolen by a gardener’s assistant and sold into the Klondike dog sled industry. He survives the ordeals of the transition and rises to team leader after defeating the resident alpha male. The selection below is from a period of relative independence for Buck, during which he roams the wilderness, sometimes alone, sometimes in the company of a wolf.

There is a patience of the wild—dogged, tireless, persistent as life itself—that holds motionless for endless hours the spider in its web, the snake in its coils, the panther in its ambuscade; this patience belongs peculiarly to life when it hunts its living food; and it belonged to Buck as he clung to the flank of the herd, retarding its march, irritating the young bulls, worrying the cows with their half-grown calves, and driving the wounded bull mad with helpless rage. For half a day this continued. Buck multiplied himself, attacking from all sides, enveloping the herd in a whirlwind of menace, cutting out his victim as fast as it could rejoin its mates, wearing out the patience of creatures preyed upon, which is a lesser patience than that of creatures preying.

As the day wore along and the sun dropped to its bed in the northwest (the darkness had come back and the fall nights were six hours long), the young bulls retraced their steps more and more reluctantly to the aid of their beset leader. The down-coming winter was harrying them on to the lower levels, and it seemed they could never shake off this tireless creature that held them back. Besides, it was not the life of the herd, or of the young bulls, that was threatened. The life of only one member was demanded, which was a remoter interest than their lives, and in the end they were content to pay the toll.

As twilight fell the old bull stood with lowered head, watching his mates—the cows he had known, the calves he had fathered, the bulls he had mastered—as they shambled on at a rapid pace through the fading light. He could not follow, for before his nose leaped the merciless fanged terror that would not let him go. Three hundredweight more than half a ton he weighed; he had lived a long, strong life, full of fight and struggle, and at the end he faced death at the teeth of a creature whose head did not reach beyond his great knuckled knees.

I love the authority with which London writes. There’s no uncertainty here, and you get the sense while reading this book that he spent time in the Klondike. And indeed he did. I love the details like “great knuckled knees” and the flavor elements like “down-coming winter” and “three hundredweight more than half a dozen”—reminiscent of “four score and seven years ago.”

Yet the strength of this piece is its message of Darwin in the Wild. We often hear that our stories shouldn’t boast of their messages. Nevertheless in good stories the messages are there. Maybe we shouldn’t mention them in blurbs or query letters—agents, editors, and readers are looking for good stories, not good messages. Yet the messages need to be there.

We love Jack London’s descriptions. Even more, we love reading of people and animals who pit themselves against harsh conditions and—if they’re fit enough—survive.

What do you think?

Click here to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Bonus goodie. You’ve all read The Elements of Style. I reread it about once a year and think everyone ought to. The following is my favorite paragraph from the book, under the heading Omit Needless Words:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

What I love about this, of course, is that it contains no needless words! The art analogy doesn’t hurt, either.

See you next time!

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Stephen Parrish is a contributing editor at Easy Street.