The Iron Heel Study Guide

Jack London's dystopian science fiction novel

Portrait of Jack London and cover of The Iron Heel

L.C. Page and Company Boston (1903)

The Iron Heel is an early dystopian novel published in 1908 by Jack London. London is best known for his man-against-nature novels like The Call of the Wild and White Fang, so The Iron Heel is often considered a departure from his usual output. 

The Iron Heel is written from the first-person perspective of a female protagonist, and it includes a presentation of London’s socialist political ideals, both of which were unusual for its time.

The book addresses London's belief that unionized labor and socialist political movements would rise to challenge the traditional capitalist power base. Later writers such as George Orwell often explicitly mention The Iron Heel as an influence on their own works.

Plot

The novel begins with a foreword written by Anthony Meredith in the 419 BOM (Brotherhood of Man), approximately the 27th century. Meredith discusses the Everhard Manuscript as a historical document, composed by Avis Everhard and describing the events of 1912 through 1932. Meredith warns that the manuscript is riddled with errors of fact, but insists on its value as a firsthand account of those “terrible times.” Meredith notes that the manuscript, written by Avis Everhard, cannot be considered objective because she is writing about her own husband and was herself too close to the events to have objectivity.

In the Everhard Manuscript proper, Avis describes meeting her future husband, socialist activist Ernest Everhard.

She finds him poorly groomed, self-righteous, and irritating. Ernest argues that the American system of economics is based on the abuse and poor treatment (in other words, the exploitation) of labor, and that the ordinary workers who keep everything going suffer terribly. Avis initially does not agree, but later she conducts her own investigation of Ernest’s claims and is shocked to discover she  concurs with his assessment.

As Avis becomes close to Ernest, her father and a family friend (Dr. John Cunningham and Bishop Moorehouse) also begin to agree with his ideas.

All four key characters begin to work for the socialist causes. As a result, the oligarchs who own and run the country under the guise of capitalism and democracy move to ruin them all. Dr. Cunningham loses his teaching job and his home. Bishop Moorehouse is found to be clinically insane and is committed to an asylum. Ernest wins election as a Representative in Congress, but is framed as a conspirator in a terrorist plot and is sent to prison, along with Avis. Avis is released some months later, followed by Ernest. The two flee into hiding and begin plotting a revolution.

Before action can be taken, the government and oligarchs—which Ernest collectively calls The Iron Heel—form a private army, legitimized by the weak government. This private army sets in motion a false-flag riot in Chicago. The private army, called the Mercenaries, violently crushes the riot, killing many and using brutal tactics. Bishop Moorehouse, escaped from captivity, is killed in the riot.

At the end of the novel, Avis writes optimistically about the plans for a second uprising that Ernest is certain will succeed.

However, as the reader knows from Meredith’s forward, this second uprising will fail, and The Iron Heel will rule the country for centuries until the final revolution that forms the Brotherhood of Man. The manuscript ends suddenly, and Meredith explains that Avis Everhard hid the book because she knew she was about to be arrested.

Major Characters

Anthony Meredith. A historian from the far future, reading and making notes on the so-called Everhard Manuscript. He is condescending and chauvinistic towards Avis and often corrects her; however, his remarks reveal his limited understanding of the early 20th century era that he studies. The reader gets to know Meredith mainly through his marginalia, which adds detail and context to the novel.

Avis Everhard. Born into wealth, Avis is initially dismissive of the plight of the working class.

Over the course of her manuscript, however, she begins to see her younger self as naive and childish, and she becomes a fierce proponent of revolution. There is evidence that Avis is not entirely reliable and that her core attitudes have not entirely changed; she often uses disrespectful language to describe the working classes even as she is speaking the language of revolution.

Ernest Everhard. A passionate believer in socialism, Ernest is shown to be intelligent, physically powerful, and a courageous public speaker. Meredith implies that Ernest Everhard was merely one of many key people in the early days of the revolution, suggesting that Avis may be romanticizing Ernest throughout her manuscript. Most critics believe Ernest represents London himself and his core beliefs.

Dr. John Cunningham. Avis’ father, a celebrated academic and scientist. He is initially a supporter of the status quo, but slowly becomes convinced of Ernest’s cause. He loses his status in society as a result and later disappears; Avis suspects he is kidnapped by the government.

Bishop Moorehouse. A minister who undergoes a similar change in views as Dr. Cunningham, eventually giving his life in the effort to resist the oligarchy.

Literary Style

The Iron Heel is a work of dystopian fiction. Dystopian fiction presents a universe that is at odds with the author’s beliefs and attitudes; in this case, the dystopian aspect comes from a world run by capitalist oligarchs who exploit the working class, abuse the poor, and ruthlessly destroy critics.

The novel is also considered a work of "soft" science fiction, because although it makes no mention of advanced technology, it is centered around a setting 700 years ahead of the date of its composition.

London used a series of nested points-of-view in the novel, each with a different degree of reliability. On the surface is the frame story of Dr. Meredith, who writes from the future and examines a work of historical importance. He presents himself as a trusted authority, but some of his commentary includes factual errors about 20th century history that would be obvious to the reader, which undermines his reliability. The next point of view is that of Avis Everhard, the narrator of the manuscript that makes up the bulk of the text of the novel. Her reliability comes into question when she implies that her statements about her husband are subjective, as well as when she makes seemingly contemptuous comments about the political cause she professes to support. Finally, the perspective of Ernest Everhard is provided when his speeches are included in the text. These speeches seem reliable due to their word-for-word nature, but Avis' unreliability makes the reader less certain. 

London also employs a technique known as a false document: a fictional work that is presented to the reader as a factual one. This conceit allows London to add complexity to a novel that might otherwise be a straightforward political tract. The Iron Heel contains two intertwined, multilayered false documents (Avis’ manuscript and Meredith’s gloss on that manuscript).

This combination a complex mystery concerning whose perspective is closest to the truth.

Jack London was charged several times over the course of his career with plagiarism. Chapter 7 of The Iron Heel, "The Bishop’s Vision," is an essay written by Frank Harris. London did not deny that he copied the speech verbatim, but he claimed that he believed it was a speech delivered by an actual bishop.

Key Quotes

  • “It is far easier to see brave men die than to hear a coward beg for life.” —Avis Everhard
  • “No man can be intellectually insulted. Insult, in its very nature, is emotional.” —Ernest Everhard
  • “Times have changed since Christ's day. A rich man to-day who gives all he has to the poor is crazy. There is no discussion. Society has spoken.” —Ernest Everhard

Iron Heel Fast Facts

  • Title: Iron Heel
  • Author: Jack London
  • Date Published: 1908
  • Publisher: Macmillan
  • Literary Genre: Dystopian Science Fiction
  • Language: English
  • Themes: Socialism and social revolution.
  • Characters: Anthony Meredith, Avis Everhard, Ernest Everhard, John Cunningham, Bishop Moorehouse.