Jack London: “White Fang”


On the surface, White Fang is the opposite story of Call of the Wild.  White Fang considers the the domestication of a wolf and his acceptance of the human world.  Although being an opposing narrative, White Fang reinforces many of the themes in the earlier work.  The novel is extremely violent anfor this blog entry, I will focus on the causes of violence in the novel.

Part One: “The Wild” – Scarcity and Violence
The novel begins with humans facing off in a struggle for survival against a pack of wolves led by a red-furred “she-wolf.”  She will be the future mother of “White Fang” and is only half wolf.  The wolves are violently attacking the party, killing their dogs, and eventually threatening the lives of the men.  Their attacks are driven by an intense hunger.  This famine (as London describes these periods of starvation) forced the pack to cooperate, set aside internal grievances and work together in a furious struggle for survival.  The humans have food and the struggle for survival demands that the wolves take from those that have.  It would be too simple to read this as the core and the periphery of the global economy.  While the humans have, they are also in desperate circumstances, lacking the means to protect themselves and also subject to the deprivation and want.  For both groups scarcity is imposed by outside forces, yet in the struggle for survival the desperate prey on the weak.  Such is life for too many people.  Such is the consequences of scarcity imposed by inequality.


Part Two: Born of the Wild: The cycle of scarcity and plenty

The violence in part two of the novel is of two parts.  The first is the wolves achieving temporarily a post-scarcity situation, which leads to the break of the pack and the beginning of mating.  Later, as the famine returns, the now smaller pack (made up of the She-Wolf and One Eye and their pups) struggles with nature for a meager substance.  Other acts of violence are worked out between the wolves as they struggle for access to the She-Wolf and the right to reproduce.  We are reminded that in these desperate circumstance, every basic animal needs demands some violence, on nature or on each other.  Hunger often deprived them of the basest instincts.  “Had there been food, love-making and fighting would have gone on apace, and the pack-formation would have been broke up.  But the situation of the pack was desperate.  it was lean with long-standing hunger.” (118-119)  I am reminded of Christopher Ryan’s criticism of Steven Pinker.  The essence of the debate is over the violence inherent in humanity.  For Ryan we are essentially cooperative and egalitarian, but driven to violence as a result of the state, hierarchies and cultural traditions that enforce division and conflict.  For him, scarcity was a by-product of civilization.  For Pinker, prehistoric humans were violent by nature and it is only through the long process of civilization that humans have grown more peaceful.  Well, I realize I am already reading too much in London, who probably agreed more with Pinker on this point.  But whatever the cause of scarcity, it does seem that violence is a typical response.  The solution to violence is ending scarcity and in a world as productive and prosperous as our, scarcity must be imposed.

The plot in the second half of part two documents the death of One Eye in a battle with a lynx and the survival of the She-Wolf and her son.

Part Three: The Gods of the Wild: Scarcity and Violence in Civilization

London does expose some of his racism in this part and the next, calling the Indians “The Gods of the Wild” and the Euro-Americans “The Superior Gods.”  Ultimately there is an interesting lesson here.  White Fang’s domestication is ultimately a religious process of coming to acceptance of the domination of the gods.  In this section we immediately learn that the She-Wolf (Kiche) was previously domesticated.  White Fang (the name he acquires at this point) learns that humans are law-makers, but law does not eliminate violence.  White Fang’s life is no less tormented by violence than it was in the wild.  A dog, Lip-Lip, torments him.  He learns to fear technology as a mixed blessing (he burns his mouth).  The human’s law-making also led to the breaking up of the family as Kiche is sold to someone else.  While the human’s laws sometimes protect White Fang, he is as often the victim of the law, which is always enforced with the club.  (We are instantly reminded of “law of club and fang” from The Call of the Wild). It is also in this section that White Fang chooses to stay with humans.

Part Four: The Superior Gods: Violence as a Way of Life

These chapters cover the maturity of White Fang.  Although domesticated, violence is a part of life.  When arriving at Fort Yukon, White Fang kills the “white man’s” dogs and is eventually purchased by Beauty Smith and used in dog fighting.  White Fang has entered the world of The Hunger Games, where his job is to battle other dogs for the pleasure and profit of humans.  A lifetime of scarcity, law, discipline, and profit transformed White Fang into a brute.  He is deemed untrainable, but his violence is tamed by those in control to their benefit.  “Under the tutelage of the mad god, White Fang became a fiend.  He was kept chained in a pen at the rear of the fort, and here Beauty Smith teased him and irritated and drove him wild with petty torments.  The man early discovered White Fang’s susceptibility to laughter, and made it a point, after painfully tricking him, to laugh at him. . . At such times reason fled from White Fang, and in his transports of rage he was even more mad than Beauty Smith.” (216)

Part Five: The Tame: Violence Under the Surface

White Fang spends the last part of the novel under the ownership of a new master, who treats him well and takes him to the California cities.  There he learns to control his violence, although he still kills chickens and uses threats and violence to defend himself from other dogs.  In the end he meets Collie and had children of his own.  They will not be raised in the Wild.  They will likely not experience scarcity.  I am not sure to interpret the next generation within this model I proposed above but any interpretation would require us to remember that White Fang’ children are still the product of the violence caused by and inflicted on White Fang.

In short, the lesson of White Fang is the violence of the law, of want, of profit.  Our own violence, whether against the system, each other, or our tormentors cannot be understood without this context.  And as tames as most of us might be – for we, like White Fang, often simmer in anger – it would be good for the masters to not forget that we are one generation from the wolves and like the She-Wolf at the start of the novel, will take what we need.

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