A Piece of Steak by Jack London: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Richard Pierre

Richard has a doctorate in Comparative Literature and has taught Comparative Literature, English, and German

Jack London's ''A Piece of Steak'' (1909) is a classic story about the struggles of poverty and the conflict between age and youth. This lesson will summarize the story and discuss its style and major ideas.

The Plot

Tom King, the protagonist of ''A Piece of Steak,'' is an aging Australian boxer who's fallen on hard times. He's finishing a simple meal of bread and gravy, still hungry, but his wife and children haven't eaten anything. His wife had spent their last bit of money to buy the bread, and borrowed the flour for the gravy from a neighbor.

Tom's set to fight a much younger boxer, Sandel, who's just arrived from New Zealand. Sandel has been paired with Tom to see how well he can fight without wasting a top young boxer on the unproven New Zealander. Tom's hungry, tired, and worn out from previous fights: ''Blimey, but couldn't I go a piece of steak!'' he tells his wife, echoing the title. When he was young, he could fight without ever tiring, and the most important thing about winning was glory. Now, however, winning the fight just means getting money to buy some food for his family and pay his rent.

He walks to the fight, unable to afford a cab. This saps precious energy. When he gets to the ring, he doesn't see many familiar faces, just another old boxer like himself who serves as the referee. Tom remembers how he used to have crowds of adoring fans when he entered the ring.

When the fight begins, Sandel starts swinging wildly, giving it everything he has right out of the gate. At first, Tom only blocks and deflects Sandel's swings. An experienced boxer, Tom knows a fight is as much about endurance as raw power. Tom knows that he'll have to wait for Sandel to wear himself out before using the precious little energy he has to make his move.

In the third round, Tom finally knocks Sandel to the ground with a single punch. The crowd cheers, but Sandel gets up before the referee finishes the ten-second count. This happens again in the sixth round. By this time, Tom is spent. It's all he can do just to hang on to Sandel. A wicked swing by Sandel hits Tom's jaw; he's out for good, and the match is over.

A sore, crushed Tom starts to leave. Even more than losing the fight, Tom hates the idea of going home to his wife and kids with no prize money to pay for food or bills. He reflects on his younger days, when he knocked out an older boxer, Stowsher Bill, then saw him crying after the match. Tom understands why now. As he leaves, people ask Tom why he didn't win. Tom knows it's because he didn't have that precious piece of steak that would have given him much-needed energy.

Poverty and ''A Piece of Steak''

London is known for stories of wilderness adventure, like The Call of the Wild and ''To Build a Fire,'' but he was also very concerned with social issues. His nonfiction book People of the Abyss, for example, describes the crushing poverty many in London faced.

Portrait of Jack London
Portrait of Jack London

Age and Youth

London's story highlights how these struggles are intensified by the conflict between age and youth. The aging, battered Tom is described in animalistic terms: ''Sheer animal that he was, the eyes were the most animal-like feature about him. They were sleepy, lion-like---the eyes of a fighting animal.'' He's so worn down and reduced to bare existence that he's almost not human.

The young Sandel, however, is described like a god: ''Youth incarnate, deep-chested, heavy-thewed, with muscles that slipped and slid like live things under the white satin skin.'' Sandel is more than just a young boxer; he symbolizes Tom's downfall, as a character representing Tom's glory days and a sign that his time has passed. Yet even Sandel will one day be past his prime. Another young fighter, Young Pronto (whose name means ''Young Fast,'' after all!) has already challenged the winner of the match.

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