Jack London’s Collective Catastrophe Roils in “The Scarlet Plague”

London’s plague, killing its victims within hours, rips the world apart in a matter of months, but the damage, in a darkly familiar way, is a slow burn. It’s much more sorrowful than alarmist, more defeated than defiant. London’s work is more prescient in feeling than anything else. Reading The Scarlet Plague is like reading the headlines, only in a world where misfortune brought us a more effective killer.

Reading the Plague is a new monthly series, where I read and review literature and nonfiction about plagues, pandemics, and pathogens. Next month, I’ll be going for a bit of nonfiction with David Quammen’s Spillover. Feel free to tell me what you think, or suggest new books, in the comments.

A bacterial plague ravages the world in Jack London’s 1912 novel The Scarlet Plague, set in a future San Francisco. Images of Streptococcus pyogenes, the bacteria the causes, among other things, Scarlet Fever, from the CDC. Pictures from 1910’s San Francisco from Open SF History.

It took just over a century for Jack London’s major predictions, in his 1912 pandemic tale The Scarlet Plague, to expire.

By 2013, no new fever had come to mow down the masses, the United States hadn’t replaced its executive agencies with a board of magnates, and society as we knew it remained intact. On smaller details as it pertains to living in a world with SARS-CoV2, however, the novel is much closer to the mark, assessing the collective despair of a world-changing event with a steady, sober gaze. London’s plague, killing its victims within hours, rips the world apart in a matter of months, but the damage, in a darkly familiar way, is a slow burn. It’s much more sorrowful than alarmist, more defeated than defiant. London’s work is more prescient in feeling than anything else. Reading The Scarlet Plague is like reading the headlines, only in a world where misfortune brought us a more effective killer.

It’s important to note that we don’t absorb humanity’s downfall first-hand––Granser, formerly Professor James Smith, recounts it to other characters decades after the fact, clad in animal skin, looking out over the deserted remnants of the West Coast. By now, the few survivors are even fewer, their descendants clustered into traveling bands of hunter-gatherers that retain only the smallest remembrances of the California that used to be––calling themselves the “Santa Rosans,” the “Chauffeurs,” the “Carmelitos.” The world of Before, of universities, coffee, and the written word, is nothing more than a deep, nostalgic sigh in Granser’s chest.

Owing to this retrospective approach, London’s chronicling of institutions falling apart and survivors resorting to violence and cruelty takes on a mournful tone, the cataclysmic events transpiring like dominoes, inevitable––because, looking from the future, it is. Without careful attention, a work like this can read like it’s devoid of tension, the essential dramatic question, Will he survive? answered simply by way of Granser’s presence in the future. But London ditches the traditional suspense knowingly, substituting for it something akin to hypnotism. Halfway through the novel, James watches someone break the windows of a store and set it aflame following the destruction even as he knows how it ends and that it won’t be stopped. “I did not go to the grocery-man’s assistance,” he divulges. “The time for such acts had already passed. Civilization was crumbling, and it was each for himself.”

This angle is The Scarlet Plague‘s fatalist stock, forming the basis of its blunt and bitter flavor. There is no “fight” for survival in this story, not really: London approaches this narrative from the corner of a writer steeped in stories of survival, and how drawn-out and passive it can sometimes be, lending the novel a sense of being outmatched as a human against larger and more powerful natural forces, precisely how any outbreak is wont to make one feel.

The sensation is paired with a hearty portion of musing about how all man’s efforts were for nought––London writes that “the fleeting systems lapse like foam.” A bit melodramatic for readers looking for a pragmatic, hopeful attitude in times of crisis, but it’s humanity’s party and it can cry if it wants to, and also, what else is there to do?

The Scarlet Plague makes a frequent subject of the bigger, pitiable picture, often acting as more a collective story than one of James Smith alone. It features lots of “we,” whether it be the “we” of the human race, or the “we” of the stragglers James finds himself trying to wait out the plague with, until, of course, they die. This lens, though, comes with consequences, namely those affecting the composition and complexity of character.

Because London’s focus is so wide, and his aim so collective, he writes arguments, as opposed to people. James, for instance, is essentially history’s vehicle, with wants, and later, regrets, that make appearances in the story, but never back him into a corner to reveal the contents of his moral fabric. For the humans in The Scarlet Plague, a universal substance is revealed early on and never refuted: they are creatures who resort to base means to survive when there is nothing left. It is true, even and especially, for James himself.

But trouble arrives in later chapters when London tries to introduce some interpersonal conflict, after society has collapsed, when James encounters some other survivors, and is subject to their cruelty after years wandering rural California alone––one in particular, who takes the name “Chauffeur” as a symbol to assert his pride over the fallen elite he once served. It is there that his complexity stops. An argument and not a person, Chauffeur’s exaggerated and ceaseless brutality is used to contest that violence and selfishness win out in a world with no structure. He’s also a former member of the working class, which London uses to argue that the poor and overworked, long pushed to the margins of society, will take up Rousseau’s promise and eat the rich, if pushed far enough. These points are intriguing, but the apparatus that’s used to make them isn’t. Even more distilled is Chauffeur’s wife-prisoner, the once wealthy, once ruling class Vesta, who is perfectly beautiful, perfectly pitiable, and little more than a walking symbol of grandeur brought low.

It makes sense, though, however ruthlessly it strips the characters, because London makes clear that in this circumstance, the makings of character have no bearing: “Everybody died anyway, the good and the bad, the efficients, and the weaklings, those that loved to live and those that scorned to live. They passed. Everything passed.”

Author: Pippin Hart

Pippin Hart read Jane Eyre when she was sixteen, and will spend the rest of her life chasing the high.

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