25 pages 50 minutes read

Jack London

A Piece of Steak

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1909

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “A Piece of Steak”

Jack London’s 1909 “A Piece of Steak” is a naturalist short story first published in The Saturday Evening Post. It took him between two and four weeks to write, and he was paid a very handsome (for the era) $500 for it. While London is best known for his novels about the Alaskan wilderness, including The Call of the Wild and White Fang, he was also interested in workers’ rights and advocated for socialism and unions. “A Piece of Steak” is one of his best-known short stories and, like many London stories of the era, explores social Darwinist themes. This guide uses the version of “A Piece of Steak” available online at the short story archive “East of the Web.”

The story opens in Australia with Tom King, a boxer, finishing the last bits of his dinner of bread and flour gravy. There was no food to feed his wife and two children, who went to bed hungry. Even after he has eaten, Tom remains hungry. He reaches instinctively for his pipe and tobacco but realizes he has none left. Tom looks like a boxer, with a “hulking” frame, a cauliflower ear, a nose bent due to having been broken twice, and “animal-like” eyes.

Despite his brutish appearance, Tom is kind when he’s not in the ring. When money was flush early in his career, he was generous, even regularly feeding his dog steaks. Boxing is merely a business for him, and his opponents have always valued his professionalism. Once, he beat another boxer by punching the fighter’s reconstructed jaw, but neither he nor the other boxer held a grudge over it; it was just part of the sport. Now, looking at his hands, he sees that his veins and arteries are too big. He can no longer fight with the vigor of his youth. Briefly, he sees the hand as it was before a fight early in his career shattered his knuckle. His hunger comes back, and he announces he wants a steak. His wife says she’s sorry but that neither butcher would provide her steak on credit. He realizes that a boxer in his condition and fighting in second-rate clubs cannot expect anyone to sell him anything on credit. Even the coming fight with Sandel has only netted him an advance of three pounds—the loser’s share of the purse. Tom worries he has not trained well enough for the fight. Money and jobs have been scarce all year, and he hasn’t had enough food for training. He also hasn’t had a sparring partner or time to focus, what with a wife and family to provide for. Plus, it is harder for a man of 40 to get in peak shape for a fight.

As he leaves for his match, his wife surprises him by kissing him to wish him luck. As they embrace, he looks back at the apartment. He tries to laugh about the fight, but he sees that he needs to provide for his family. Rent is overdue, and if he wins, he’ll receive £30: enough to pay all his debts with money to spare. If he loses, he’ll get nothing.

The Gayety, the site of the fight, is two miles away, but Tom cannot afford a cab or the tram. He remembers having someone else pay for him to take a cab when he was younger and realizes that walking is not the best way to prepare for a fight. Tom thinks back to his younger days and wishes he had learned a trade; back then, he couldn’t resist the easy money and fame of fighting. He realizes now that he spent his glory days fighting aging former champions. One fighter, Stowsher Bill, had cried in the dressing room after Tom defeated him. Now, Tom wonders if Bill had similarly been out of rent money and maybe wanted to eat a piece of steak the day of the fight. Tom realizes he’s the last of his generation of fighters.

This particular night, Tom is fighting a new young opponent, Sandel. He comes from New Zealand, and his bout with Tom is his entryway to Australia’s bigger stage. If Sandel wins, he will move on to better fights with higher purses. Thus, Tom expects Sandel to try his hardest. At the Gayety, fans cheer Tom’s entrance. Tom lies to the secretary of the venue that he feels great. He is relieved to see another old-timer serving as referee because he recognizes that the referee will likely let him get a little rough with Sandel.

He watches the early bouts with an amusement he never felt when he was young. The matches are between younger boxers, and their youth fascinates Tom. He sees some familiar faces among the sportswriters but recognizes no one else. When Sandel takes off his warmup outfit, Tom sees his deep chest, supple muscles, and “white satin skin” (8).

The fight begins, and Tom is amused by how swiftly Sandel throws his punches. He knows that Sandel is landing many blows but that none are strong enough to hurt him. Remembering one of his own earlier fights, he even lets his head absorb a hard one so that Sandel will hurt his own knuckle in the process. Tom’s plan is to be patient, blocking and diving from as many punches as he can until Sandel runs out of energy. The first round is “all Sandel’s,” but Tom trusts his eyes to win the fight.

The crowd jeers at him and says he’s too scared and slow to fight, but Tom goes back into the ring with the same strategy. He has to conserve his energy due to his lack of training and lack of food. Round two goes the same way, with Sandel moving quickly and Tom ploddingly. Some wise audience members can understand what Tom’s strategy is. Tom even makes sure that each round ends closer to his corner so that Sandel has to waste energy walking farther. In round three, Tom lands a careful, heavy punch, nearly knocking Sandel out. He regrets that his punch is not close enough to the jaw to finish him off, but Sandel seems to gain respect for what he is up against.

By the seventh round, Sandel seems to grow more desperate, recognizing that this is the hardest fight of his life. Across the ring, Tom thinks about what a perfect fighter Sandel could make if he had the wisdom of age and the vigor of youth, but such a combination is impossible. Tom lands some blows on Sandel, but Sandel proves resilient. He falls once more but gets up on the count of nine. As the match goes on, Tom’s punches lose their power, and his legs begin to give out. He even briefly loses consciousness from one of Sandel’s upper cuts, but he gets up and wins the crowd’s cheers as he pummels Sandel once again. Yet Sandel does not give up and even convinces the referee not to call the fight, much to Tom’s chagrin. He cannot regain his strength between rounds and grows hungry thinking about the steak he could not eat before the fight.

In the 11th round, Tom knocks Sandel down again. After Sandel gets up, Tom tries to land a final blow, but his punch lacks the energy the steak would have provided him. He staggers and falls, and he feels unable to lift his arm again. Sandel easily knocks him out. He knows the piece of steak would’ve made all the difference in the fight.

Tom has to walk the two miles home and stops to think about his wife waiting for him. Facing her and telling her he lost will be harder than losing. He knows it will be a week at least before he can even pick up a shovel and get a job as a navvy laborer. He cries, suddenly understanding why Stowsher Bill cried in the dressing room all those years ago.