Jack London’s “The Water Baby”

Unlike many of London’s short stories (at least many of the ones I’ve read so far), “The Water Baby” takes place in warm, tropical Hawaii.  John Lakana, whom I presume is a relatively young, native Hawaiian, is fishing in a lagoon with his seventy-something friend, Kohokumu, who is also a native Hawaiian.  Their discussion takes a philosophical turn.

Kohokumu tells Lakana the tales of Maui, a Hawaiian equivalent to Hercules, and Maui’s battle with the sun.   The sun is “evidently a trade-unionist” and only wanted a six-hour day.  Maui was more of an “open shop” kind of guy and wanted a twelve hour day.  They compromised – the sun got winter and Maui got summer.

On a more serious note, the two of them briefly touch on both Christianity of the Hawaiian Bible translated by missionaries and the more naturalistic ideas of science.  However, Kohokumu continually talks of  stories of the island mythology from his youth.  In the course of this conversation, Kohokumu concludes that “Man does not make truth.  Man, if he be not blind, only recognizes truth when he sees it.”

The discussion continues with a story about “The Water Baby” who lived a long time ago when the island King grew angry with his subjects.  Everyone knew the King loved lobster.   The Water Baby, who could talk to fish, came up with an ingenius idea of getting lobster to appease the King.  He could understand the plans the sharks were making to eat him when he tried to dive to get the lobsters.  The Water Baby threw lava rocks into the lagoon deceiving the sharks while he jumped in after on the other side.  He did this 39 times getting 39 lobsters.

After the story, Lakana is skeptical that this actually happened.  Kohokumu “proves” that this is true by stating that he has seen the 39 lava rocks when diving to the bottom of the lagoon.  Of course, Lakana’s thinking is that the lava rocks don’t prove that the story is true, the story is a way to explain the lava rocks.  A slight difference.

London’s writing is as beautiful as ever in this story (his last one, published in 1916).  I thought that the story seemed to be broken up into too many parts, though.  There was the Maui story at the beginning, Lakana and Kohokumu’s discussion, then the Water Baby story.  They all tied in to the same theme but just made the whole story a little disjointed.

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7 responses to “Jack London’s “The Water Baby”

  1. Not sure the younger occupant of the boat is a native as you mention in your comment,”whom I presume is a relatively young, native Hawaiian, is fishing in a lagoon with his seventy-something friend”,> Kohokumu.

    Jack does say..>.”Kohokumu,Past seventy years of age, lean as a spear, and shriveled like a mummy, he was doing what few young athletes of my race would do or could do”.

    Also I find the London text though fragmented as you mentioned, to be more Conradian in nature than incomprehensible. Also this being his last novel, I’m sure it was written upon laudanum as such are the habits of many a unique artist…

  2. And so the other occupant of the canoe is with out doubt a white man……

    And these 10 lines from the text, of dreaming from reality or reality being the dream? The old man dreams he is a bird but is he really a bird dreaming he is a man, just as the old man proposes to the other occupant of the canoe that maybe he is the spirit of maui dreaming that he is a haole. (Haole being a white man?)

    (Last night I dreamed I was a lark bird, a beautiful singing lark of the sky like the larks on the upland pastures of Haleakala. And I flew up, up toward the sun, singing, singing, as old Kohokumu never sang. I tell you now that I dreamed I was a lark bird singing in the sky. But may not I, the real I, be the lark bird? And may not the telling of it be the dream that I, the lark bird, am dreaming now? Who are you to tell me aye or no? Dare you tell me I am not a lark bird asleep and dreaming that I am old Kohokumu?”

    I shrugged my shoulders, and he continued triumphantly.

    “And how do you know but what you are old Maui himself asleep and dreaming that you are John Lakana talking with me in a canoe? And may you not awake, old Maui yourself, and scratch your sides and say that you had a funny dream in which you dreamed you were a haole?”)

    • Thanks, Jim, for pointing out that the younger man was not a native and the Conradian aspect of the story. I read Heart of Darkness when I was a kid (a long time ago) and I’m sure I did not grasp all that was significant about that novel. If I were to “rediscover” Conrad, now, what works would you recommend? Heart of Darkness again or something else? Glad you stopped by.
      -Dale

      • Conrads “Lord Jim”, is amazing but maybe start with his short story “Freya of the seven isles”. Both these stories are set in Dutch ruled Indonesia before Indonesian independence and are far easier to read/appreciate, than Heart of Darkness.

        Also you mentioned that you were surprised by Londons setting for “The water baby”, it being in the Hawiian islands as opposed to the Alaskan themes of “To light a fire” and White Fang”. While these stories do concentrate upon the themes of the great North, still many of his tales leave these frost bound snows and are centred upon the Pacific theme. Try reading his “Sea Wolf”, “Hawiian Island tales”, and more particularly the other stories from his “ON THE MAKALOA MAT” anthology from which “the water babies” is just one of 6 such stories.(Published by Macmillan, 1919)

        On the Makaloa Mat

        1.The Bones of Kahekili
        2.When Alice Told Her Soul
        3.Shin-Bones
        4.The Water Baby
        5.The Tears of Ah Kim
        6.The Kanaka Surf

        The parallels between Conrad and London are also interesting in terms of subject matter, both wrote from experience and both spent much time in the Pacific and its surrounds, Conrad as a merchant seaman and London with his time spent living in Hawaii as well as his 2year cruise of the Pacific upon his yacht the Snark, which is also the title of his book, “Cruise of the Snark”.

        Then there’s Herman Melville, also writing about the Pacific and also written from his first hand experiences, “Moby Dick”, as I’m sure you know, but also upon this writer his first two successes are often over looked, try “Typee” and its sequel “Omoo”, all set in French Polynesia. They are truly worth your while.

        And so goes my Holy Trinity of the Pacific writers

        Enjoy D

  3. And last but not least in regards the “Water Baby”, the entirety of its theme is based upon the fact that the other occupent of the stories vessel IS a white man of science (Haole), and the other a native Hawaiian of myth and superstition.

    Its all about the cross cultural visions and the ironies of how, one culture being Haole with its scientific principles of Darwinism can be usurped by an indigionous one ruled by this myth and superstition, and yet come to the same basic conclusion.

    That “God once lifted the low hung sky so that men could stop walking on all fours”, and “Darwins natural selection theory orchestrated while upon his discovery’s on the good ship Beagle”.

    The Hawaiian believes that the water baby achieved his feat amongst the sharks because of his faith in the myth while also compensating for the white mans scientific suspissions by supplying him with his opiate of scientific data, it being the collection of lava stones which stand testament to the long ago occurrence.

    Admittedly though, many of Londons stories are incomprehensible with out a smatering of hawaiian vocabulary, but at least its not as bad as James Joyce’s “Ulysses”, full of french, gallic and the rest..

  4. Jim,
    Thank you again for the wonderful information! I read London’s The Sea Wolf about a year ago and greatly enjoyed it. I gravitated toward his Northern stories but have all the short stories you mentioned – and they are now moved up on my list of things to read. I think I will try Lord Jim and Freya, soon, too. I just read Melville’s short story “The Bell Tower” and liked the way he writes. I also read a book by Earle Labor about Jack London. It was worth reading but it was more of a literary criticism as opposed to a biography. Would you be able to recommend a good biography of Jack London?

  5. Pingback: Two Tales of the South Seas | Mirror w/ Clouds

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