White Fang

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Domestic Yearnings v. Natural Instinct Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
The Struggle for Survival Theme Icon
Domestic Yearnings v. Natural Instinct Theme Icon
Nature v. Nurture Theme Icon
Mastery Theme Icon
Domestication Theme Icon
Mating and Parenthood Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in White Fang, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Domestic Yearnings v. Natural Instinct Theme Icon

Throughout the novel, White Fang struggles to reconcile his feral instincts with the expectations of the domestic world, highlighting the conflict between nature and society. Part wolf and raised in the wild, White Fang's natural instincts to fight and hunt are at odds with man's ways. For instance, White Fang bristles at being petted, or tied down with a leather thong by his human masters. Through these measures, humans expect and demand obedience and respect from their dog, but White Fang, being a wild animal, perceives such behaviors and devices as threats to his survival.

White Fang often misreads human behavior, as well. When he sees Scott embrace his mother, White Fang interprets the hug as a "hostile act," and nearly attacks the woman. White Fang similarly misunderstands human laws of hunting. When he lays out all the chickens he has killed before Scott's front door, he thinks that he is honoring his master with food, but really he has committed a grave crime by hunting a domesticated animal. Even though White Fang's nature conflicts with society's rules, there is a certain aspect of White Fang's character that inclines him towards deeply respecting mankind. White Fang not only considers humans to be gods, he is capable of expressing loyalty, faithfulness, and obedience towards man, especially Scott. It is these traits, which make White Fang long for the "security" and "companionship" of man. When White Fang escapes from Gray Beaver, he is overcome by an intense loneliness, compelling him to return to the Indian camp and give himself over to man's care. White Fang's internal struggle between his wild nature and his yearnings for companionship highlights the conflict between nature and civilization, but also shows that they are not mutually exclusive worlds. White Fang's movement from one realm into the other demonstrates the permeability of these borders, while his transformation into a domesticated animal with wolfish instincts shows him to be a hybrid animal of both environments. Through White Fang's transformation, London shows the natural and human worlds to be opposed, but also linked.

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Domestic Yearnings v. Natural Instinct Quotes in White Fang

Below you will find the important quotes in White Fang related to the theme of Domestic Yearnings v. Natural Instinct.
Part 1, Chapter 2 Quotes

[The she-wolf] looked at [Bill and Henry] in a strangely wistful way, after the manner of a dog; but in its wistfulness there was none of the dog affection.

Related Characters: Bill, Henry, Kiche, the she-wolf
Page Number: 12
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we're introduced to the "she-wolf" (later Kiche), the wolf that has been menacing Bill and Henry's cargo and leading some of the sled dogs off into the wilderness. Bill and Henry can tell immediately that the she-wolf is dog-like, but is certainly not a dog: although it shares some of its DNA with dogs, it hasn't been domesticated at all--it's a completely wild, instinctual animal.

The passage poses an important contrast between domesticated and wild animals. White Fang, who's partly dog and partly wolf, is both. The she-wolf, then, is a symbol of the divide between nature and civilization--she's so close to being a "civilized" dog," and yet so far away.

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Part 3, Chapter 1 Quotes

Every instinct of [White Fang's] nature would have impelled him to dash wildly away [from the Indians], had there not suddenly and for the first time arisen in him another and counter instinct. A great awe descended upon him. He was beaten down to movelessness by an overwhelming sense of his own weakness and littleness. Here was mastery and power, something far and away beyond him.

Related Characters: White Fang
Page Number: 51
Explanation and Analysis:

London makes an interesting point here. White Fang sees a group of humans approaching, but instead of running away--as every natural instinct in his body is telling him to do--he stays and stares. White Fang is awestruck by the presence of the humans; it's as if he feels a natural inclination to be loyal to these figures.

The passage reinforces the idea that sometimes, nature wants animals to join forces, even if they're not the same species. Furthermore, there may be a feeling of something like "religious awe" even in entirely wild animals (at least as London portrays it here). Here, White Fang feels a powerful instinct to submit to man's power, regarding the people he sees as something like gods. Presumably it's because other wolves felt such a feeling that human beings were able to domesticate the dog millennia ago.

Part 3, Chapter 2 Quotes

He [White Fang] belonged to [men]. His actions were theirs to command. His body was theirs to maul, to stamp upon, to tolerate. Such was the lesson that was quickly borne in upon him. It came hard – counter to much that was strong and dominant in his own nature; and while he disliked it – unknown to himself he was learning to like it. It was a placing of his destiny in another's hands, a shifting of the responsibilities of existence. This in itself was a compensation, for it is always easier to lean upon another than to stand alone.

Related Characters: White Fang
Page Number: 59-60
Explanation and Analysis:

Over time, White Fang gradually learns to be obedient to his human masters because they beat him into submission. at first, White Fang struggles with the concept of loyalty--he's a wolf, meaning that he's instinctively going to look out for himself and obey nobody else. And yet, pretty quickly, White Fang discovers that he likes having a master: because he's partly wolf and partly dog, he has the ability to be either wild or domestic. Furthermore, London suggests, it's easier to lean on someone else rather than trying to do everything oneself. Men might beat or abuse White Fang, but as long as they provide him with food and shelter, there's something comforting about relying on them instead of relying on his own wits and skill alone.

London may intend White Fang to be a symbol for humanity itself. White Fang has the capability to be violent and independent, and yet he chooses to be a part of "society"--thus sacrificing some of his freedom for a new measure of security.

There was something calling to him [White Fang] out there in the open. His mother heard it, too. But she heard also that other and louder call, the call of the fire and of man—the call which it has been given alone of all animals to the wolf to answer.

Related Characters: White Fang, Kiche, the she-wolf
Related Symbols: Fire, The Call
Page Number: 62
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we see White Fang torn between the two halves of his nature: his wild, independent half, and his subservient, domestic half. White Fang could easily run away from his human owners and live in the wild for the rest of his life. Or he could stay behind and live with his masters. In the end, he and his mother choose to live with humans, perhaps because they're given warmth and food there, and perhaps because they've had loyalty beaten into them. London presents this choice as the conflict of two different "calls": the "call of the wild" (the title of London's other most famous novel) and the "call of man."

The passage shows a kind of "social contract" in the animals' lives: they have a free choice between wildness and civilization. In the end, they choose civilization perhaps because it's just better; their quality of life is simply higher. White Fang sacrifices some of his freedom (i.e., he has an owner), but in return he gets a warm fire and plenty of food. And yet there's still a question of whether or not White Fang's choice is truly free--he's loyal to his masters, but perhaps that's because he's been hurt so many times.

Part 3, Chapter 3 Quotes

There was a difference between White Fang and them. Perhaps they sensed his wild-wood breed, and instinctively felt for him the enmity that the domestic dog feels for the wolf.

Related Characters: White Fang
Page Number: 65
Explanation and Analysis:

Here London presents another natural law of animals: different is bad. The dogs that live with Gray Beaver, White Fang's current owner, hate White Fang because they can sense that he's a wild animal, and so fundamentally separate from them. Because he's different, White Fang is bullied and attacked by the other dogs, and as a result, White Fang learns to defend himself from an early age.

The "herd mentality" on display in this passage will be important to the rest of the novel. The dogs in this chapter are a model of civilization: they do everything together, often making their decisions simply because everyone else is going along.

Part 4, Chapter 5 Quotes

[White Fang] did not want to bite the hand, and he endured the peril of it until his instinct surged up in him, mastering him with its insatiable yearning for life.

Related Characters: White Fang, Weedon Scott
Related Symbols: Man's Hand
Page Number: 113
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, White Fang bites the hand that saved his life. Weedon Scott is a sympathetic man who doesn't want to do White Fang any harm. And yet White Fang doesn't realize that his new owner is better than Beauty Smith: Scott isn't going to hurt him or torture him. Because White Fang has been raised and nurtured to be brutal to all strangers, he bites Scott's hand--even though in his mind, he doesn't "want" to.

The passage shows the interplay between instinct and training; nature and nurture. One could argue that White Fang was bred and trained to be brutal--before he was with Smith, he wasn't nearly so dangerous. And yet one could also argue that White Fang's time with Beauty Smith merely brought out instincts in White Fang that had been suppressed previously. In any case, it's clear that White Fang is the product of his environment, as much as his parents.

Part 4, Chapter 6 Quotes

[Scott's] voice was soft and soothing. In spite of the menacing hand, the voice inspired confidence. And in spite of the assuring voice, the hand inspired distrust. White Fang was torn by conflicting feelings, impulses. It seemed he would fly to pieces, so terrible was the control he was exerting, holding together by an unwonted indecision the counter-forces that struggled within him for mastery.

Related Characters: White Fang, Weedon Scott
Related Symbols: Man's Hand
Page Number: 116
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, White Fang faces an incredible crisis. Internally, he's presented with a dilemma. Weedon Scott has taken him home and offered him some comfort. Previously, Scott has saved White Fang's life, not once but twice. And yet White Fang has long been trained to be brutal and savage to those who get close to him.

In short, White Fang faces a conflict between gentleness and aggression: should he accept his new master, or fight him? In times of crisis, animals in the novel always show their true colors. Here, we're left to see which side of White Fang is truly stronger, his friendly side or his aggressive side.

It was the beginning of the end for White Fang—the ending of the old life and the reign of hate. A new and incomprehensibly fairer life was dawning. It required much thinking and endless patience on the part of Weedon Scott to accomplish this. And on the part of White Fang it required nothing less than a revolution. He had to ignore the urges and promptings of instinct and reason, defy experience, give the lie to life itself.

Related Characters: White Fang, Weedon Scott
Page Number: 117
Explanation and Analysis:

White Fang's domesticity has won out, and he has just accepted the friendship of his new master, Weedon Scott. White Fang has undergone a total revolution: previously, he was trained to be brutal and savage, but now, he's decided to be calm and peaceful, accepting that his new master is gentler than Beauty Smith or the harsh realities of the Northland.

London conveys the full extent of White Fang's "revolution." The animal has had to suppress some of the most basic instincts in his body--instincts to fight and bite. The process is not unlike the process by which humans founded civilization. Instead of constantly fighting to survive, some human beings learned to share with and support each other. Doing so was tough, because humans had to suppress some of their violent, selfish instincts (instincts which live on in all of us). 

Part 5, Chapter 3 Quotes

[White Fang] obeyed his natural impulses until they ran counter to some law... But most potent in his education were the cuff of his master's hand, the censure of the master's voice. It was the compass by which he steered and learned to chart the manners of a new land and life.

Related Characters: White Fang, Weedon Scott
Related Symbols: Man's Hand
Page Number: 136
Explanation and Analysis:

White Fang has now been moved to live with Weedon Scott's family. White Fang is still a somewhat wild animal, with wild instincts, and yet he learns quickly to be calm and docile. White Fang changes his behavior, not just because a master beats him into submission (although Scott does "cuff" him when he's disobedient), but because Scott treats him with love and encourages him to learn.

The passage could easily be interpreted as a metaphor for the development of society. After the "epiphany" of accepting cooperation and peace, our ancestors had to gradually transition to a civilization in which cooperation and peace were the norms, not exceptions. By the same token, White Fang gradually learns how to be civilized and domesticated--to accept the mastery of a human in exchange for consistent food, shelter, and love.