The Law of Life follows Koskoosh, an elder member of an indigenous tribe in the Klondike, through his final living hours. Because of the harsh environment, scarcity of food, and the importance of the group’s survival, the tribe abandons the blind, old man in the tundra with only a fire burning nearby and a few pieces of wood to sustain it. While the man waits for death, the reader learns, through Koskoosh’s memory, of his life, his tribe’s traditions, and the laws of nature to which he’d always known he was subject.
This essay will explore London’s tale by explaining its attractiveness to a broad audience; by detailing Koskoosh as a character; and by illustrating some “laws of life” to which London introduces the reader, both explicit and implicit. If the description of The Law of Life read simply “The Death of an Indigenous Tribesman in the Klondike”, many readers would immediately turn away. Worded like that, the topic appears irrelevant to the average American audience.
Still, London managed to bring an audience whose lives are vastly different from the story’s main character, people who would never find themselves in Koskoosh’s situation, into the story by focusing on a something all human beings eventually face regardless of their lifestyles: the inevitability of death. The reader does not have to know anything about the tribe to relate to the character; the thoughts before death of this man reflect what many imagine their own thoughts will include: memories of youth, life, and family mixed with fear.
In addition to the common ground upon which both the reader and the character stand, the story itself is written in a manner that allows for widespread readership. Though the topic is complex, the words themselves are not. London does not use flowery language nor does he over-complicate to get his point across. Instead, he opts to tell his story naturally and simplistically. This straight-to-the-point technique works well in a story that deals with abandoning something unnecessary for the good of the whole. To convolute it would injure the story itself and discourage the audience from reading it in the first place.
Although the story’s length limits the amount of growth one can expect to see in a character, the reader understands that the dying, old Koskoosh in the story is not the same Koskoosh of his youth. While he did not complain about his fate, he becomes sympathetic to other living beings that were abandoned when the group deemed them a burden, though in his childhood he would not have given further thought to leaving an old tribe member behind to die. He had even left his own father when it was his time (London 392. ) The reader witnesses this change of perspective the most when he relates the tale of the moose being chased by wolves.
When he was a child, Koskoosh and his friend wanted to watch the moose die, and were even excited about it, remembering, “How Zing-ha and he felt the bloodlust quicken! The finish would be a sight to see! ” (393. ) He then goes on to tell about how the moose, against the odds, fought the wolves because it wanted to live. When the wolves encircle Koskoosh in the end of the story, he again recalls the moose’s final stand (394. ) While he decides that fighting the wolves in his case is hopeless, he’s still very sympathetic to the moose’s desire for life.
Even he had been upset that his granddaughter did not bring him more wood, despite her duty to the tribe. Likewise, he still held out hope that his son would return for him. (393) But in his own youth, he would have done the same as they had, but as death gets nearer, he gets a bit upset that they are following tradition. Though as a person, I did not want Koskoosh to be devoured by wolves in the end, as a reader, I understand that that was the only way to end the story without losing its legitimacy. Had his son returned or had Koskoosh died peacefully, the entire “law of life” theme would have been rendered irrelevant.
To make such a bold statement as “nature did not care”(391), and then end with a rescue or a quiet death would have shown some benevolence on behalf of the environment, contrary to the whole story from the beginning. Though Koskoosh feels some sympathy for those who have been through what he is going though, he does not feel regret because deep down he understands the death is a law of life, and, like the ending of this tale, it is merciless. It could not have been written any other way. Besides illustrating to the reader that death is an inevitability, there other lessons one can draw from this story.
First, there is the fact that while Koskoosh grew up understanding the laws of nature, most Americans do not live “close to the earth” in a sense and may not know these laws (391. ) Despite this, all humans, whether they know them or not, are still subject to them. Second, the survival of man relies on nature. When there was a great famine, the tribe almost did not make it (392. ) Likewise, industrialized society would not make it if not for agriculture in rural areas or in other parts of the world. Although it is not seen everywhere, nature still has a huge hand in the lives of all humans.
One major theme that stands out in the story is the question of the ethical treatment of the elderly and dying. London does an expert job at allowing the reader to pity Koskoosh without viewing his tribe as cruel. While it is understood that this must happen to ensure the survival of that particular group, the reader still sees the functioning and living mind of this old man. According to the philosophy of dualism, ” — a human being is a combination of two distinct parts: a body and mind — ” (Creel 240) This is a very common assumption. Most people believe that a person maintains their personhood so long as their mind still functions.
One can presumably go blind, lose the ability to walk, and become in other ways unproductive, but as long as there is comprehension, then there is a person that requires treatment suitable for a person. Koskoosh did not lack comprehension; and while his society had little choice but to leave him behind, that does not explain why members of modern Western society can live plentiful lives and afford many luxuries, but still throw their dying elderly “to the wolves” by either talking about old age in a negative light, devaluing them when they want to contribute, or simply ignoring them.
According to Podgorski, Langford, Pearson, and Conwell, “although adults over age 65 compose 12. 4% of the U. S. population, they account for 14% of all suicides. ” While mental illness will account for some of this, society’s low opinion of the elderly does not help. The APA’s Monitor on Psychology included the following quote in its article Fighting Ageism: “My peers and I are portrayed as dependent, helpless, unproductive and demanding rather than deserving,” Roberts testified. “In reality, the majority of seniors are self-sufficient, middle-class consumers with more assets than most young people, and the time and talent to offer society. It is interesting how, although there are the resources to care for the elderly in this society, for some reason Westerners still think of them as useless, even when their minds fully understand every insulting statement or behavior toward them, as Koskoosh understood everything happening around him, although he could not physically see it. Jack London’s The Law of Life is more than just an entertaining story. All humans can relate to its most apparent topic: death is unavoidable. Likewise, there are other parallels a reader draws as well.
These morals are timeless and can easily be applied to day as is apparent in that we still rely on nature for survival, there are still ethical questions of “abandoning” the elderly both physically (as in the story) or symbolically (as our society has in many ways), and we are still subject to nature’s laws, no matter how far away from the earth we feel we are. Sources: London, Jack. “The Law of Life. ” The Bedford Anthology of American Literature Vol 2. ‘Ed’ 2008. Susan Belasco and Linck Johnson. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008.
Creel, Richard E. Thinking Philosophically. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2001. 240. Podgorski, Carol A. , Linda Langford, Jane Pearson, and Yeates Conwell. “Suicide Prevention for Older Adults in Residential Communities: Implications for Policy and Practice. ” PLoS Med7. 5 (2010): n. pag. Web. 27 Mar 2011. 4>. Dittmann, Melissa. “Fighting Ageism. ” Monitor on Psychology. 34. 5 (2003): 50 More from Z. J. Ascensio: How to Keep a Grandmother Happy on Thanksgiving Grandson Scam Targets Seniors Seven Excellent Children’s Books Recommended by a Child