White Fang

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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.
Nature v. Nurture Theme Icon

In White Fang, London prods a question at the core of "environmental determinism"—does nature determine our course, or does our environment play a greater role? Is nature, or nurture more decisive? London appears to come down on the side of nurture by suggesting that White Fang's character is a kind of "clay," shaped and molded by the circumstances he encounters and the people he meets. As White Fang's environment shifts his demeanor changes. In the Northland, White Fang must follow his instincts to hunt, fight, and kill in order to defend himself against threats and survive in the wild. But in the safe and sunny Southland, his ferociousness is allowed to dissipate, as his life becomes less dedicated to work and fighting and more dedicated to the guardianship of Scott and his family. White Fang's character also undergoes dramatic shifts under the care of his various masters. Beauty Smith accentuates White Fang's naturally fierce nature by turning him into a hateful and vicious fighting dog. Yet Scott, through love and respect, converts White Fang into a loyal and loving guardian. With every change, White Fang transforms. Therefore, London suggests that the way one is nurtured indelibly shapes his/ her nature.

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Nature v. Nurture Quotes in White Fang

Below you will find the important quotes in White Fang related to the theme of Nature v. Nurture.
Part 2, Chapter 4 Quotes

But there were forces at work in the cub, the greatest of which was growth. Instinct and law demanded of him obedience. But growth demanded disobedience. His mother and fear impelled him to keep away from the white wall. Growth is life, and life is forever destined to make for life.

Related Characters: White Fang
Related Symbols: Light
Page Number: 40
Explanation and Analysis:

Life, at its most elemental, is a struggle between desire and fear, growth and self-control. White Fang is an interesting character in the novel because, as a young wolf, he feels a boundless sense of excitement--a desire to explore the big, unknowable universe. And yet White Fang's mother makes sure that he also exercises some caution: the fact is, the world is a dangerous place, and White Fang will die if he tries to explore it too recklessly before he's ready.

The passage is important, then, because it establishes the two primary forces at work in White Fang's life: fear and growth. Only when White Fang learns to respect both of these forces will grow into a "mature" wolf.

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Part 3, Chapter 4 Quotes

[White Fang's] development was in the direction of power. In order to face the constant danger of hurt and even of destruction, his predatory and protective faculties were unduly developed. He became quicker of movement than the other dogs, swifter of foot, craftier, deadlier, more lithe, more lean with ironlike muscle and sinew, more enduring, more cruel, more ferocious, and more intelligent. He had to become all these things, else he would not have held his own nor survive the hostile environment in which he found himself.

Related Characters: White Fang
Page Number: 68
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we learn that White Fang's bullying and persecution are ultimately working in his favor. The end result is that White Fang is forced to adapt to his environment and become a stronger, tougher animal. He learns to run faster and defend himself from bullies of all kinds. Such skills make him the most powerful of all the dogs--and they begin to fear him.

The passage could function as a subtle bit of self-praise from Jack London, who grew up in a tough, working-class environment, but quickly learned to take care of himself, not unlike White Fang. The passage is also a great example of how London's "protagonists" are often those who are fundamentally tougher, more skilled, and better at survival than others--he's a Darwinian at heart.

Part 4, Chapter 2 Quotes

White Fang's feel of Beauty Smith was bad. From the man's distorted body and twisted mind, in occult ways, like mists rising from malarial marshes, came emanations of the unhealth within. Not by reasoning, not by the five senses alone, but by other and remoter and uncharted senses, came the feeling to White Fang that the man was ominous with evil, pregnant with hurtfulness, and therefore a thing bad, and wisely to be hated.

Related Characters: White Fang, Beauty Smith
Page Number: 93
Explanation and Analysis:

White Fang becomes aware of a man who lives in town named Beauty Smith. Smith is ugly and deformed, and it's both for this reason and because of some natural instinct regarding character that White Fang distrusts him. Because Beauty's body is ugly, White Fang senses that he must be a cruel, evil person--and White Fang uses a kind of "sixth sense," too, in judging Beauty as fundamentally "bad." Not because of Smith's body, but because of intangible things like his body language and his voice, White Fang regards him as dangerous. As with many dogs, White Fang is a keen observer of human beings--he sizes them up and makes judgments about their personalities in a way that most human beings could never do. 

[Beauty Smith] had come into the world with a twisted body and brute intelligence. This had constituted the clay of him, and it had not been kindly molded by the world.

Related Characters: Beauty Smith
Page Number: 96
Explanation and Analysis:

Beauty Smith, no less than anyone else in the novel, is the product of both nature and nurture. Naturally, he's been dealt a certain hand in life: because of his DNA, he's an ugly, misshapen man. But Smith has also had a hard time in life: he's been treated badly by other people, and suffered as a result.

London makes it clear that all life is the product of both nature and nurture, not one or the other. Whether we're talking about a wolf or a human being, life consists of a constant interaction between oneself and one's environment (nurture), during which certain inborn traits may be advantageous (nature). Furthermore, the struggle for survival isn't limited to creatures of the wild Northland--the way any adult human has turned out is the result of his or her struggle to adapt and overcome obstacles.

Part 4, Chapter 3 Quotes

[Men] 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 not expense of the spirit.

Related Characters: White Fang
Page Number: 99
Explanation and Analysis:

White Fang comes into the captivity of Beauty Smith, a cruel, greedy man who mistreats White Fang in horrible ways. Smith tries to make White Fang mean and dangerous--and Fang responds accordingly.

London notes that White Fang has been given a certain set of skills and instincts--what we would call his DNA. One of these skills is his ability to adapt to different circumstances--what Lindon calls "plasticity." White Fang is, in many ways, the embodiment of the life force itself: instead of giving up when he comes upon difficult circumstances, he responds accordingly, adapting to his environment. It's because White Fang is so flexible and strong that he survives Beauty Smith's tough ownership.

Part 4, Chapter 4 Quotes

You cowards! You beasts!

Related Characters: Weedon Scott (speaker), Beauty Smith
Page Number: 107
Explanation and Analysis:

Just when it seems that White Fang is about to die in the fight with the bulldog, a man intervenes. His name is Weedon Scott, and as we'll see, he'll become White Fang's final owner. Here, though, Scott acts as a kind of deus ex machina device, saving White Fang when there's no other way out. Scott is an almost divine character--he gives White Fang another chance at life.

The passage reinforces the idea that life isn't just about living or dying. There are times when people intervene to help out others, even when it's not exactly in their own self-interest to do so. Scott is impelled to help White Fang because he despises the environment of dog-fighting: he hates that humans get pleasure out out of seeing weaker animals trying to kill each other.

Part 4, Chapter 5 Quotes

I agree with you, Mr. Scott. That dog's too intelligent to kill.

Related Characters: Matt (speaker), White Fang, Weedon Scott
Page Number: 114
Explanation and Analysis:

For the second time in the novel, Scott saves White Fang from death. Scott's fellow workers were going to shoot White Fang for fighting another dog and for biting Scott's hand. But Scott--much to everybody's surprise--doesn't want White Fang dead. On the contrary, he recognizes that White Fang is a talented, strong dog--and therefore, they'd be stupid to kill him.

When Scott saved White Fang from the dogfighting arena, he did so out of sympathy. In that situation, the choice was relatively easy: White Fang was a victim. But here, the situation is more complicated, and Scott makes a choice about what to do with White Fang based not just on what White Fang is, but on what White Fang could be. Scott and those with him recognize White Fang's fundamental strengths – his intelligence, for instance – and believe that they can mold those traits and mold White Fang more generally into a valuable dog and companion.