The Problem of Knowledge in Jack London's 'The Water Baby'

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Editor: Jelena O. Krstovic
From: Short Story Criticism(Vol. 133)
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,604 words

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[(essay date fall 1988) In the following essay, Reesman examines London's approach to knowledge in his story "The Water Baby," claiming that his South Sea tales of that period illustrate the influence of Carl Jung's theory of the collective subconscious.]

Modern American authors addressing the issue of knowledge tend to reject the closure of what philosophers call "epistemological" knowledge (knowledge as an objective, single truth) in favor of "hermeneutics" (knowledge as an interpretation amongst other interpretations), in order to invoke the value of freedom for authors, narrators, and heroes as well as readers (Rorty). While Jack London repeatedly demonstrated his preoccupation with different approaches to knowledge and thus identity--as in, notably, "To Build a Fire" and Martin Eden--his late South Seas stories offer his most complex statement concerning the problem of knowledge, and in particular self-knowledge.

Interestingly, both Martin Eden and "To Build a Fire" (both published in 1907), as well as the late South Seas stories (composed in 1916 and published in 1918-1919), were begun during visits by London to Hawaii. Hawaii seems to have been a uniquely productive environment for him; the last South Seas stories, for instance, were written after a five-year lapse in short story writing. Certainly Hawaii's gentle beauty and relaxed pace soothed him. But London was not idle in paradise; there, in 1916, he experienced what one London expert calls a "dramatic, almost traumatic shock of recognition" (Labor, letter to author) upon studying the recently published work of Carl Jung, in particular an edition of Psychology of the Unconscious. Jung provided London with a theory of knowledge towards which he had apparently been striving throughout his career.

In the summer of 1916, after his intensive reading and discussion of Jung, London told his wife, "'... I tell you I am standing on the edge of a world so new, so terrible, so wonderful, that I am almost afraid to look over into it'" (Charmian London, The Book of Jack London, II 322-23). Just before his untimely death in November, London did look into that "new world." Through his new Jungian perspective, he began to see the troubled paradise of America's last western frontier in terms of ancient myths. These myths, he came to feel, accurately described his own life as well as the lives of all Americans and indeed of all people. This fresh way of thinking, which, tragically, he worked with in his fiction for only a few months, gave him some of his greatest stories. Of all these late stories (collected in On the Makaloa Mat [1918] and The Red One [1919]), his very last short story, "The Water Baby," most dramatically demonstrates London's new Jungian answers for his life-long preoccupation with the problem of knowing the self and its place in the collective life of all humankind.

"The Water Baby" may be termed a "hermeneutic" story not because it simply furnishes an alternative to "epistemological knowledge" in London's career, but because, like the other Jungian South Seas tales of 1916, it...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420098763