Friday, February 10, 2012

White Fang by Jack London

Promising start, unforgivable finish
With the publication of White Fang in 1906, Jack London wisely capitalized on the great success of his previous novel The Call of the Wild. These two books can be considered companion volumes, and are often bundled into one volume, since they both feature a canine protagonist. The plots of the two novels are parallel, though inverted. The Call of the Wild tells the tale of a domesticated dog’s gradual transformation into a wild animal. In White Fang, a wolf-dog born in the wild makes the opposite journey from savage to tame. Despite the kinship between the two novels, White Fang does not possess the emotional resonance, philosophical depth, or literary excellence of The Call of the Wild. Had it not ridden upon the coat tails of its predecessor, this book would likely have disappeared from print like many of London’s lesser-known works.

The narrative of White Fang begins before the birth of the title dog, with the mating of his parents. The resulting pup, 3/4 wolf and 1/4 domestic dog, is born amid the harsh wilderness of the North. He spends his puppyhood learning the ways of the wolf, until an encounter with a Native American encampment introduces him to the world of man. The first dozen chapters or so read not so much as a novel but more like an essay on natural history. London vividly describes the behaviors of wolves with scientific clarity, all told through the eyes of the young wolf cub. The first half of White Fang presents some of London’s most vividly naturalistic writing, crammed with painstakingly detailed descriptions of natural processes, all expressed in beautiful prose. The plot is exciting and leads the reader down unexpectedly savage and brutal paths. As the book continues and White Fang becomes more and more domesticated, however, the story becomes less and less interesting. The further the narrative departs from the wild, the less it grandly propounds upon the universal fatalistic beauty of nature’s order, and the more it devolves into just another adventure story about a dog.

The book peaks at about its middle, then progressively goes steadily downhill, then it just plain falls off a cliff. The final chapter of White Fang is absolutely horrible. It is so far removed from the rest of the book that it totally betrays the integrity of everything that came before it. It’s as if London couldn’t think of a way to finish the book, so he just tacked a short story onto the end, and not a particularly good short story at that. London creates a totally new character, not previously mentioned in the book, because he needs some device upon which to build a melodrama. The last chapter totally abandons the naturalistic tone of the novel and replaces it with the feeling of a sensationalistic soap opera.

I’ve read most of London’s works and, in case you couldn’t tell from the previous paragraph, this is not one of my favorites, but it does have its merits. The first half shines with occasional moments of brilliance, and is quite worthy of reading. If you haven't read The Call of the Wild, I would strongly suggest you read that first or instead. Only if you really enjoy that book would I suggest you seek out White Fang, and then don’t be surprised if you find it disappointing.

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