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White Fang: Theme Analysis

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One central theme with which London seems preoccupied in White Fang is the theme of the nature of life. The theme was much on the minds of 19th-century readers and thinkers. In 1859, Charles Darwin advanced ideas that came to be popularly understood as "survival of the fittest"-that life was a struggle, and that only the powerful and strong survived (and, in some applications known as "social Darwinism," perhaps only they deserved to do so). About a half-century later, London publishes this novel, which may be read as a "taking to task" of such "social Darwinism." London's story seems to posit that life is more than a "bleak and materialistic" (III.5) struggle where only power matters. The "redemption" that White Fang undergoes at Weedon Scott's instigation suggests that the greatest power in life is the power of love.
This theme connects quite naturally, then, with another key theme. If London's novel explores the meaning of life, it also quite clearly explores the meaning of civilization. One way in which it does so is through the character of Beauty Smith. Beauty Smith stands as an argument against the misrepresentations of Darwinism noted above-i.e., the justification of the weak and powerless' exploitation at the hands of the strong and powerful; and an attempt to free individuals from the responsibility to exercise their own volition by an appeal to a pre-determined destiny. We are told that Smith is the product of harsh experiences. Like White Fang, his clay has been roughly molded. Even so, Smith has had and presumably still has choice about how to respond to his environment-a choice, for instance, whether or not to "vindicate" his existence by tormenting men and beasts less powerful than he. White Fang, in order to survive, does not. This marks the sharpest contrast between the two characters. It also heightens the novel's overarching reflections on the struggle of life, however, for even as Smith is wrongly exercising his power, White Fang is rightly exercising his to continue to live: "He had too great vitality. His clutch on life was too strong" to continue to resist Smith. Ironically, he demonstrates power through submission. Thus, if Smith truly were a civilized man, he would know to treat White Fang better.

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London has raised this question earlier in his novel, of course. In II.5, for example, he introduces "The Law of Meat." By laying bare the often brutal dynamics of life in the Wild, London is holding a mirror up to us, giving us the opportunity to see those dynamics at work in us, for good or for ill. Do we recognize "the law of meat"-"EAT OR BE EATEN"-when we see it, and do we adhere to it ourselves, or strive to adhere to a higher law, a law that requires us to curb our instincts for a greater good?




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