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.
The Struggle for Survival Theme Icon

White Fang's Wild Northland is a harsh and merciless place, where every living being struggles to survive. London illustrates this struggle by showing Bill and Henry's sled dog team mushing across the still and frozen Klondike. Against this cold and desolate expanse, they are the only signs of life. Even so, their sled tows a coffin, an ominous reminder that death could strike at any moment in this perilous place. The image shows the reader that life in the wild maintains a vulnerable existence. The reoccurrence of devastating famines throughout the novel further highlights the uncertainty of life, as well as its fragility.

Since the line between life and death is very thin, White Fang, from an early age, learns that nature's law is simple—"eat, or be eaten." Like his ancestors, he knows this through hunting. He must kill his prey, or risk being eaten, himself, by a bigger, more calculating predator. Because life exists in such a precarious state, man and beast alike must actively struggle to survive. Gray Beaver and his Indian clan must migrate when food runs short in one area and becomes abundant in another. Similarly, both Kiche and White Fang return to the wild when famine hits the Indian camp.

Yet, the struggle for life is most powerfully felt in the battles between rivals. Kiche fights the Lynx to the death in order to save herself and White Fang from its murderous rage, while White Fang struggles to hang on to life against the bulldog's lethal grip. Though death is an ever-present threat, the yearning for life is inborn and strong. White Fang's existence is marked by an intense will to live. As a pup, he longs for the sunshine's life-giving rays. When attacked by the bulldog, White Fang fights for as long as he can. Finally, after his near fatal fight with Jim Hall, White Fang's miraculous recovery shows that his tenacious will to live overcomes all obstacles to life, making him a true survivor. London values this will to live, and glorifies it throughout the novel.

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The Struggle for Survival Quotes in White Fang

Below you will find the important quotes in White Fang related to the theme of The Struggle for Survival.
Part 1, Chapter 1 Quotes

The land itself was a desolation, lifeless, without movement, so lone and cold that the spirit of it was not even that of sadness. There was a hint in it of laughter. 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.

Related Symbols: The Northland
Page Number: 1
Explanation and Analysis:

The novel begins at the ends of the earth (the same harsh setting as The Call of the Wild, the companion novel to White Fang). The dogs are pulling a cargo through a snowy, desolate landscape, which London describes as the Northland Wild.

Why does London begin his novel in such a frightening, desolate place? London intended his novel to be an allegory for the evolution from primitivism to civilization (or even a metaphor for his own ascension from a rough young hoodlum to a well-off adult writer). By beginning his novel in the Northland Wild, then, he makes it clear where he's starting from: a place entirely unfriendly to mankind or any kind of "domestication," where survival and brute force are the only laws.

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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.

Page Number: 1
Explanation and Analysis:

The other key point that London establishes in the first paragraphs of the novel is the contrast between life and nature. In contrast to idyllic visions of animals in harmony with their environment, London portrays all life as being at war with its environment. The natural world is a harsh, dangerous place--it's just not designed for survival. Animals and human beings, therefore, must try their hardest to stake out a place for themselves in the dangerous natural world. There's a constant struggle between beings and the elements: the cold, the wind, and the snow seem to be trying their hardest to destroy life. In such a way, the novel shows how one animal, White Fang, struggles against nature to make a place for himself and become a happy, peaceful dog.

Part 1, Chapter 3 Quotes

[Henry] discovered an appreciation of his own body which he had never felt before. He watched his moving muscles and was interested in the cunning mechanism of his fingers.... It fascinated him, and he grew suddenly fond of this subtle flesh of his that worked so beautifully and smoothly and delicately.

Related Characters: Henry
Page Number: 17-18
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Henry is surrounded by death: he's stranded in the wilderness, and many of the sled dogs have been eaten by wolves. Fearing for own life, Henry builds a fire and tries to fend off the dangerous wolves. As he tries to defend himself, Henry becomes acutely aware of his own body--it's exhilarating for him to struggle for life and appreciate the wonderful physicality of his own body and existence.

The passage illustrates the paradox that we only become fully aware of our lives in the instants during which we try to defend ourselves from death. That's why adventures are so fun, even when they're dangerous: they alert us to the value of our own lives, and allow us to savor our bodies' power.

Part 2, Chapter 2 Quotes

In [the she-wolf's] instinct, which was the experience of all the mothers of wolves, there lurked a memory of fathers that had eaten their newborn progeny. It manifested itself as a fear strong within her, that made her prevent One Eye from more closely inspecting the cubs he had fathered.

Related Characters: Kiche, the she-wolf, One Eye
Page Number: 31
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the importance of instinct is clear. The she-wolf has mothered a brood of pups with One Eye. One Eye, the she-wolf senses (due to thousands of years of instinct that extend far beyond her own personal experience, and into a kind of "collective memory"), may be thinking about eating his own children for food. She then defends her pups from their own father, perhaps saving their lives.

London doesn't pass moral judgment on anything that happens in the passage--he takes a harsh, Darwinian view of survival, recognizing that the she-wolf's actions are "good" insofar as they ensure a new generation of wolves.

Part 2, Chapter 3 Quotes

The life that was so swiftly expanding within [White Fang] urged him continually toward the wall of light.

Related Characters: White Fang
Related Symbols: Light
Page Number: 37
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage has often been interpreted as a reflection of White Fang's boundless capacity to grow, thrive, and savor life. White Fang is still a young pup, recently born, but he has a great excitement about the future. Here, he runs toward what he perceives as a "wall of light" (really, the entrance to his cave) in an effort to explore the unknown.

The passage helps us understand how London chooses a protagonist for his adventure story. White Fang is just another wolf, of course, but he's also a particularly curious, lively wolf--the embodiment of the life-force itself. As such, he's a perfect hero for a story of danger and adventure: we admire and respect his ambition and curiosity, and even identify with it.

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.

Part 2, Chapter 5 Quotes

The aim of life was meat. Life itself was meat. Life lived on life. There were the eaters and the eaten. The law was: EAT OR BE EATEN.

Related Symbols: The Law of Meat
Page Number: 50
Explanation and Analysis:

London sketches out the laws of a world that's both exhilarating and horrifying. There is no morality, no right or wrong, in the wild: just the law of "kill or be killed," or rather, "eat or be eaten." (This is an obvious echo of The Call of the Wild's "law of club and fang.") As he grows up, White Fang gradually learns the laws of the universe--everything else is just a distraction from the reality of meat.

At this point in the novel, White Fang isn't a very complicated character: he's just a wolf trying to get enough food to survive. And yet we can sense that there's a little more to even White Fang's life than just "eat or be eaten." If White Fang's mother hadn't defended him from his potentially-cannibalistic father, he might not be alive today--the universe hinges on affection and love, not just food.

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

The basic life that was in [White Fang] took charge of him. The will to exist of his body surged over him. He was dominated by this mere flesh-love of life.

Related Characters: White Fang
Page Number: 104
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, White Fang is in a pit-fight with a bulldog. White Fang is intimidated by the bulldog, an especially dangerous opponent. He manages to bite the bulldog, at the same instant that the bulldog grips White Fang by the throat. White Fang is locked in a life-or-death battle, and he has no intention of giving up. Instead of releasing his grip and submitting to the bulldog, White Fang continues to bite.

It's pure survival instinct that compels White Fang in this scene. He's always been a lively, adventurous animal, but here, he's focused on one thing: living. In times of crisis, the animals in a London's book show their true colors: their strength, their desire to live, or their weakness.

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.

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.