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Jack London’s ”What Life Means To Me”

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     Jack London was born in the late 1876, and he had written the essay, “What Life Means To Me” in the year 1905, when he was still about 29 years old— a testimony that the man had indeed endured much in his life, but also gained not just knowledge but also wisdom, as could be seen in his work. At this point, he had become the socialist who was more aware of the hierarchy and ills of society, opened to the reality of life in general which childhood naiveté and innate ignorance of a man born of the working-class shrouded in optimistic illusions.

     To him there are two major social classes, these being the “working-class”, into which he was born, and the “upper-class”. The members of the working-class are of course the laborers, factory workers and such, or are, in short, poor. They were the men and women who made use primarily of their bodies in order to make a living, whether it was honest work, or somewhat “shady” (i.e. for prostitution). He said that in this social strata, everything was “crude and raw…[where] life offered nothing but sordidness and wretchedness, both of the flesh and the spirit” (London 392). On the one hand, the upper-class are the businessmen, the politicians, members of the academe, etc…people who made use more of their minds or brains in making profit, and did not deal with course work, entrusting the rough jobs to the working-class. They are the sort who have soft, white hands encased in gloves, and “men [who] wore black clothes and boiled shirts, and women [who] dressed in beautiful gowns” (London 392).

However, as he became more acquainted with society, he found that there was more to the working-class: among them were also some people who could have been members of the upper society, like professors who got kicked out of their profession, or chose to become part of the working-class because the “upper society” did not appeal to their radical ideas or thinking. The people then used to be highly conservative in their beliefs, and of course, the members of the “upper society” were content with their stable, rich lives, so much so that they chose not to entertain revolutionary thinking, or did not accept the change that it hinted upon. Revolution was a threat to their financial or status stability.

They did participate in intellectual discussions about politics and the like as Jack London mentioned, having dined with them at some point. But as he was soon to realize, they were not embodiments of his own pure ideals, and were against his own theories regarding the state of the poor. The women, for example, became “excited and angry”, and told him that they believed that the poor were to blame for their own misery, as they lacked thrift in money, investing much in drinking. But then we wonder, how could this be the case if the poor do not have any money to be thrifty with in the first place? The drink must have been a psychological salve or concoction for the depravity of the poor, which was, in Jack London’s opinion and mine, imposed on them by the selfish, spendthrift and corrupt members of the “upper society”.

     In the last paragraphs of his essay, it is evident that London has more belief in the working-class’ ability to mold an ideal society than the men who have grown accustomed to riches and known no suffering. He seems to exalt the idealistic labourers who dreamt above the more fortunate but less moralistic and less appreciative of their lives and occupations. Also, London seems to say that “hope is among the masses”, the working ants of society, rather than in the men who simply make use of the products of labour and sweat of hard-working men.

     “The stairway of time is ever echoing with the wooden shoe going up, the polished boot descending” (London 399). London has expressed his “faith in the working-class”, and by quoting the aforementioned statement, he means to say that they, as time passes, shall be able to transcend their decrepit or low class of living with their clean aspirations and innocent, if not ignorant, ideals, their “wooden shoes going up” towards greater heights and higher standards of living. “The polished boot”, or the men of society who belong to the upper social strata are bound for eventual downfall with their materialism, a lack for appreciation of the things they do and have, and their crimes and betrayals. In today’s society, there still exists the different economic strata which delineate one man from another—there are sill the rich and the poor. But there is also the middle-class, those who are neither too poor so much so that they live by the day (their daily wages are really for that day’s food only, etc…), nor rich enough so much so that they need not work, and only enjoy the products of others’ toil.

However, unlike the “poor”, working-class men and women that London described in his essay who were “neither noble nor alive”, the “poor” citizens of today seem to be less inclined to work themselves for 36 hours straight as those before them, and have the tendency to resort to immoral means of acquiring wealth, etc… As London said, when he talked about the materialism that was evident among the “upper society”, the women “became excited and angry…[reading him] preachments about the lack of thrift, the drink and the innate depravity that caused all the misery in society’s cellar”. The citizens of today have more benefits from the government, and there are open doors for employment everywhere; only, there seems to be a lethargy among the uneducated to better themselves, and therefore give what the women said some “weight”. Today’s society is better in that the class strata are no longer so obvious, there seems to be less discrimination, and more empathy (real or otherwise) from the “upper society”. But it is also worse in that the masses can no longer be relied upon for the betterment of the entire society.

Works Cited

London, Jack. “What Life Means To Me”. Revolution and Other Essays. [insert Place of publication]: Macmillan,1909. 392-399.


“What Life Means To Me by Jack London”. The Jack London Online Collection. Roy Tennant and Clarice Stasz, PhD. 25 July 2006. Sonoma State University. 28 November 2007 <http://london.sonoma.edu/>.

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