Behavioral Changes in “White Fang”
Jack London is known for using naturalism and brutality as themes in his novels; however, it is also common for him to use philosophical ideas to advance his plots. One example that effectively shows this is London’s White Fang, which is significantly informed by Charles Darwin’s theories of survival and competition. More specifically, this work centers on the study of Social Darwinism, which is a belief that “the process of natural selection acting on variations in the population would result in the survival of the best competitors and in continuing improvement in the population” (“Social Darwinism” 1). This theory is articulated within the changes in White Fang’s behavior in different environments. White Fang shows how one’s behavior adapts through external influences and demonstrates the underlying presence of Social Darwinism.
The human characters have a significant impact on White Fang, prompting major changes in his behavior. One of these alterations occurs when he is forced into an unfamiliar and harsh environment. He must learn to survive with his new master, Beauty Smith, who is a described as “a sadistic master who beats White Fang and starves him to make him fight harder” (Reesman 3). The neglect and abuse from Smith has an important impact on White Fang, since now he must learn new tactics for survival. Through this struggle, he learns to behave like a vicious beast in order to survive and protect himself from being killed. Eventually, this leads him to fight and often kill any dog that crosses his path. Virginia Crane explains how White Fang gets the name “The Fighting Wolf” by being “abused and exploited so harshly that he develops into a ferocious killer” (Crane 3). With Smith in control, White Fang learns and replicates Smith’s immoral and malicious traits. Smith treats him with such cruelty that he must adapt to the harsh environment in order to not be killed. London states that because White Fang is beaten and chained up for a long period of time, “[White Fang] now became the enemy of all things, and more ferocious than ever. To such an extent was he tormented, that he hated blindly and without the faintest spark of reason” (London 220). White Fang begins to manifest the hate that he receives from Smith, which is another reason he begins to behave as “The Fighting Wolf”. He now believes that violence is the only way to live, since he has never before been treated with love.
Another major change in White Fang occurs when Weedon Scott rescues him during a dangerous dog fight. From that moment on, White Fang’s life is completely different. Opposing the qualities of Beauty Smith, “Scott represents a greater good because he chooses to make White Fang his responsibility, and he chooses knowing that he is taking on a killer” (Norvell 2). Being treated with the care and love that Scott provides is new to White Fang, so he must relearn how to behave and survive for life in this environment. Although this is a challenge for both of them, Scott doesn’t give up while training White Fang and helping him to earn a new reputation. White Fang’s change in behavior is tested and proven when he resists his natural instinct to kill other dogs when they begin to pick on him. Norvell explains that “White Fang has learned not to attack dogs, and so he soaks up their abuse for Scott’s sake” (Norvell 2). Previously, White Fang only knew how to survive through fighting and killing to rule out competition. Scott treats White Fang with love and patience, so White Fang adapts to this behavior and changes his way of life. Instead of resorting to violence, White Fang ignores the other dogs and behaves calmly, showing how Scott is an overall good influence on White Fang. Virginia Crane agrees, stating that “allegiance and affection for a man springs from this good treatment, and White Fang becomes ‘The Blessed Wolf’” (Crane 3). Because of Weedon Scott’s good nature, White Fang finally learns to love and care. This marks the end of his days as The Fighting Wolf, and the beginning of his new reputation as The Blessed Wolf.
White Fang’s behavior changes to ensure survival in each environment, suggesting the idea of Social Darwinism. London includes this particular philosophical idea because of White Fang’s two opposing behaviors and how his ability to easily adapt and survive proves that he is one of the stronger dogs in the idea of survival of the fittest. The use of Smith and Scott “enables Jack London to again examine behavioral adaptation via principles of Darwinian evolution. He shows how chance, nature, and external influences function as forces that shape all animals’ evolution” (Vermaas “White Fang” 1). Vermaas suggests that London’s use of White Fang’s adaptations and behaviors further demonstrates the idea of Social Darwinism. The external influences are Smith and Scott, who both play important roles in White Fang’s behavior. During these times in White Fang’s life, “they were his environment, these men, and they were molding the clay of him into a more ferocious thing than had been intended by Nature. Nevertheless, Nature had given him plasticity. Where many another animal would have died or had its spirit broken, he adjusted himself and lived, and at no expense of the spirit” (London 222). London describes how White Fang is strong and portrays Social Darwinism due to how he easily adapts to environments that would cause weaker animals to die off.
During White Fang’s time with Smith, White Fang is shaped into a brutal wolf due to the poor treatment he receives. White Fang quickly adjusts and lives this new life of violence, which would typically be a struggle for other dogs. Crane argues this point by reminding us how “repeatedly, [White Fang] is brought to the edge of extinction, only to recover by adapting to the laws that govern his own nature and the laws that structure his new environments” (Crane 4). Each environment has a different set of laws. London again articulates this idea through the laws of the Wild, and how “White Fang knew the law well: to oppress the weak and obey the strong” (London 187). By learning these new laws, he is able to modify his actions accordingly. Matthew Bruccoli believes that the “domestication of the wolf is complete when White Fang sires a litter of pups, thus proving that adaptability is the key to survival” (Bruccoli 1). The internal conflict and major change within White Fang is complete at the end of the novel when White Fang becomes accustomed to the domesticated lifestyle. He begins to act more like a house dog, rather than a wolf in the wild fighting to survive. White Fang shows how the theory of Social Darwinism will have an effect on one’s behavior, since it will cause one to adapt to changes in environment while fighting for survival.
Through the influences of Scott and Smith and the ideas of Social Darwinism, White Fang provides evidence for one’s behavioral adaptations. This idea is demonstrated within White Fang’s adjustments to survive within the different environments. The ideas of Social Darwinism further explain White Fang’s major transformation in behavior through the different needs of survival. One will adapt to different influences and environmental surroundings over time in order to live and prosper.
Bruccoli, Matthew. “White Fang.” Student’s Encyclopedia of American Literary Characters (2009): n. pag. Bloom’s Literature. Web. 3 Dec 2015.
Crane, Virginia. “White Fang.” Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series, Supplement (1997): 1-2. Literary Reference Center. Web. 10 Nov 2015.
London, Jack. White Fang. New York: Macmillan Company, 2003. Print
Norvell, Candyce. “Critical Essay on White Fang.” Novels for Students 19 (2004): n. pag. Literature Resource Center. Web. 10 Nov 2015.
Reesman, Jeanne Campbell. “White Fang.” Critical Companion to Jack London: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work, Critical Companion (2011): n. pag. Bloom’s Literature. Web. 3 Dec 2015.
“Social Darwinism.” Encyclopedia Britannica (18 March 2016): n. pag. Encyclopedia Britannica. Web. 22 March 2016.
Vermaas, Lori. “White Fang.” Encyclopedia of Themes in Literature (2011): n. pag. Bloom’s Literature. Web. 12 Nov 2015
The Fall into Futility: The Philosophy of Jack London Exposed in White Fang
“It was the masterful and incommunicable wisdom of eternity laughing at the futility of life and the effort of life. It was the Wild, the savage, frozen-hearted, Northland Wild.” In this quote, American author Jack London establishes the key theme of his novel White Fang. Throughout this work, London seeks to portray his conception of nature, which is dark, ominous, and all-powerful. In order to convey this belief, he utilizes unique personification and symbolism, a wild setting, and particular vocabulary. Moreover, London reveals his belief that human life is infinitesimal when compared to the all-encompassing power of nature.The very first paragraph of White Fang contains intense imagery, signifying its importance in conveying the theme of White Fang. Silence and desolation are key images in the opening paragraph. “A vast silence reigned over the land. The land itself was a desolation, lifeless, without movement, so lone and cold that the spirit of it was not even that of sadness.” It is crucial to analyze London’s portrayal of nature, as it contrasts with alternate depictions of nature in literature. For example, modernist poet Katherine Mansfield gives an entirely different depiction of nature in her poem, A Very Early Spring. She writes, “So many white clouds–and the blue of the sky is cold. Now the sun walks in the forest, He touches the bows and stems with his golden fingers… A wind dances over the fields. Shrill and clear the sound of her waking laughter.” Mansfield depicts nature as active and full of life. London’s portrayal however,utilizes imagery of stillness and silence to evoke the image of nature as lifeless and ominous. “On every side of them was silence, pressing upon them with a tangible presence.” London personifies silence as a force encroaching on the main characters which evokes an eerie sense of stillness. In addition to the imagery associated with nature, the symbolism of the “narrow oblong box” is crucial to understanding the story. This box first appears as a combination table and seat for the main characters, Bill and Henry. Only later does the reader discover that this box is in fact a coffin, containing the body of Bill and Henry’s friend, Lord Alfred. This coffin symbolizes the constant struggle between nature and man and its eventual outcome. “On the sled, in the box, lays a third man whose toil was over—a man whom the Wild had conquered and beaten down until he would never move nor struggle again.” Not only does the narrow oblong box serve as a means of exposing Lord Alfred’s fate; it also serves as a device for foreshadowing, because as Bill suffers the same fate later in the novel. Through Lord Alfred’s demise and the narrow oblong box, London imbues the novel with symbols of death and nature’s power over man. He writes, “It is not the way of the Wild to like movement. Life is an offense to it, for life is movement; and the Wild aims always to destroy movement.” Through the symbol of the oblong box, London emphasizes the stillness of nature and the effect it has on anything that threatens the status quo. Although imagery and symbolism are crucial in establishing the themes in White Fang, the setting is also important to London’s portrayal. The setting acts as a vehicle which allows the reader to fully access the imagery and themes of the story. London utilizes setting to establish Bill and Henry’s grueling situation. While he could have selected any uncivilized location, London specifically picked the Alaskan wild. White Fang was written in 1906, three years prior to the successful discovery of the North Pole. London’s readers would have seen the the entire Arctic region as mysterious and untamed, therefore allowing his imagery to have deeper impact and re-inforcing his underlying theme. London would not have achieved this same effect if he had selected a different setting other than the “savage, frozen-hearted, Northland Wild.” Finally, London carefully crafts his word choice to invoke the themes of the novel. One particular word that London uses is “toil”. In fact, this word appears over five times throughout the first chapter of White Fang. The reader can extract tone and meaning from London’s use of toil. First, toil could refer to the physical toil that Bill and Henry have experienced from their plight in the Alaskan wilderness. Tired, hungry, and freezing, Bill and Henry have reached their breaking point. However, it is more likely that toil refers to the constant battle between man and nature that underscores the story. London believed in the futility of life and felt that man existed only to toil. Only upon death would this toil conclude. This is evident in the line, “On the sled, in the box, lays a third man whose toil was over.” Therefore, the reader can deduce that London’s choice of the word toil was intentional in conveying his viewpoint on life.Moreover, White Fang reveals Jack London’s philosophy on both nature and the purpose of man. Throughout the novel, he repeatedly invokes themes of the futility of life, stillness, and the immense power of nature over man. Through his masterful use of literary techniques, London conveys his message to readers. As such, it is nearly impossible for the reader to ignore the author’s point of view, regardless of his or her own opinion.