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“The Law of Life” is a short story by early 20th-century American writer Jack London; it was first published in 1901 as a stand-alone piece in McClure’s Magazine, and included the following year in London’s collection, The Children of Frost. Like many of London’s works, the story’s setting and themes reflect London’s experiences prospecting for gold in the Yukon region of northwest Canada. Its fatalistic tone, meanwhile, is characteristic of the naturalist school of literature. This movement, which emerged out of realism in the late 19th century, sought to depict human experience and action as the product of historical forces and scientific laws—for instance, the Darwinian evolutionary theory that “The Law of Life” draws on.
As the story opens, an elderly man named Koskoosh listens as the rest of his tribe packs up camp to seek new hunting grounds. He also hears the cries of a sickly child named Koo-tee whose death is imminent. Koskoosh was once the tribe’s chief but is now blind and sickly, and he is staying behind so as not to slow the others down. Although his granddaughter Sit-cum-to-ha has provided him with a small pile of firewood, Koskoosh knows and accepts that he will die as a result of this decision. Nevertheless, he’s touched when his son—now the tribe’s chief—remains behind for a moment to say goodbye; Koskoosh assures his son that he is at peace with his fate and then listens as he too departs.
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Now alone, Koskoosh quickly moves to build the fire, knowing that it’s the only thing standing between him and death. However, he remains philosophical about his circumstances; death is an unavoidable fact of life, particularly in such a harsh environment, and Koskoosh reflects that the fate of any individual is less important than the survival of the species. In fact, he believes that an individual’s only real purpose in life is reproduction and sees little point in resisting or mourning that fact.
Koskoosh’s thoughts next turn to various memories, including the unprecedented famine during which his mother died, and the “times of plenty” when the tribe felt secure enough to go to war with its neighbors (Paragraph 14). He also recalls “abandon[ing] his own father on an upper reach of the Klondike one winter” (Paragraph 12). The memory that looms largest, however, comes from Koskoosh’s childhood. He and his friend Zing-ha were play-hunting when they stumbled upon the tracks of a wolf pack chasing a moose. Following these signs, the boys eventually discovered a trail of blood leading into the clearing where the moose was making its final stand.
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While recalling this, Koskoosh briefly finds himself wishing that Sit-cum-to-ha had gathered more wood for him, or even that his son would return to fetch him. Instead, he hears wolves, and he remembers the sight of “the moose [...] the torn flanks and bloody sides, the riddled mane, and the great branching horns, down low and tossing to the last” (Paragraph 21). Koskoosh feels a wolf brush against him and scrambles to grab a torch to protect himself. As he does, he hears other wolves encircling him. Thinking once again of the moose, he lowers the torch and resigns himself to his death.
By Jack London