When I was in Grade 6, my teacher decided to embark on a classics reading campaign, and’White Fang was one of the choices on offer. Being your typical twelve-year-old, I gravitated straight towards the book with the dog on the cover, but was asked instead to read (a heavily abridged edition of) The Count of Monte Christo. Its only now, a good twelve or so years later (no giggling at that or so, please), that Ive finally got around to Jack London at last. Unfortunately, I think this is one of those novels that I might have appreciated more as a starry-eyed, anthropomorphism-loving pre-teen.
Perhaps the most famous of Londons considerable body of work, White Fang tells the story of the life-long belittlement and abuse of the part-wolf, part-dog animal of the same name before tracing the animals eventual redemption at the hand of a loving master. Its a surprisingly brutal tale in parts, with a pervasive sense of horror thats hard to shake, but this is contrasted with a series of almost mawkishly quixotic scenes involving White Fangs socialisation into a world of gentility and civilisation.
For me, the novel started off with immense promise, with an eerie account of two travellers in Alaska being incessantly stalked and preyed upon by a pack of desperate, slavering wolves. Its a chilling depiction of the forces of nature versus civilisation and of the consequences of forcing ourselves upon the natural world, and the sheer horror evoked by the situation is testament to Londons skill as a writer. Theres a sense of the inexorable tread of death about it (and having done my fair share of camping I must say that Im glad that the only large ‘predators in my country are made up). But the novel takes a bit of a hairpin turn from there, and despite myself I found my interest waning.
The second section of the book takes us through the circumstances surrounding the birth of White Fang, and his subsequent adoption by a group of Native Americans, an experienced characterised by constant punitive discipline, to which White Fang gradually becomes accustomed, learning to fear and respect the gods who are his masters. But all of this seems rosy in comparison with what awaits White Fang: a thoroughly awful stint as a fighting dog against whom just about every creature found in North America is pitted. The whole nature vs civilisation thing that has been a rather salient theme throughout White Fangs interaction with human society is highlighted when, though having achieved victory against all manner of wild animals, White Fang meets his match in a bulldog, an animal bred and socialised to ignore its natural instincts in favour of human norms.
However, although White Fang is destined for further socialisation, his experience is markedly different. The inscrutable Weedon Scott voices his objections to White Fangs mistreatment, and takes him under his wing. And to be honest, this is the part of the book that lost me. White Fang is adopted rather than being purchased, as he was by his previous owner, and thus becomes an individual rather than a mere thing or commodity. Moreover, his new situation allows him to eschew the crude trappings of his wild past in order to reap the benefits of being a civilised, socialised creature.’Not only is this a problematic notion, but this’moral is so explicitly, saccharinely rendered that its hard to swallow.’Somewhat creepily to my secular, egalitarian mind, Scott is positioned as a sort of force for good, and White Fang almost as his disciple, and not only do we end up with redemptive overtones, but those of racial/social assimilation.
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On a simply mechanical level, White Fang at this point in the book becomewell, effectively, a hairy human. ‘Were given a rather thorough analysis of White Fang, his mental state, and his actions, and it all feels a little oddly appended. I think I could have stomached this had the novel been less pointedly positioned as an allegory, or had the allegorial elements been there but not the strained anthropomorphism, but as it is its hard to read this without returning time and time again to the moral being expounded.
While as a novel’White Fang doesnt quite work for me, Im curious to read Londons The Call of the Wild, which Ive heard described at the opposite of White Fangperhaps the two when read side by side offer the reader something a little more balanced and satisfying.