Jack London

A Piece of Steak

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A Piece of Steak Summary

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“A Piece of Steak” is a short story by Jack London. Written in about two weeks, it was first published in 1909 by The Saturday Evening Post. The story is about an aging boxer so poor he cannot afford to feed his family, and the boxing match he fights against a younger man with better stamina. The story deals with the crushing effects of poverty and the physical decline of aging. London is best known for his stories of the Alaskan wilderness, including White Fang, The Call of the Wild, and the short story “To Build a Fire.”

The story opens in Australia with a boxer, Tom King, finishing his dinner. His children have been sent to bed early on an empty stomach; there was no food to feed them. Tom’s wife has also gone hungry in favor of her husband. He swallows the last bite of bread and gravy, trying to ignore the fact that he is still hungry.

He goes to smoke a pipe but remembers he has no tobacco. He is still a muscular man, though he moves slowly and both his clothes and his face are worn. He has “the face of a typical prize-fighter,” with a broken nose and cauliflower ear. His appearance is intimidating, but he is nonetheless kind—always gentle outside of the ring. In the earlier days of his career, he was also generous, perhaps too generous, with his money. When he fights, it is for business purposes.

Tom thinks back on his past fights: twenty years ago, he defeated a man by punching him in a jaw that had only just healed from being broken in a previous fight. He was willing to exploit another man’s weak spot in order to win the prize, but not out of ill will—to Tom, and to his opponents, this is all part of the game.

Now, though, he is tired and worn out. He has lost the stamina of his younger years, no longer able to withstand twenty rounds of fast punches, given and received. Tom says out loud that he is hungry for steak. His wife apologizes, explaining that she tried both butcher’s shops, and they wouldn’t sell her a steak on credit. Once, Tom had been so flush with money that he was able to feed steaks to his dog. But times, and his credit, have changed.

Tom is preparing for a fight that night; he fears he has not trained well enough for it. Times have been hard and jobs scarce all year. He hasn’t had enough food nor enough sparring partners to practice with. And he cannot put all of his focus on training: he has a wife and family to provide for now. Money is so tight that he has taken a small loan to contribute his share of the prize money.

As he prepares to leave, he is surprised when his wife kisses him—he never stops to kiss her before a match. She wishes him luck. He smiles and tries to laugh about the impending fight, but he looks over her shoulder and thinks about his need to provide for her and the children. Rent is past due. If he wins, he will receive thirty pounds, enough to pay all his debts with some left over. He regains some optimism at the thought.

Tom doesn’t have money for the tram, so he walks two miles to the ring. As he walks, he wishes he had learned a trade and joined a steady career. But when he was young, fighting was easy money, and the promise of large cash prizes was seductive. So was the glory of winning matches, and basking in local fame and admiration. He realizes, then, that when he was young, he fought against the aging champions of the sport. Now he has turned into that easily-defeated, aging champion himself. He realizes the men he defeated might have had the same concerns and fears he has now: that they will not make rent or feed their hungry children.

Tom is fighting against a new opponent, Sandel, who has recently come over from New Zealand. If Sandel wins, he will be tried in bigger fights with more money at stake, so he is expected to put forth his best effort.

Tom is applauded when he enters the ring. The fight begins, and Sandel is swift and light on his feet. Tom is amused, knowing the other man’s blows are not powerful enough to pose a danger. He thinks to himself that Sandel is rushing. Tom patiently blocks and averts blows, waiting for Sandel to run out of steam. The crowd jeers that he is afraid to fight, but Tom needs economy: he is not as fast on his feet, and he needs to conserve energy because he is hungry and had to walk to the match on foot.

Later, Tom lands a careful, heavy punch, drawing admiration from the crowd. He nearly knocks Sandel out, but does not, and the two continue fighting. By the seventh round, Sandel seems to understand what he is up against, and becomes more desperate. Finally, Tom seizes a moment and begins to pummel Sandel with full force. But the younger man proves resilient, staying on his feet to the end of the round. Tom’s legs begin to ache and he thinks, again, about his longing for a steak. Still, he continues to go all-out, using all his strength, knowing this is his last chance to win. Sandel falls, and the referee begins to count. At the last second, he rises.

Tom’s blows weaken. He is losing energy because he is so hungry. He tries to deliver a final punch, but the impact makes Tom himself stagger and fall. Sandel regains his stance and defeats Tom, who has no fight left in him. Tom leaves the ring exhausted, certain that a piece of steak would have made all the difference.

Tom now has to stagger the two miles back home, still with no money for a tram. He thinks of his wife, waiting up for him. He is too battered and beaten to find a job at the docks for at least a week. Defeated in body and mind, Tom cries.

The story highlights the desperation of poverty and its cyclical nature: Tom cannot buy enough food, and cannot earn enough money to buy food because he is too hungry to fight effectively. “A Piece of Steak” is considered part of the Naturalist Movement of writing, which was intended to show the plight of the disadvantaged in an age when Social Darwinism was popular.