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A Piece of Steak by Jack London: Setting & Characters

Instructor: Joe Ricker
Like much fiction from Jack London, ''A Piece of Steak'' is about survival. His central character, Tom King, is an aged fighter who gets hit with more than punches in this short story set in Australia.

Hunger

Jack London is mostly known for his short story ''To Build a Fire'' and his novels The Call of the Wild and White Fang. London was one of the most prominent writers of his time, and one of the first American authors to gain wealth and celebrity from his writing. His fiction is often suspenseful and engaging, and nothing short of this can be said about ''A Piece of Steak,'' which is the story of an aged fighter in Australia who no longer fights for glory, but enough money to try to pay his rent and get something to eat. For anyone who's ever seen a Rocky movie with Sylvester Stallone, the characters and setting in the short story ''A Piece of Steak'' is certainly something that will remind you of those nail-biting fight scenes.

Aside from Lizzie, Tom King's wife, and Jack Ball, the referee in the fight who gets a few short lines of description, there are really only three key characters in this short story: The central character Tom King; his opponent Sandel; and Stowsher Bill, a fighter that Tom King fought during his youth, but who has a tremendous impact on the story even though he is only present in Tom King's reflection of his time as a much younger fighter.

Ringside

The majority of the story takes place in the ring, where Tom King engages in a boxing match with a much younger opponent named Sandel, a fighter from New Zealand that nobody knows much about. Sandel represents youth in the story, and is often referred to as 'Youth.'

Before the fight, though, Tom King is in his shabby apartment eating what little food his wife has prepared for him. They live in poverty, the consequences of an aged fighter who no longer has the youth and showmanship necessary to bring in bigger purses. Tom King's wife Lizzie had to borrow flour from the neighbor just to make the gravy for the bread that she spent the last of their money on. Consider the following quotation:

'The two children in the other room had been sent early to bed in order that in sleep they might forget they had gone supperless.'

This certainly establishes a pretty bleak setting for this story.

The Former King

In the apartment, Tom King sits in a chair that is rickety and ready to break apart. He has no tobacco for his pipe, which isn't all that shocking considering his children have gone to bed hungry. The next day, Tom King will fight and hopefully win so that he'll have enough money to feed his family, pay his rent, and get the steak that he is so desperately craving.

The boxing match takes place the next day at the Gayety. On his two-mile walk to the arena, Tom King reflects upon aging and recalls a time when he was young and had defeated old Bill Stowsher, who had cried after losing.

Tom King is described earlier in the story as a 'fighting beast' and having the 'face of a man to be afraid of in a dark alley or lonely place.' During his fight with his younger opponent, King uses his experience in the ring to nearly defeat Sandel. Surrounded by spectators, King struggles to ignore their criticisms of his fighting strategy and the ever-pressing reminder from his body that he is just too old to win.

While the majority of the story is set in the ring while Tom King and his opponent fight, the more significant setting is where Tom King finds himself after the fight, after nearly winning, and coming so close to having the money to buy food.

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