A Piece of Steak by Jack London: Theme & Symbolism

Instructor: Joe Ricker
Many of Jack London's stories pit man against nature or man against man. In this lesson, we'll see how London's common theme of survival is made apparent in 'A Piece of Steak,' the story of a boxing match between an aged fighter and one with youth on his side.


Jack London was one of the most influential writers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His short stories and novels remain a piece of fundamental literature to this day, his most famous works being The Call of the Wild, White Fang, and the short story 'To Build a Fire.' Among these works, the theme of survival is prevalent, which is also the case for his short story 'A Piece of Steak.'

'A Piece of Steak' is a story about an aged boxer named Tom King who was once a champion fighting for glory. In this story, however, King is well past his prime, living in poverty and fighting solely with the hope that he can make enough money to feed his family and pay his rent. Essentially, Tom King has no other option but to fight because he has never opted to pick up a trade or other line of work. The story becomes even more somber at the end when Tom King comes close, but fails to win the fight, making his struggle for survival that much more significant.

Cycle of Life

The context of age and youth, as Tom King and his opponent Sandel represent respectively, in 'A Piece of Steak' is an obvious perspective of the cycle of life. In this story, however, it means much more. It's about survival. The following passage from the story adds clarity to this:

And ever they came, more and more youngsters--Youth unquenchable and irresistible--and ever they put the old uns away, themselves becoming old uns and travelling the same downward path, while behind them, ever pressing on them, was Youth eternal--the new babies, grown lusty and dragging their elders down, with behind them more babies to the end of time--Youth that must have its will and that will never die.

Much like animals in the wild, predators especially, they have to hunt for food to survive. For Tom King, his hunt for food takes place in the boxing ring, where a victory means he survives another day and defeat means that his family goes hungry.

Age and Youth

Sandel in the story represents youth, and the ability to use that youthful vigor to overcome the trials of nature and gain enough experience to continue in the cycle of life and age. Tom King, in this respect, represents the wisdom and experience gained with age. The struggle for survival is between experience of age and the vigor of youth. As the fight between King and Sandel unfolds, it's clear that the fight isn't about pride, which one would expect from a boxing match. Instead, the fight is about survival. London writes:

One stiff punch would do it. Sandel was his, indubitably his. He had outgeneralled him, outfought him, outpointed him. Sandel reeled out of the clinch, balanced on the hair line between defeat or survival. Sandel reeled out of the clinch, balanced on the hair line between defeat or survival.

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