Form and Content

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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.

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White Fang’s life with humans has three distinct locales. Chapters 9 through 15 are spent in the Yukon Territory traveling with Gray Beaver, a Mackenzie Indian. Then, captive in a cage in Dawson, White Fang is abused for sport by Beauty Smith in chapters 16 through 18. In California in the last seven chapters, the wolf-dog is tamed and willingly employs his strength and intelligence in service of men as companion, ally, and even savior. Thus, the slow evolution of White Fang’s relationship to humans is outlined; his choices take him from freedom in the wild with his mother through life in three consecutive human cultures.

First, the wolf-dog comes in from the cold, choosing to live with and work for the food and fire of an Indian master. White Fang’s life as leader of Gray Beaver’s sled team climaxes with a long trading journey on the Mackenzie, Porcupine, and Yukon rivers. At their destination in Fort Yukon, in the summer of 1898, the wolf-dog is first initiated into the ways of white people and the world of commerce and guns. There, his special strength and intelligence make White Fang a commodity. Sold to Beauty Smith, the five-year-old wolf-dog is a captive, abused and exploited so harshly that he develops into a ferocious killer called “The Fighting Wolf.” The culminating transformation of White Fang’s relationship to humans occurs when he is rescued from Smith by Weedon Scott and treated for the first time with kindness. In the novel’s last seven chapters, allegiance and affection for a man springs from this good treatment, and White Fang becomes “The Blessed Wolf.” In the final chapter, his positive bond to Scott is proven when he risks his own life in valiant defense of the Scott family against the murderous intentions of the escaped convict Jim Hall.

White Fang’s movement from the wild freedom of the Northland during the years of the Klondike Gold Rush to the tame comforts of the Scott estate in California is presented in omniscient narration. An invisible but all-knowing presence is able not only to represent what goes on in the minds and hearts of people but also to represent the nonverbal, nonrational, nonconscious experience of the wolf-dog. For example, in chapter 7, White Fang’s first big kill as a puppy is interrupted with omniscient commentary:This was living, though he did not know it. He was realizing his own meaning in the world; he was doing that for which he was made—killing meat and battling to kill it. He was justifying his existence, than which life can do no greater; for life achieves its summit when it does to the uttermost that which it was equipped to do.

Such passages interpret actions and help establish the novel’s themes, but, unfortunately, they can also create an undertow of murky abstraction and sticky sentiment.

Historical Context

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Naturalism
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.

London’s naturalist fiction is especially interesting because many of his works feature animals as characters. This allows London to examine nature both in its wild state, untouched by human civilization and complications, and as it is affected by human intervention. In fact, White Fang portrays wolves both in the wild and relating to a range of different human cultures and temperaments, showing how each one affects the wolves. This, along with the novel’s objective, detailed style, makes it an exemplar of naturalism.

Conservation
When White Fang was published, conservation of the wilderness was much on Americans’ minds. Theodore Roosevelt, the most conservationminded president the United States has ever had, was in the White House. He expanded the United States’s national forests by more than 150 million acres. Roosevelt’s friend John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club and the United States’s most famous conservationist, was publishing books about his visits to America’s wild places and at the same time working for their protection. After centuries of expansion from the East Coast to the Pacific, Americans were for the first time realizing that although their nation was vast, its wilderness and resources were not unlimited and needed to be conserved and protected.

In addition, as more Americans moved to cities and as life became increasingly industrialized, the idea of the wilderness became more captivating. Americans and Europeans alike loved to read stories of adventures in wild places, and this undoubtedly contributed greatly to the popularity of London’s fiction.

Setting

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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.

Literary Style

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Omniscient Narrator
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 grabs him, and so on. There is no way for readers to know how accurate these descriptions are, but it is clear that they are based on long, close observation of canines, and they succeed in making the novel’s animals complex and compelling characters.

Figurative Language
London makes frequent use of several kinds of figurative language. The novel’s first sentence contains an example of personification: “Dark spruce forest frowned on either side the frozen waterway.”

There was a hint in it of laughter, but of a laughter more terrible than any sadness—a laughter that was mirthless as the smile of the Sphinx, a laughter cold as the frost and partaking of the grimness of infallibility.

Such figurative language enriches the descriptions throughout the novel and makes the faraway landscape and the special terrors of the North more real to readers by relating them to more familiar, universal realities.

One figure of speech that is especially prominent in the novel is antonomasia, in which the name of an office or role is substituted for a person’s actual name. A common example of the technique is the use of “the Bard” to refer to Shakespeare. In White Fang, when the narrator speaks of men as they are viewed by dogs and wolves, he calls them “the gods.” London writes several times that canines see humans in roughly the same way that humans see their gods. He even establishes a hierarchy of gods, making the claim that canines recognize white men as “superior gods” compared to Indians. This recognition is said to be based on the canines’ comprehension that the white men in the story have more power than the Indians.

Literary Techniques

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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.

Literary Qualities

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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.

Social Concerns

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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.

Additional Commentary

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 readers, his dramatization of those concepts in White Fang should provoke thoughtful discussion. The questions raised by this book may be controversial. How much does environment determine character? Does civilization really improve life? How "human" is White Fang? Should White Fang's transformation be seen as a gain or as a loss?

Compare and Contrast

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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 to find enough food to stay alive.

Today: Humans and animals in the Yukon still live in relative isolation and depend heavily on salmon and game. However, air travel and modern communications greatly reduce the threat of famine. In the late 1990s, when salmon and game were scarce and people in the region were unable to feed their sled dogs, word quickly reached the rest of the world. Pet food companies and others donated food, and private couriers flew it to the Yukon free of charge to prevent widespread starvation of sled dogs.

Literary Precedents

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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.

Media Adaptations

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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.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
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.

Further Reading
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 the wilderness and of adventure as well as his writing.

Lawlor, Mary, Recalling the Wild: Naturalism and the Closing of the American West, Rutgers University Press, 2000. Lawlor discusses the various ways in which Americans have thought of the West throughout their history and examines how the literature of each period both influenced and reflected these ideas. Naturalism is a major focus of the book.

Pizer, Donald, ed., The Cambridge Companion to American Realism and Naturalism: From Howells to London, Cambridge University Press, 1995. Pizer discusses realism and naturalism as literary movements and then provides more in-depth analysis of ten representative works, including London’s The Call of the Wild.

Bibliography

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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.

For Further Reference

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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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