London considered White Fang to be the companion piece to his more famous work The Call of the Wild (1903). The latter story describes the transformation of a domestic dog into a wild one. The former, on the other hand, shows a wild wolf-dog hybrid becoming a domestic dog, which London considered to be progress. White Fang is partly an autobiographical allegory based on London’s conversion from teenage hoodlum to married, middle-class writer. White Fang’s puppyhood parallels London’s childhood. Because he is three-quarters wolf, White Fang is different from the other dogs both in the Native American camp and in civilization. Likewise, London was an outcast because of his illegitimacy. His biological father refused to marry his mother, and he was born out of wedlock. Both White Fang and the young London regarded themselves as surrounded by enemies and reacted with violence and aggression. They both had mothers who became indifferent to them. Kiche raises another litter; London’s mother was obsessed with astrology and get-rich-quick schemes.
On another plane, the story is an allegory of humanity’s progression from nature to civilization. Love and discipline change a wild wolf into a domestic dog. By implication, such values can also transform society from one that lives by a disguised law of “eat or be eaten” to one founded on humane values.
At the same time, White Fang moves up the hierarchy by killing. Beauty Smith values him for his ability to kill other dogs. Scott’s family finally accepts White Fang when he kills an escaped convict who threatens to kill Scott’s father. The implication is that the metamorphosis of both the individual and society will require violence at some point.
Nature versus Nurture The overarching theme of the novel is that heredity and environment each contribute to White Fang’s fate. London comes down on the side of nurture as being the more powerful force. White Fang’s nature is malleable, and he adjusts to whatever conditions his environment presents in order to survive. Under the abuse of Beauty Smith, White Fang becomes a killer seething with hate; under the loving hand of Weedon Scott, he becomes a gentle pet.
While this theme is woven throughout the novel, it is stated explicitly in these lines:
White Fang grew stronger, heavier, and more compact, while his character was developing along the lines laid down by his heredity and his environment. His heredity was a life-stuff that may be likened to clay. It possessed many possibilities, was capable of being moulded into many different forms. Environment served to model the clay, to give it a particular form. Thus, had White Fang never come in to the fires of man, the Wild would have moulded him into a true wolf. But the gods had given him a different environment, and he was moulded into a dog that was rather wolfish, but that was a dog and not a wolf.
Survival of the Fittest The novel portrays two worlds, the world of nature and the world of humans. In both these worlds, all life is subject to the law of the survival of the fittest. Famine is well known to both humans and animals, and when it comes, the weak, the sick, and the old die. When the Indians have no food to give the dogs, the dogs return to the wild and try to stay alive until the famine passes. If they succeed, and if they find their old masters again, they often return to human society. But when hardship comes, it is every man, woman, child, dog, wolf, and pup...
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for himself or herself. Relationships are based on mutual benefit, not on affection.
In the last section of the novel, White Fang enters a kind of paradise where the law of survival of the fittest has been superseded by the law of love. Weeden Scott rescues him at the moment when the law says he should die, and from that moment on White Fang lives in a radically different kind of world. The world of love, however, is one that most creatures never experience and one that White Fang reaches only after much extreme suffering—only because a kind man happens to come along at just the right moment, only because he was born with enough intelligence to be rehabilitated, and, above all, only because he has been tough enough to survive until that moment.
London called White Fang the "complete antithesis" of The Call of the Wild, but although his canine protagonist moves from wild to civilized, White Fang again demonstrates its author's belief in the power of heredity and environment. He describes heredity as "a life-stuff . . . capable of being moulded into many forms" by the "thumb of environment." Whereas Buck had learned the law of "club and fang," Weedon Scott's compassion awakens in White Fang "potencies that had languished and well-nigh perished," specifically the ability to love. Thus, London argues that kindness can be as powerful a modifying force as violence. White Fang's final confrontation with the escaped criminal Jim Hall, which pits a wolf shaped by affection into a loyal defender of his master against a man twisted by societal pressures into a killer, emphasizes London's belief that environmental factors are the primary determinant of morality.
In The Call of the Wild London described the Yukon as a primitive, animating landscape in which men could strip themselves of unessentials and come to terms with the core of their being, but in White Fang, the "vast silence" of the Yukon is the enemy of life: "Life is an offense to it, for life is movement; and the Wild aims always to destroy movement." Devoid of all human feeling, it is a "desolation . . . so lone and cold that the spirit of it was not even sadness." It is a place predicated upon death, a terrible force against which the actions of men and dogs seem inconsequential. Through his description of place in White Fang London expresses the "masterful and incommunicable wisdom of eternity laughing at the futility of life and the effort of men."