“A new race has sprung up, a street people…”: A Narrative Analysis of Jack London’s The People of the Abyss, and its Inhabitants Recollections

“No bath, no shave for them, no clean white sheets and all clothes off, and fifteen hours’ straight sleep… it was the weary streets again, the problem of a crust of bread ere night, and the long sleepless night in the streets, and the pondering of the problem of how to obtain a crust at dawn (87)”.  After reading passages such as this from Jack London’s, The People of the Abyss, I have come to recognize why London refers to his audience as “soft people” (51) when he attempts to convey a life of “carrying the banner”.  “O dear, soft people, full of meat and blood…how can I make you know what it is to suffer as you would suffer if you spent a weary night on London’s streets (51)!”, demonstrates even London’s difficulty in describing the inhabitants of the East Side, as he relies heavily on personal experiences and the stories of others.  Using these, London attempts to give readers a sense of the appearance of life and working for survival and the ever-present danger of falling permanently into the abyss.

At a glance, the appearance of life for the people of the abyss is dull “the color of life is gray and drab.  Everything is helpless, hopeless, unrelieved, and dirty” (146).  Although many may see this as a description of only the buildings, as I read I began to see it was also a description of the citizens.   With this realization, I found myself slipping further and further into the abyss, and from beneath my cozy sheets I understood how London could refer to me as a soft person, unaware of the hopelessness the people of Victorian London felt daily.  To “fast” for an uncertain length of time only to receive a crust of bread and tea is not something I will ever have to succumb to.   A passage that put in perspective how the people of the abyss must have appeared physically was London’s description of the Carpenter, saying, “I put my hand under his shirt and felt.  The skin was stretched like parchment over the bones… like running one’s hand over a washboard” (59).  I feel as though many would shrink away from this touch, much like London, England, shrunk further and further into social classes, in fear of falling into this type of predicament.

The buildings of these areas would today be referred to as slums, however London defends this type of living in several passages, stating, “with 900,000 people actually living under legal conditions, the authorities have their hands full… [the people] crowding is not through inclination, but compulsion” (140,142).   Each night was temporary, and the citizens knew nothing of a true home life, and I again imagined never knowing where or if I would lay my head down.  Thinking of the families destroyed because of the inability to support with either money or comfort. 

Supporting life also included the ability to survive in the abyss, London appeals to the readers, pleading with his audience to “not think [that the people] are lazy creatures, preferring sleep to work” (78).  The jobs these people chose out of necessity or were required to perform in workhouses were dirty and some included painful and excruciating manual labor.  This fact directly contradicted the Chinese proverb London references stating that “if one man lives in laziness another will die of hunger” (90), like London, I found this to be an invalid depiction of the citizens who line up “thirty-five thousand” (52) at workhouses each night, a place many would rather die than enter. 

When one is not able to support either family or self, there are few options left then entering the workhouse or death.  One man told London, “Don’t you ever let yourself grow old …die when you’re young…I wish I was dead. Can’t come any too quick for me, I tell you” (47).  I felt that many shared this attitude, and also when London addressed the commonness of suicide amongst the people, opening his twenty-second chapter stating, “with life so precarious, and opportunity for the happiness of life so remote, it is inevitable that life shall be cheep and suicide common” (167).  The causes given for committing suicide include “poverty, misery, and fear of the workhouse” (169), and many like Ellen Gray claim that their reasons included having “neither home nor friends” (171).  Perhaps loss of the home life and interpersonal relationships cause fears to build upon one another, the feeling of sinking deeper and deeper into becoming a gray brick stepped upon in the miserable streets.  “They die like flies, and those that survive, survive because… of adaption to the degradation with which they are surrounded” (175).

Living like flies on animals caked in dirt and grim is not something I believe anyone should ever have to adapt to in order to survive.  Many aspects of life amongst the people of the abyss were troublesome to me, however in London’s concluding chapters he says that to fix these imbalances,  “Civilization must be compelled to better the lot of the average man” (199).  It is true that a small percentage of London society enjoys the comforts that elude the average man, however what troubled me were London’s assertions about the charity of the public.  In almost a mocking tone London cries out “These people who try to help!  Their college settlements, missions, charities, and what not, are failures…They are wrongly, though sincerely, conceived… They do not understand…they have achieved nothing” (194). Although I think that any sign of help and kindness should be embraced rather than mocked, London does have a point.  I felt comforted as he addressed that a person who does not even understand their “side” cannot mean to actively help those considered beneath them, because no one understands the world around them.

After reading The People of the Abyss, I gained a new idea of the environment where the Jack the Ripper murders occurred, and also the type of situations that caused his victims to resort to that type of perilous work.  Those who are uncertain can never accomplish understanding a life of uncertainty, and perhaps London was correct in stating they are sincere yet wrong in their tactics of assistance.  Fear and desperation can cause many to resort to dangerous environments such as workhouses or trusting unknown strangers, while some would rather die.  

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