The Scarlet Plague by Jack London (1912)

Review by George Simmers (see his Great War Fiction blog here)

First published in London Magazine in 1912, then in book form by Macmillan in 1915.

In The Scarlet Plague the human race has been all but wiped out by a devastating epidemic, an apocalyptic theme that has become popular in later science fiction. Jack London imagined his plague wreaking havoc in 2013, a century after the publication of the book, and the story is set sixty years after that, when an old man, one of the very few survivors of the catastrophe, explains the history of the plague to some impatient teenage boys who would rather be hunting or fishing.

Once a university professor in San Francisco, he is now reduced to a scavenging existence. Wearing ‘a single mangy garment of goat-skin’ he tells the boys about the horror of the epidemic, and the social chaos that it caused:

The bodies were lying in the streets unburied. All railroads and vessels carrying food and such things into the great city had ceased running and mobs of the hungry poor were pillaging the stores and warehouses.(60)

In the absence of any police, the crazed population indulge in arson, robbery and murder. There is a strong suggestion that this is the return of the repressed, the poor striking out against the rich who have dominated them. The nastiest expression of this is a character called the Chauffeur, one of the few survivors. He has found a female survivor, once a pampered society lady, has made her his wife and takes pleasure in humiliating her.

London’s Social Darwinism is very evident. After the catastrophe only the fittest survive – and that means the toughest and most brutal. This is true not only of humans. All the domestic animals go wild, and begin preying on one another.

[A]ll the small dogs, and the weak types, were killed by their fellows. Also, the very large ones were not adapted for the wild life and bred out. As a result, the many different kinds of dogs disappeared, and there remained, running in packs, the medium-sized wolfish dogs that you know to-day.(91)

For London, civilisation is a fragile thing, and easily destroyed. Even language has degenerated; the speech of the boys listening to the old man’s story is ‘guttural and explosive and economical of qualifying phrases’. He is the last man alive who can speak in an elaborated, sophisticated language.

The old man predicts that civilisation will gradually remake itself, but it will do so violently, and the new culture will itself in time be destroyed:

The gunpowder will come. Nothing can stop it – the same old story over and over. Man will increase, and men will fight. The gunpowder will enable men to kill millions of men, and in this way only, by fire and blood, will a new civilization, in some remote day, be evolved. And of what profit will it be? Just as the old civilization passed, so will the new. (120)

This comes across as a book whose events and characters are manipulated to prove a thesis. It reminded me of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies in the way that it sets up a situation in which humans will behave badly to each other, and then presents this bad behaviour as being the essential human nature.

This apocalyptic Social Darwinism has overtones of racialism. As in Lord of the Flies, the retreat from the values and obligations of civilisation is signalled and symbolised by the adoption of the customs and adornments of tribal societies. The old man tells the boys:

You are true savages. Already has begun the custom of wearing human teeth. In another generation you will be perforating your noses and ears and wearing ornaments of bone and shell. I know. The human race is doomed to sink back farther and farther into the primitive night ere again it begins its bloody climb upward to civilization. When we increase and feel the lack of room, we will proceed to kill one another. And then I suppose you will wear human scalp-locks at your waist, as well – as you, Edwin, who are the gentlest of my grandsons, have already begun with that vile pigtail.(30)

Jack London confidently implies a hierarchy of races, with enlightened American university professors at the top and tribal societies down in the ‘primitive night’. Yet catastrophe can bring down the best and most cultured. The idea that civilisations can decay as well as progress was one that fascinated and frightened intellectuals at the turn of the century; London is expressing some of the anxieties that would find fuller expression in Spengler’s Decline of the West a few years later.

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6 thoughts on “The Scarlet Plague by Jack London (1912)

  1. Fascinating. There was so much more to London than simply adventure stories. I read his “Iron Heel” some years back and I’d highly recommend it.

    • I started reading a collection of his short stories, and I just couldn’t get on with it. Relentless violence plus racism made it very hard going! What was Iron Heel about? It sounds violent!

      • It’s a dystopian novel about a tyrannous regime in the USA. I remember liking it a lot (although I can’t recall the specifics) – unfortunately, racism is often an element of older books and I guess we have to deplore it but allow that it was part of the culture at the time.

      • Yes, you’re right of course. I think to be fair to London I just didn’t like his writing style either. He was so prolific that I imagine that the quality of his output varied a great deal – perhaps what I read wasn’t great. I looked up The Iron Heel and saw it is cited as something that George Orwell read that may have informed his writing of 1984.

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