The Iron Heel
is a dystopian novel by American writer Jack London, first published in 1908. Considered to be one of the earliest examples of modern dystopian fiction, it is also unusual for London’s work in being one of his only books featuring a female protagonist. Told through a fictional manuscript written by Avis Everhard and found centuries later, it tells the story of an America that falls to a dictatorial oligarchy. Ruled by a collection of robber barons that manipulated their wealth to freeze everyone else out of the market, the book chronicles the eventual resistance that rises up and their fate as they battle against a repressive government. Exploring themes of anti-capitalism, revolution, and the power of historical artifacts to shape how we see the world, it is considered the work of London’s that most clearly explores his socialist views. It is considered highly influential in future works of political dystopian fiction, and has been adapted both into a 1999 Russian film, and a 2016 stage production by Edward Einhorn.The Iron Heel
begins with a forward written by twenty-seventh-century scholar Anthony Meredith, who has been researching the document that makes up the novel. He has named it the Everhard Manuscript, and says that while it’s an accurate depiction of the time period and its socio-political environment, it’s less reliable when it comes to its central character, socialist activist and eventual revolutionary Ernest Everhard. The document was written by Everhard’s wife, Avis, and Meredith states that she was likely influenced by her personal love for her husband and her deep belief in his political goals. Thus, the document is as much a canonization of a political figure as it is an unbiased report. The document is written by Avis in a first-person narration, with added footnotes by twenty-seventh-century researchers. It was written in the aftermath of Ernest Everhard’s recent death, which occurred shortly after the first attempted worker’s rebellion against the oligarchy that ruled the United States at the time.
Avis describes her first meetings with Everhard, where she was unimpressed by his shabby appearance and his aggressive self-righteousness. However, after she investigated one of the many cases of the oligarchs’ indifference to the workers who sustained the system and suffered in the process, she began to see Everhard’s point. As she starts working with him, she begins to find herself attracted with him and begins a deep and personal relationship with the radical activist. At the same time, her scientist father Dr. Cunningham, and his friend and local religious leader Bishop Morehouse, start to come around as well and join Everhard’s band of allies. As the three of them become more involved in the socialist revolution and Avis falls in love with Everhard, the oligarchy - composed of a coalition of bankers, industrialists, and politicians that have seized control of the government by manipulating the market - begin to plot to crush the revolution before it begins. The government starts making small and large strikes against the revolutionaries in all areas of their lives. Cunningham is forced out of his position at the university and has his home seized. Morehouse is declared insane and sent to an asylum, but manages to escape. Everhard becomes more popular and is eventually elected to congress. Soon afterwards, he’s framed for a terrorist bombing and sent to prison along with Avis, although she’s released after six months without charges. Everhard is eventually released, and they go into hiding to plot the next stage in their revolution.
Before the revolutionaries can make their move against the oligarchy, the government makes their move. Everhard has nicknamed this crackdown the “Iron Heel,” for how it attempts to crush the revolution under its boot. The government sets up a pre-emptive strike in Chicago, setting up a riot that it blames the resistance for and puts down with extreme force by an army of mercenaries employed by the oligarchy. Avis and Everhard are there and witness the oligarchy personally crushing thousands of innocent people, including the increasingly desperate Bishop Morehouse. Dr. Cunningham vanished previously, and Avis suspects he’s been taken by the government. The final chapter of the manuscript has Avis write about plans for rebuilding the revolution and making another attempt at toppling the government. However, the manuscript ends suddenly before those plans can be detailed. Meredith explains in a footnote that Avis learned she was about to be arrested and hid the manuscript before fleeing. The manuscript was discovered centuries later, but doesn’t explain how Everhard died.
Jack London was an American author, journalist, and social activist, best known for his novels of the Klondike Gold Rush - The Call of the Wild
and White Fang
, both of which are still widely read and taught today. A member of the radical turn-of-the-century literary group “The Crowd” in San Francisco, he was known at the time for his socialist politics and calls for workers’ rights. A prolific writer, he is considered one of the early pioneers of the science fiction genre. He was honored with a postage stamp by the US Postal Service in 1986.