Jack London, War

What do I know about Jack London? Not much really, except that he wrote adventure stories like Call of the wild and White fang, and, intriguingly, a study of London slums, People of the abyss. So, when this week’s Library of America story was “War” (1911) by Jack London, I decided to read it. You can read it too, here.

“War” is an adventure story, of sorts. It is also, obviously, a war story. The plot is a simple one: a young man of 24 or so is out on a scouting mission:

…his task was to find what he feared to find. He must go on, and on, until somewhere, some time, he encountered another man, or other men, from the other side, scouting, as he was scouting, to make a report, of having come in touch.

I like the way London universalises his story by using no names. There are only two characters that count: “the young man with the quick black eyes”, our protagonist, and “the man with the ginger beard” , whom he meets along the way. It’s a short, short story and is told in two parts. In the first we are introduced to the young man and learn that

He was no coward, but his courage was only that of the average civilised man, and he was looking to live, not die.

In this part he comes across “the man with the ginger beard”. In part two, still on his scouting mission, he comes across what appears to be “a deserted farmhouse” where, after being tempted (not biblically, but the allusion is biblical nonetheless) by apples, he has his second encounter with “the man with the ginger beard”. I am being purposefully vague here as I do not want to give away what is a quick and worthwhile read.

The story is sparely told. The language is simple and evocative, with minimal use of adjectives, giving a sense of a world pared to the elementals:

It was high noon of a breathless day of heat.


Twice he essayed to start, and twice he paused. He was appalled by his own loneliness.


Another day, hot and breathless.


Again outside, he led the horse around the barn and invaded [my emphasis] the orchard.

This is a story about the irony and inhumanity of war. It is not a new story really but, due primarily to the tight way in which London engages our imagination and builds to the climax, it is shocking nonetheless. Clearly there’s more to Jack London than I thought!

15 thoughts on “Jack London, War

  1. Now I’m the one crying off reading what sounds like a great story! I read some Jack London as a child, Call of the Wild, I think, and I often see his name popping up in lists of freebies on Kindle. But I haven’t read the Alice Munro story yet, which feels really pathetic when it’s only a short story and not some great tome like The Museum of Innoncence!
    PS Long weekend this week, 3 days of loafing in bed with a book till noon – hooray!

    • Long weekend? When? Next Monday? We have one too next Monday – for Canberra Day – but we are going away for some of it to a concert in Bowral so my weekend in bed reading will be curtailed a little (I know, I’m retired, but weekends are my reading in bed times – not till midday though). The London is only 6 pages! But, I understand. There’s only so much time for reading, even for short things. I’m trying to put more effort into short stories because they are an under-appreciated form and can be such treasures! (BTW I went to Borders today with this week’s 40% discount voucher and looked for Museum of innocence but no, they had his The black book and Other colours only. I will keep looking out for it … Meanwhile, it’s back to Appo for me)

  2. Hmm, memories of sitting in “silent reading” classes at school (while the teacher was marking) ploughing through White Fang and Call of the Wild – in old school editions. Short stories might be an idea? I’ll have to think about this one!

    • LOL Tom…fortunately, I have no such memories! I haven’t read any of these cos I steered clear of adventure novels when I was young (and still do, as a genre). But this is different. This particular story reminds me a little of Ambrose Bierce. Have you read any of him?

  3. I like London and think he doesn’t get enough attention. I’ve not read this particular story though. It sounds great. Have you read the story To Build a Fire? It is most excellent.

  4. Thanks Stefanie. Must admit that this inspired me as I thought the writing – language, management of plot, tone etc – was excellent. I once downloaded People of the abyss to read, but then didn’t get to read it – it’s still waiting. No, I haven’t read To build a fire, but when I was searching the web for more about London, I found nothing about War, but a few little mentions of To build a fire, including a couple which seemed to be essay questions (!) comparing To build a fire with Bierce’s Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. Loved that story so I was intrigued. I might look out for it – presumably I can find it online.

  5. I had forgotten that story until I reread it just now. I always loved London’s stories of the Yukon, but remember being surprised as a youngster that the tales did not always have happy endings, which one comes to expect when young. Nice to see that his work holds up even now, all these many years later.

    • Interesting comment waltzing australia. I think you are right about when I was growing up. I wonder whether young readers today have the same expectation? I have a feeling they are presented with more grim material than we ever were!

    • Hi Nawal … these are things we need to work out for ourselves. But, in terms of irony, I think about what the narrator did when he saw the man with the ginger beard, and what the man with the ginger beard did when he saw the narrator. There’s irony there, and there are issues of each man’s morality there. See what you think?

  6. hi ,,, this particular story lcan not figuar out any thing so ican answer. also in this course l have 3play 2short story 6 poem .also the teacher explain little about it and ask so much question ..and i do not know how to analyiz also affrid that the answer is not correct please help me

    • Nawal … It’s really not my role to answer your question. Have you talked to your teacher on your own and discussed your difficulty? Have you searched the Internet to see what others say? You should not just repeat what other people say, but think about different people’s ideas and decide what you think yourself.

      Do you like this story? What do you think happens? What do you think Jack London is saying about war?

  7. I really like this story a lot ! I read it in class today and I thought about how sad the short story was. My teacher said that the apples were also an important part in the story, but I don’t understand why. Why did the rider take the apples from the orchard and were they for him or for the people who he reports to?

    • Thanks Vigine for your comment. I’m glad you liked the story. Didn’t your teacher tell you why they are important? Or did your teacher ask you to think about what they mean? Why do you think London chose apples and not a different fruit?

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