Critical Context (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 413

The Call of the Wild (1903) was Jack London’s first critically acclaimed novel, riding the turn-of-the-century wave of American fascination with the Klondike, the Gold Rush, and the mysteries of the Arctic. Although intended as adult adventure with serious political and philosophical messages, the book has since become part of the canon of animal stories for young readers. White Fang was London’s effort to capitalize quickly on his initial success. Its story was intended to be the antithesis of the earlier novel, exploring not the removal of but the acquisition of the trappings of human civilization. In The Call of the Wild, the dog Buck is kidnapped from California and forced to adapt to the wilds of the north; in White Fang, the wolf-dog leaves the wild and slowly adapts to humans and even to domesticity. White Fang is generally regarded as artistically inferior to its companion piece, but it helped to establish London as a popular American literary figure.

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The first three chapters of White Fang resemble London’s most frequently anthologized short story, “To Build a Fire.” Both dramatize a fundamental law of the Arctic winter: Traveling alone at fifty degrees below zero means destruction. The laws of nature are inexorable. The laws of humans, however, are equally punishing but far more confusing, as White Fang discovers. Repeatedly, he is brought to the edge of extinction, only to recover by adapting to the laws that govern his own nature and the laws that structure his new environments. With his combination of instinct and intelligence, the wolf seems far better skilled at adaptation than does the human being. In the novel’s last chapter, another innocent—the convict Jim Hall—cannot accept the mandate of the law or adapt to his captivity, and he is destroyed. A wolf’s life serves to dramatize the extreme complexity of humankind’s relations to nature and to the legal and moral constructs of societies.

Possessing moral consciousness makes life in this world profoundly disturbing. In 1909, London explored in Martin Eden the moral consciousness and education of a man struggling with the constraints and pressures of human civilization. Like the struggles of a wolf, the struggles of a strong, intelligent, and sensitive artist adapting to the complex demands of human society can be full of great horror and small satisfaction. London’s rather negative views of his society produced plots full of adventure and excitement veiling a grim allegory of human imperialism, greed, and cruelty.

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