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.”

Teen Angst and Economic Woes in “Little Women”

Little Women is a book wholly concerned with not just growing up, but growing up without malice, without want, and without insecurity. If a little simplistic in its moralizing, it never shies away from how continuous and painful that process can be, especially for two characters who are often misunderstood, arguably even under-served by the source material itself: the ambitious yet domestic Meg, and the young, aspirant, and headstrong Amy.

The four sisters in Little Women, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, each have two warring sides: the subdued, docile creatures society expects them to be, and the creative sides they all, one way or another, have to give up. Collage by Pippin Hart. Credits in this post.

In its eventful century and a half, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women has proven infinitely adaptable. It’s spanned plays, a musical, graphic novels, and buckets of films and miniseries, an acclaimed 2019 adaptation by “Lady Bird” director Greta Gerwig among the most recent and notable entries. It doesn’t just keep getting read; it keeps getting retold, often with drastic changes at hand. Generations of directors have sensed the tension in store if only certain conflicts lasted longer than chapters’ end, how powerful the books’ ideas might be had they been allowed to speak for themselves, how much louder a few relationships might have been with a little more attention. In short, the phenomenon seems to perpetuate itself like this: there’s just enough necessary tweaking to be done to present a challenge, but too promising a journey for four wholly charismatic main characters––artistic, romantic, familial, societal––to pass up.

At curtain, it’s the middle of the Civil War. Four sisters, while their father is away serving as a chaplain, are prevailed upon to spend Christmas alone with their mother and not much money, and to not feel to bitter about it, thankyouverymuch. Meg, the oldest, is the moral mentor of the bunch, though not without her own quandaries. Jo, the rebel, resents the feminine expectations she’s saddled with, and “hates to think I’ve got to grow up and be Miss March, and wear long gowns, and look as prim as a Chinaaster.” Beth, shy and an avid pianist, quietly and humbly takes her lot while the others yearn. Amy, the youngest, is the one who cries out at the injustice. (“I don’t think it’s fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all.”)

These four, the ur-Hogwarts houses of personality quizzes, each represent a different art form, a different moral struggle to overcome, and a different life path, in an era of strikingly few options for young women. Choose your affiliation carefully, for it will drastically affect the choices you make in your adapted screenplay.

But take heed––Little Women is not lengthy without reason: Alcott’s saga of the March sisters is rich with detail. It gives its characters downtime that any tale heavy on plot could hardly imagine spending. No childish trifle is left un-learned from or un-ruminated over. It is a book wholly concerned with not just growing up, but growing up without malice, without want, and without insecurity. If a little simplistic in its moralizing, it never shies away from how continuous and painful that process can be, especially for two characters who are often misunderstood, arguably even under-served by the source material itself: the ambitious yet domestic Meg, and the young, aspirant, and headstrong Amy.

Jo, the second-oldest, has a vibrant and exciting character arc as a writer, which, coupled with her early rejection of her time’s gender roles, tends to make her the star of the show. Alcott’s depiction of creative life is thrilling indeed, the trials of a young writer made devastating when seen through Jo’s eyes, straining to keep up with her pen in the late hours of the night. But Amy and Meg’s moral struggles––many tied to being ashamed of their family’s poverty, valuing wealth above character, striving for means at emotional expense––are what really illuminate the book and its ideas after all this time.

Meg, at one point, goes to stay with the Moffats, rich family friends of the Marches in a chapter titled “Meg Goes To Vanity Fair,” a standout in the novel for its keen observations of class disparity, particularly in the way Meg feels compelled to belong in the well-off world. As powerful as Little Women believes wise words to be, it also acknowledges that they don’t quite cut it, the unspoken pangs of shame in the heart of an insecure teenage girl holding even more sway. The chapter also makes good use of Laurie, the neighbor boy who befriends the family (and also happens to have a substantial fortune). The objections he raises to Meg’s uncharacteristic adoption of the Moffats’ “fuss and feathers” don’t ring as faultless judgement in this situation (like much of what male characters say to female characters in Little Women), but as a lens on his oblivion in turn. Meg’s efforts to grow past a desire for affluence are some of the chief achievements of the first part of the book, and they come to a defiant triumph when she falls, in spite of circumstance, for a lowly tutor. Her character fades most regretfully from the spotlight come part 2, where, instead, Amy’s comes to grapple with materialism and resolves, with an answer that isn’t quite as compelling, but suggests the possibility for adaptations (or critics) willing to come to her defense.

Amy’s is a more prickly spirit to root for in the first place––she’s almost the quintessential unlikable female character. When we meet her, she’s 12 and loudly committed to sophistication, peppering as many multi-syllabic words into her “vocabilary” as will make her sound cultured, and disdaining Jo’s sloppy and unfeminine habits, railing against, among other things, whistling and slang. But upon closer inspection, Amy and Jo, as, respectively, artist and writer, have very similar tragedies, devoted to their art forms in a society that would never allow them to do it in full.

Amy’s, however, is entangled with a contested love story, and can get lost in the will-they-won’t-they. (To be fair, it’s a great will-they won’t-they.) The fact that she doesn’t fully step back from wealth the way Meg does, though, can make way for a nuanced look into her situation, especially as it pertains to marriage, in a way that doesn’t instantly and unequivocally condemn her for being mercenary. Ultimately, her arc is plenty satisfying food for thought. But it also leaves just enough to be desired to incite arguments in perpetuity.

Hello! Thanks for reading. I make new posts (usually book reviews) every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. But enough about me––I want to hear from you! What do you think of Little Women? Which adaptation is the best? (Overall, I like the 2019 version; what it does with the timelines is whip-smart and it captures all my favorite parts beautifully, but my favorite take on Beth is in the 2017 PBS mini-series. That version’s Amy is really well-drawn as well, but you just can’t beat Florence Pugh.)

The Subtle Brilliance of “Mansfield Park”

Jane Austen’s lesser-known Mansfield Park begins decades before its heroine, Fanny Price, takes the stage (though far from willingly––she avoids all attention).

The strict expectations and ethical shortcomings of her rich benefactors loom over Fanny Price in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. Collage by Pippin Hart. Credits in this post.

Jane Austen’s lesser-known Mansfield Park begins decades before its heroine, Fanny Price, takes the stage (though far from willingly––she avoids all attention). The setup of this quiet, subdued drama is the marital choices of three sisters, the new Mrs. Price into relative poverty, the new Mrs. Norris into circumstances slightly better, and the new Lady Bertram into a vast estate and a title (!).

Years later, when Mrs. Price’s oldest daughter, Fanny, is ten, the Bertrams, with Mrs. Norris’ urgings, take on Fanny for somewhat selfish reasons, and bring her to Mansfield Park. There, she is perpetually behind the Betrams’ daughters in care and attention, and faces constant criticism from her older relatives, and manages to take it all in stride, with carefully-cultivated humility and an unfailingly sweet temperament. If you’ve ever wondered what Jane Eyre would’ve been like if she’d never protested the cruelty of her aunt and cousins, Mansfield Park is it. If you like it when characters stand up for themselves, it may test your patience.

But to Fanny, more than most, there’s more than meets the eye. Her eternally bowed head and boundless shock absorption belie the true substance of one of Austen’s most perceptive characters. Mansfield Park can’t beat the likes of Pride and Prejudice when it comes to a powerful struggle of wills, but its keen observations about how selfishness governs the actions of Fanny’s wealthy not-quite peers rival Pride and Prejudice‘s cleverest social satires, and the conflict in Mansfield Park is incredibly promising––much more interior, and deeply concerned with how best to preserve the dignity and feelings of others (in a subtler, interpersonal sense) when one is far from in power, both personally and socially. With this approach, and these ideas in mind, Mansfield Park levies more pungent and lingering criticism than much of Austen’s better-loved and better-known work.

It can be dispiriting, actively frustrating, even, to watch Fanny be picked apart by her extended family and their wealthy crowd: our dramatic instincts, especially in an era that pursues and uplifts stories about empowered women, have trained us for a fight. In a particularly irksome instance, Mrs. Norris, the cruelest of Fanny’s benefactors, firmly tells her, “Remember, where-ever you are, you must be lowest and last,” and Fanny, after being subjected to an extended lecture in the same general tone, extends a “Yes, m’am,” and demurely accepts her fate. What it suggests is not, as might be tempting to say, a spineless main character whom things just happen to, but rather, Austen’s careful attention to circumstance. She doesn’t merely play at writing a heroine who is told she is lowest and last wherever she goes; she seriously considers the kind of person this rearing would produce, and appreciates how little reprieve some satisfying, fiery retaliation would bring. The “spine” Fanny seems not to have is actually a luxury that only a happy accident of social currency can buy. Even with a richer family than Elizabeth Bennet, Fanny Price doesn’t have half the means to defend her honor or raise objection to an indignity. Austen knows the substance of this situation, and never compromises it to satisfy.

One of the great ironies of this book (Austen, in her infinite wit, never allows it to escape her notice) is how well the Bertrams’ hopes to render Fanny contrite and self-denying actually prove to work. She ends up so pliant, so repentant, that all their attempts to truly wound her fail. In fact, she stumbles into becoming one of the very few dependable members of the family, almost despite herself. Even if Mansfield Park makes for a fairly drastic response to Austen’s own criticisms of Pride and Prejudice as “rather too light,” it’s still pretty piercing in its irony. One long, amusing sequence in which Fanny’s rich cousins injudiciously attempt to stage a salacious play at the house while Sir Bertram is abroad, causes nothing but angst for Fanny, but in its absurdity is an absolute joy to read.

This owes mostly to the way Austen uses supporting characters as both a model and critique of the rich. Fanny’s cousins, Julia, Maria, and Tom (besides Edmund, who shares Fanny’s uncompromising principles), all have a basic sense of propriety, enough to operate in high society and be generally seen as acceptably polite, but they, as well as the visiting party, are haunted by the specter of privilege, cursed to make a fuss of even the simplest amusements. (As evidenced by the struggle to find a play to perform: “They wanted a piece containing very few characters in the whole, but every character first rate, and three principal women. All the best plays were run over in vain.”) They are also cursed, crucially, to be completely ignorant of how foolish they look––this is where Austen works her magic.

But that doesn’t mean they lack any complexity. The two new arrivals that set much of the book in motion, vibrant young socialites Henry and Mary Crawford, are fleshed out rather generously, a hypnotizing presence at the heart of the story, with tantalizing promises of betterment. In Mary’s case, it’s a spell Edmund, Fanny’s only morally upright cousin, falls for, one that Austen than uses to examine him and the abundance of credit he often trips into giving his own kind––those born exorbitantly wealthy. Both he and Fanny, though, seek out friendship in the Crawfords, she a little more attuned to the family’s faults. Through their discerning (and also rather passive) eyes, we see into the relationship between conscientiousness and circumstance, one Austen depicts consistently but complexly. Some economic turn in every character’s past allows Austen to explain why they do or do not take the needs of others into account, from the harshness that pushes Fanny’s mother to be callous to the luxury that makes Lady Bertram such an absentee adoptive parent. It’s far from satisfying to those who want to be the masters of their own fate, but it’s much richer than many of the ideas of inherent goodness––held at Austen’s time and beyond––could ever hope to be.

Yes, it takes its leads out of the driver’s seat and makes a habit of turning up its nose. But it’s far from a footnote to Pride and Prejudice‘s fame.