Form and Content (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series, Supplement)
White Fang is the tale of a wolf-dog’s fierce struggle for survival against a hostile environment and cruel men. Only late in his life, only after struggle has made him profoundly vicious and an expert killer, does White Fang discover love for a man and the comforts of domesticity. The novel’s twenty-five chapters have five major parts, each with its own locale, theme, rhythm, tone, and climax. The first part, chapters 1 through 3, constitutes a prologue to White Fang’s journey. The tale begins with human experience of the wolf’s natural habitat. Two dogsled drivers delivering a body to Fort McGurry struggle to survive the killing cold and the fierce pursuit of a pack of starving wolves, among them Kiche. Part 2, chapters 4 through 8, depicts the wolf’s experience in nature. Kiche mates, finds a lair, gives birth to White Fang in the spring of 1893, and nurtures him through his first months as a hungry puppy and a novice hunter. In parts 1 and 2, first men and then wolves battle for the food and warmth necessary to survive the cruelties of an Arctic winter. The humans’ horror story in the opening three chapters, although sometimes said to be only loosely attached to the rest of the novel, has an essential similarity to chapters 9 through 25, the horror story of White Fang’s adaptations to an environment dominated by men.
White Fang’s life with humans has three distinct locales. Chapters 9 through 15 are spent in the Yukon...
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Jack London, along with Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris, and others, is considered one of the premier writers of the naturalist style of American literature. Naturalism emerged in France in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and held sway in the United States between about 1900 and 1918, when World War I ended. It developed out of scientific ideas that were popular at the time, especially Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Naturalist writers were interested in the closely related idea of determinism, which holds that the fate of an individual human or animal is determined by the interplay of heredity (nature) and the environment (nurture) in his or her life. These writers often created everyday characters and then subjected them to extreme circumstances to show how innate traits and life circumstances combined to create their destinies. In Crane’s classic naturalist novel The Red Badge of Courage (1895), the extreme circumstances are provided by war. In White Fang and other fiction by London, they are provided by the harsh conditions of life in the far North. Several times in White Fang, London points out to readers that if a certain circumstance had been altered in a small way—for example, if the Indians who first tamed White Fang had camped across the river the night he ran to rejoin them, as they had first planned to—the wolf’s fate would have been completely different.
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This story begins in the wilderness of the Yukon, in a harsh environment that seems hostile to all life. Through violent extremes of climate—through snowstorms and sub-zero temperatures— animals and humans struggle ruthlessly for dominance, because dominance ensures survival. Born into this harsh world, White Fang fights to survive among fierce wild animals. He is captured by Native Americans, beaten, sold to various masters, and eventually shipped to a California ranch where he learns to coexist with humans.
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The narrator of White Fang is omniscient, which is a challenging choice for a writer and a fascinating one for a reader when the main characters are animals. Repeatedly, the narrator confidently describes the thoughts and feelings of dogs and wolves and explains how they experience the world. The best extended example of this comes when White Fang, as a small cub, leaves the lair for the first time. He has thought of the cave entrance as a strange wall that his parents have the power to walk through. Then one day his curiosity outstrips his fear, and he approaches “the wall of the world.” The narration of his first outing begins:
Now the gray cub had lived all his days on a level floor. He had never experienced the hurt of a fall. He did not know what a fall was. So he stepped boldly out upon the air. His hind legs still rested on the cavelip, so he fell forward head downward. The earth struck him a harsh blow on the nose that made him yelp. Then he began rolling down the slope, over and over. He was in a panic of terror. The unknown had caught him at last. It had gripped savagely hold of him.
The narrator goes on to describe in great detail how White Fang learns to distinguish what is alive from what is not alive, how he learns to interpret what his eyes are telling him about how far away things are, what he experiences when he steps into a stream and the current...
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In White Fang London's purpose was more clearly didactic, and because his environmental determinism was in the front of his mind as he wrote this companion piece to The Call of the Wild, the novel is written in a more straightforward, naturalistic manner than the visionary tale of Buck's mythical metamorphosis. To this extent White Fang exemplifies London's belief that matter should take precedence over form. This didacticism results in some strained dialogue, and characters that exist as types or symbols rather than individuals.
To represent the point of view of White Fang, London uses an extremely simplified prose; short declarative sentences and a restricted vocabulary that seem almost childish at times. This plain style, however, effectively approximates White Fang's perspective, and it helps to communicate the difficulty of his transition from wild to civilized.
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Jack London was part of a turn-of-the-century movement known as literary naturalism, and White Fang exemplifies the characteristics of this genre: the story is presented realistically and directly, and dramatizes the force of environment in shaping character. Most critics, however, regard White Fang as less successful as The Call of the Wild. The plot seems more diffuse, and the narration lacks the focused point of view of London's earlier novel.
Also, the character of White Fang appears less fully developed than that of Buck in The Call of the Wild. The differences seem to stem from London's narrative strategy. For example, explaining White Fang's responses to fire and human behavior requires a considerable amount of commentary that seems to digress from the narrative action. As a result, White Fang's motivations seem unclear. London's descriptions of White Fang's battles with other animals are far more compelling than accounts of his acquired obedience to his human masters. London's diction in White Fang is unusually rich, full of complex and mellifluous words, but the narration is occasionally weakened by his insistence on presenting a didactic social message.
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Whereas The Call of the Wild is a mythic tale in which archetypal concerns predominate, its companion piece White Fang is a sociological fable in which London more directly presents his thoughts regarding the deterministic effects of heredity and environment. The Call of the Wild celebrates Buck's triumphant return to the primitive state, but White Fang consciously reverses the process, tracing the development of love and trust for man in the later novel's canine protagonist. Thus, London uses White Fang to emphasize that environmental factors can civilize as well as brutalize. His novel presents the melioristic notion that, like dogs and wolves, men and society can improve.
London often freely adapted ideas from Friedrich Nietzsche, Charles Darwin, and Karl Marx to his own ends. In part 4 of White Fang, for example, London suggests that "compared with the Indians he had known," the white men were "a race of superior gods." Throughout, London insists upon the godlike quality of all humans in the eyes of White Fang. London's attitude concerning Native Americans and white men, and especially his ideas about natural and social superiority, should be confronted directly. His depiction of Native Americans is much more of a Victorian stereotype than an actual view of contemporary Eskimos.
London's environmental determinism permeates this story. While his Darwinian assumptions may not be shared by all...
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Compare and Contrast
Late 1890s–1900s: In 1898, with the discovery of gold along the Klondike River, the Canadian government separates the Yukon district from the Northwest Territories, making it a separate territory. More than thirty thousand prospectors come north to search for gold.
Today: The Yukon remains a territory of Canada. Mining (for lead, zinc, silver, copper, and gold) is its primary industry, followed by tourism. The entire population of the territory is less than the number who came hoping to find gold in the late 1890s, making it one of the least populated regions of North America.
Late 1890s–1900s: Until the gold rush spurs the building of the first railroads in the Yukon, the only ways to travel are on foot, by dogsled, and by canoe. The White Pass and Yukon Railway are constructed to provide transportation for gold prospectors and the settlers who follow them.
Today: The region’s railroads have been shut down, replaced by air travel and the Alaska Highway. Some residents of the Yukon still rely on dogsleds as a major form of transportation.
Late 1890s–1900s: Life in the Yukon is extremely harsh, and famines affecting both humans and animals are common. Native Americans and animals alike depend on salmon and game for food, and in years when both are in short supply, only the strong survive. When people do not have food to feed their dogs, the dogs return to the wild and struggle...
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Topics for Discussion
1. Compare White Fang's life in the wild with his life on Weedon Scott's ranch. Which is better for White Fang? Why?
2. What is "the law of meat" and how does it operate?
3. Why do the humans seem to be "gods" in White Fang's eyes?
4. After White Fang escapes from Gray Beaver, why does he come crawling back?
5. What advantages does White Fang's wolf blood give him over other dogs?
6. London describes the relationship between Gray Beaver and White Fang as a "covenant." What does London imply through his choice of that word?
7. What makes Beauty Smith's treatment of White Fang so much worse than Gray Beaver's? How does it alter White Fang's character?
8. Explain why White Fang responds so cautiously to Weedon Scott's love. What changes must White Fang make to adapt to life in California?
9. What particular challenge does each of these dogs present to White Fang's development: Lip-lip, Cherokee, and Collie?
10. What factors are responsible for Jim Hall's becoming a vicious criminal?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Trace the stages in White Fang's development, noting the chief factors responsible for his change.
2. The Call of the Wild tells the opposite story of White Fang. Buck is a dog who escapes from civilization into the wild. Compare the two stories. Which one is more realistic? Why?
3. After researching the subject of wolves in the arctic, describe how wolves typically interact with humans. Do they ever attack humans? When and why? How easily can a wolf be tamed?
4. Jack London explains that humans brought fire and changed White Fang's environment. In what ways are humans today changing the arctic environment? What impact are these changes having upon the wildlife there? Consult the Reader's Guide for current articles.
5. Write a report on the Klondike gold rush of 1897. Try to show clearly what life would be like among the miners of that time.
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Topics for Further Study
White Fang tells the life story of the title character, but London chose a somewhat unexpected starting point and ending point for his story: The entire first section of the novel centers on the life of White Fang’s mother before White Fang is born, and the story ends before White Fang dies. Discuss what reasons London might have had for these decisions and whether you think they are effective or not.
In parts of western Canada and Alaska, dogsleds are still an important method of transportation. Do research to learn where dogsleds are still in use and what the lives of the dogs and the people who use them are like.
The rights of animals—both domesticated and wild—and what constitutes acceptable treatment of them is an issue that is often debated today. The legal status of animals is changing as some lawmakers, attorneys, and activists push for increased protection of animals from human abuse, neglect, and exploitation. Discuss the issue of animal rights and humane treatment as it relates to the novel. Should laws protect animals from abuse such as that suffered by White Fang? If so, how should people who break these laws be punished? Should laws prohibit people from owning wild animals?
Do research to learn about wolves and wolf-dog hybrids. Find out how accurate and realistic London’s portrayal of White Fang was. Could an animal that is three-quarters wolf really become as tame as White Fang did?
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Because White Fang presents London's environmental determinism so directly, the influence of Herbert Spencer's Social Darwinism is particularly important, but White Fang's domestication also reflects London's boyhood fascination with the novels of Horatio Alger, Jr. Like Alger's heroes, White Fang learns that virtue can lead to the reward of respectability. Like Alger, London clearly portrays the harshness of the world but suggests that melioration is possible.
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London intended White Fang to be a sequel to The Call of the Wild. In this earlier novel, Buck, a magnificent dog, is taken from civilization and sent north. Under the harsh conditions of trail life, he recovers his primitive instincts and eventually forsakes human society altogether.
White Fang was first adapted to film by R-C Pictures in 1925. In 1936, Twentieth Century Fox produced a romantic version of White Fang, starring Michael Whelan and Charles Winninger. A scenic and somewhat violent European version of White Fang was filmed in 1972, directed by Lucio Fulci.
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White Fang has been adapted to film at least eleven times in seven countries: the United States, France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, Spain, and Australia. Among the most widely available versions are White Fang, made in the United States and released in 1991, directed by Randal Kleiser and starring Klaus Maria Brandauer and Ethan Hawke; and White Fang II: Myth of the White Wolf, another American film released in 1994, directed by Ken Olin and starring Scott Bairstow and Alfred Molina.
There are at least two audio adaptations of White Fang. An unabridged version on cassette, read by William Hootkins, was released by Penguin Books Limited in 1998. An abridged version, read by the late actor John Ritter, was released by New Millennium Audio in 2002.
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What Do I Read Next?
The Call of the Wild (1903) is London’s most well-known novel. It was hugely popular when it was first published and remains a favorite today. It also is considered one of the leading novels of the naturalist period. The Call of the Wild has many similarities with White Fang. It is the story of a dog who suffers the cruelties and hardships of nature before being adopted by a kind man.
John Barleycorn (1913) is London’s painfully straightforward account of his alcoholism, published only a few years before his death. It is the only autobiographical work of substantial length that London wrote, and it includes descriptions of the writer’s travels and adventures as well as of his struggles with alcohol.
My First Summer in the Sierra (1911), by John Muir, is the most popular work of the famous conservationist. It is the diary of a summer that Muir had spent in the Sierra Nevada Mountains decades earlier, in 1869. This book and others by Muir were instrumental in bringing American tourists to wilderness areas and in expanding the national park system.
The Red Badge of Courage (1895), by Stephen Crane, tells the story of a young soldier in the Civil War. Crane explores how the soldier’s inborn traits and his environment combine to mold his character and his behavior. Like White Fang, The Red Badge of Courage has a long history as both a literary and a popular success and is...
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For Further Reference
Hamilton, David Mike. "Jack London." In Research Guide to Biography and Criticism, edited by Walton Beacham. Washington, DC: Beacham Publishing, 1985. This article provides an overview of the major biographies and studies of London.
Labor, Earle. Jack London. New York: Twayne, 1974. This introduction to the life and work of Jack London is probably the best place to begin. It is authoritative and clearly written.
London, Jack. Jack London: American Rebel Edited by Philip S. Foner. New York: Citadel Press, 1947. This collection of London's autobiographical and social writings includes such articles as "How I Became a Socialist" and "What Life Means to Me."
London, Joan. Jack London and His Times: An Unconventional Biography. 1939. Reprint. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1968. This book by London's daughter focuses on the development of Jack London's socialist perspective.
Lundquist, James. Jack London: Adventures, Ideas and Fiction. New York: Ungar, 1987. An eminently readable explanation of how London's ideas and real-life adventures influenced his fiction.
Walker, Franklin. Jack London and the Klondike. San Marino, CA: Henry E. Huntington Library, 1966. This scholarly book examines Jack London's experience in the Klondike and its influence upon his writing.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Allen, Mary, “The Wisdom of the Dogs: Jack London,” in her Animals in American Literature, University of Illinois Press, 1983, pp. 77–96.
Geismar, Maxwell, “Jack London: The Short Cut,” in his Rebels and Ancestors: The American Novel, 1890–1915, Houghton Mifflin, 1953, pp. 139–216.
Kasdin, Steven J., ed., The Collected Jack London, Barnes and Noble Books, 1992, pp. 217–329.
Ward, Adolphus William, Sir, Alfred Rayney Waller, William Peterfield Trent, John Erskine, Stuart Pratt Sherman, and Carl Van Doren, eds., The Cambridge History of English and American Literature: An Encyclopedia in Eighteen Volumes, Vol. XVI, Cambridge University Press and G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1907–1921.
Dutcher, James, Jamie Dutcher, and James Manfull, Wolves at Our Door: The Extraordinary Story of the Couple Who Lived with Wolves, Pocket Star, 2002. James Dutcher and his wife, Jamie, spent six years living in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains with a wolf pack. The documentary film they made of their experiences, also entitled Wolves at Our Door, won an Emmy Award. This book details their experiences with the wolves, who lived in a twenty-acre enclosure with the Dutchers.
Kershaw, Alex, Jack London: A Life, Griffin, 1999. This engaging biography covers all aspects of London’s life, including his politics and his love of...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Day, A. Grove. Jack London in the South Seas. New York: Four Wings Press, 1971. Illustrated account of London’s abortive 1907 voyage around the world on his private yacht, the Snark. The trip permanently damaged his health.
Hedrick, Joan D. Solitary Comrade: Jack London and His Work. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982. Psychological-sociological analysis of London’s writings.
O’Connor, Richard. Jack London: A Biography. Boston: Little, Brown, 1964. A good introduction to London’s life and works.
Stasz, Clarice. American Dreamers: Charmian and Jack London. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. A biography of London and his second wife, with more emphasis on Charmian than other biographies.
Watson, Charles N. The Novels of Jack London: A Reappraisal. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983. An overview of London’s novels and novellas, with an emphasis on Herman Melville’s influence. Watson devotes one chapter exclusively to White Fang.
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