White Fang: Essay Q&A

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1. White Fang begins with an invocation of "the futility of life." Does the book in fact suggest that life is ultimately "futile," or is meaning in life possible and, if so, how is such meaning realized?
Although White Fang certainly portrays life as a difficult struggle-for animals as well as for human beings-it does not necessarily adopt the fatalistic view implicit in its opening paragraph. White Fang could be said to realize meaning in his life through the love that Weedon Scott gives him. He discovers his purpose: to serve and defend his master, his "god." London could be claiming, in this narrative, that the meaning of life can be found in love.
2. How does London both contrast and compare human beings and animals throughout White Fang?
Parts I and II of White Fang raise this question by juxtaposing two dramatic fights for survival: those of the gold-rushers and those of the wolves. The human beings are clearly superior, called "gods" in relation to wolves and dogs-yet all are subject to the Darwinian struggle for survival. It is not unfair to say that, in some ways, London uses his wolves, and creates them as such fully realized characters, to examine human "wildness" and human nature. In III.6, for instance, we learn about the "one besetting weakness" in White Fang's otherwise strong constitution: "He could not stand being laughed at." Unfortunately for White Fang, the famine is no time for weakness; during the time of testing, "only the strong survived"-an obvious reference to Darwinian theory. Here again, London is "leveling" humanity and beast: for instance, "White Fang's gods were also hunting animals" (emphasis added). London is reiterating an implicit thesis that, for their differences in power, man and animal are not all that different.
3. According to White Fang, what roles to nature and nurture play in determining individual identity and character?
Essays should draw upon the many references to the "clay" of life being molded-for example, such passages as those in II.4, in which White Fang as a pup is completely responsive to instinct, and III.3, in which White Fang's "nurture" has forced him to become "quicker of movement than the other dogs, swifter of foot, craftier, deadlier." In general, London's position seems to be that nature (i.e., instinct) is a powerful factor in character development (Collie may serve as a good illustration of this tenet), but that nature can be "overruled" by the "thumb of circumstance" (IV.6, a key passage for studying the "nature-nurture" dichotomy in the novel), gently or roughly molding the clay of "nature" into something very different than it might have been otherwise. However, London also reserves a powerful role for love to undo the damage that the "thumb of circumstance," if applied harshly, could have done in the past.
4. How may the story of White Fang be seen as a story of redemption?
Essays should draw on IV.6 as key source material for answering this question. The narrator states: "Scott had set himself the task of redeeming White Fang-or rather, of redeeming mankind from the wrong it had done White Fang." The word "redemption," of course, is heavy with religious overtones; it, too, fits in well to the religious schema that London has developed throughout the text. In contrast to the cruel and arbitrary, tyrannical "gods" that White Fang has known to this point in life, Scott is a god of love. Love, London may be saying, is the key to redemption, in an animal or a person's life. Love, in fact, is virtually equated with living when London writes of White Fang upon Scott's return, "The return of the love-master was enough. Life was flowing through him again, splendid and indomitable." This sentence may be the key to London's implicit thesis throughout, that love is necessary for life.
5. What purpose does the sudden introduction of Jim Hall in the final chapter of the novel serve? How does it develop the theme(s) of the novel as a whole?
Like Beauty Smith, Jim Hall seems to exist in order to serve as a foil to White Fang. We learn that Hall "had not been born right, and he had not been helped any by the molding he had received at the hands of society"-note the subtle invocation of two oft-recurring images in the book, that of clay and that of hands. The opening paragraph of V.5 alone alerts us that Jim Hall is a parallel to White Fang. Unlike the animal, however, Hall has not experienced the "thumb" (IV.6) of love in his life; even his prison sentence is (partially) the result of a larger government and police conspiracy against him. Like White Fang, Jim Hall has responded to the harshness of his treatment at society's hands by becoming an animal: e.g., he "used his teeth on the other's throat just like any jungle animal." Unlike White Fang, however, Hall is not allowed a chance at redemption.

He dares to attack Judge Scott's household, and White Fang kills him for it. Readers will want to ponder how the death of Hall may be viewed as a tragedy because he was never loved in his life, and may think about what London might be wishing to communicate in his narrative's closing moments. Does the fact that the reader's sympathy clearly lie (and are indeed meant to do so) with White Fang indicate that we human beings should apply the same capacity for love that we apply to animals to our fellow men and women a bit more as well?

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