THE CULMINATION of Jack London's naturalistic tendencies emanating from Darwinian concepts was reached in two artistically irrelevant, but nevertheless thematically relevant novels. White Fang (1906) and Before Adam (1907) together constitute the highwater mark of London's blatant use of evolutionary concepts in two tawdry pieces of naturalistic fiction. For in neither does London present new thematic, philosophical, or stylistic ideas. Indeed, he seems almost intent upon cheapening the effect which The Call of the Wild had had on his reputation. Thus the most significant praise that can be mustered for the novels is in regard to the intriguing manner in which London sought to display his ability to modify his techniques through several naturalistic themes and devices.
In White Fang London completely reverses the thematic principles argued in The Call of the Wild. In the latter, he had shown how Buck's inherently atavism nature drew him back to an ancestral way of life. In the former, he shows the civilizing process through which a wolf becomes a dog. A further relationship exists, too, between The Call of the Wild and the later naturalistic pieces, White Fang and Before Adam. For in all there is a kind of Freudian dream psychology in which the animal has visions of a former state. Though London was, apparently, unaware of either the technical or psychological area in which he was working, his fascination for the device gives another dimension to the studies of his naturalistic literature.1 Finally, to note the ways in which London's artistry is at work at this point in his career, there is considerable ingenuity in the somewhat original fashion in which London parallels the “retrogression” of Buck to the “progression” of Fang. Ultimately, one feels, this is the raison d'être for White Fang.
Previous discussion of the major tenets of London's naturalism can be enlarged upon but little in an examination of White Fang. For the novel is hack work in its artistry and uninspiring in its philosophy. Nevertheless, it stands in central importance as evidence of the almost thoroughgoing naturalistic peak which London reached at this point in his writing. The familiar story of a survival-of-the-fittest animal, characterized by numerous animal impulses, an a bleak and pessimistic setting, accounts for major themes. To quote passages from the novel, it will be apparent, is but to echo nearly all that London has previously said.
The deliberateness with which London parallels his two animal fables may be noted in the ending of The Call of the Wild and the beginning of White Fang. One recalls that Buck is certain that he belongs with the wild when he tracks down and kills a bull moose, the clinging terror of the wolves being detailed. In the beginning of the second story, before Fang is born, a similar ritualistic incident is pointed out:
It is into this world with all its primordial and savage splendor that Fang is born. It is not a new setting for London's fiction, this land of the White Silence, delineated so thoroughly in London's early stories and novel. Here is nature, which London personifies throughout as the “wild,” both man's and beast's great enemy. Nature is the inscrutable force that must be fought against day and night for survival. And the beasts are part of a world which the naturalists called the “hostile environment” where pressures from every side dictate its creatures' survival. Fang's world in its hostility and its cold indifference is pictured most poetically:
The same “silence” makes men out of those who survive, while impressing upon them their finiteness:
But life does exist here, and the kind of life London intends to examine he has detailed before. Yet somehow characteristically, it seems, this is a land too of hunters and trappers — and dead men, men “whom the Wild had conquered and beaten down until [they] would never move or struggle again.”5 These overtures which contain the implicit assumption that man is destined but to seek his own manner of death, present a strong materialistic creed, harking back even to classical thought. For in the forests of the North, the Wild but proves the theory:
In the overture, too, London's props speak for him. For even if one is able to live for a while in the wild, he knows that life is but momentary. London's trappers, Bill and Charlie, comment on the death of a dog who seemed unable to resist following a she-wolf, and being devoured by the pack she leads: “ 'I always did think there was somethin' wrong with Fatty, anyway,' ” they say.6 London's own comment indicates how precisely the dogs are but symbols of his life view: “And this was the epitaph of a dead dog in the Northland trail — less scant than the epitaph of many another dog, of many a man.”7 Thus, in the beginning, it is clear setting here has the same importance as that impressed upon Crane's and Dreiser's readers. In their use of naturalism they too had explored the plight of man's insignificance in a vast, inscrutable universe. London's themes in White Fang make clear how completely environment shapes the individual.
Part I of the novel, primarily description of setting, ends with the hungry wolf-pack almost killing the men. For in a series of tensely described episodes the men fight off a pack of wolves which devours the trappers' dog one by one, and which wait patiently until, the men defeated by the hostile environment, they will devour them also. Bill's foolish attempt to kill the pack with his meagre supply of ammunition leads to his death, but Charlie survives the nightmare. These opening episodes are grotesquely presented, in a way, for men do not belong in the land of the White Silence, London implies. It is a bleak, desolate, and merciless world. Yet, it is but one aspect of universal experience. For, while ostensibly this is just a world where wolves and their brothers live and where nature works her woe on all trespassers, London soon makes clear how precisely the forests are but another setting of the same pitiless universe in which man constantly lives. In speaking later of Fang as a cub, London notes the parallel:
But being a cub, Fang is born into the world of the big moose, where an ambitious three-year-old suitor of Fang's mother meets exactly the same fate as Curly in The Call of the Wild. Buck had learned his first lesson in survival tactics in Curly's death. The description here in the later novel is a parallel enactment of that scene, the death of the suitor being at “the merciless fangs of his erstwhile comrades.”9 And during the love-making season before Fang is conceived, too, the she-wolf is characterized in a familiar materialistic, sensuous role of living for momentary pleasure. The battle for her pleasure is but another “law” of survival in the Wild, and its victors, like Buck, find the summit of living gratifying:
The eventual victor is One-Eye, Fang's father, with whom the she-wolf makes a home.
Within a brief time cubs are born, and London is offered brief opportunity in the novel for telling of One-Eye's “memories” which, in substance, closely resemble Buck's “visions” in his retrogression to the Wild. Hearing the cubs whining, One-Eye recalls that the sounds are “remotely familiar.”11 And the mother herself has the same “artavistic and barbaric” nature which prompts her also to have vague premonitions.12 The point of all this is that if meaningful in larger context London's naturalistic creations have vague, undefined feelings about a primordial state. The culmination of the parallels between the man and animal world is in Before Adam.
But the memories fade, and One-Eye must provide food for the family. And in the animal's journeys in quest of food London observes once more, as he has averred earlier through Fortune la Perle and numerous others, that life is unpredictable and a gamble, or, in Darwinian terms, the result of a accidents. One-Eye stalks a porcupine reciting the lines London readers have come by now to expect:
Perhaps the most thorough analysis of the survival of the fittest and natural selection thesis in London's fiction is given in an episode later in the same day. In hope of getting prime food for the family meal, One-Eye catches first a ptarmigan, then waits for hours for better game, the lynx. The objective manner in which London views the scene might easily be that of a zoologist watching the entire incident in a glass cage:
The horrors and the battle to death struggles are observed with the keen eye of a reporter and analyst. The tone never falters in its massive swiftness and in its brutality. London indicates that he is at home in describing the environment of Fang's world. Indeed the style throughout the description of the wolf-lynx-porcupine struggle is Hemingwayish in its clipped, austere sentence structure, particularly in the details of One-Eye's attempt to provoke the porcupine to life after it has been mauled by the lynx:
Almost half way through the novel London finally introduces his central character. The “milieu” has been detailed, the “moment” is right, and as representative of his “race,” Fang enters the world. And it is a world dominated by creatures of instinct who recognize that happiness is momentary, and in their recognition the inhabitants frequently voice a pessimistic attitude because of the lack of something more permanent.16 Yet, paradoxically, their materialism also spurs the citizens to live its fullest capacity. To be sure, this is London's world, thinly disguised in the study of a wolf's progression to a dog. Indeed based on London's assertions in The Cruise of the Snark (1908) there is no doubt that whatever conclusions London draws about Fang's world, he also draws about his own. Asserting once more the theory of race supremacy, London notes how it is that the race has evolved:
So is London's world, and likewise, Fang's world. And in the worlds, both existence itself and the meaning of existence are gauged by the extent to which one does to fullest capacity that which he is capable of doing. Parallel passages stressing this fusion of the biological and philosophical principles recur with regularity when one looks at Buck's “ascent” to the Wild with Fang's “descent” from the Wild.18 Weighing the final experience which convinces him of his affinity with the Wild, Buck's philosophy, London explains, is that there is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life. And beginning his first day of adventures with the same materialistic outlook, Fang learns that in killing a ptarmigan, “He [is] justifying his existence, that which life can do no greater; for life achieves its summit when it does to the uttermost that which it was equipped to do.”19
The description of White Fang's initial experiences as a cub are elementary adventures in their quality, despite Maxwell Geismar's claim that the tone of the battles with the ptarmigan chicks and the hawks is “lyrical.”20 Compared with the terse, succinct manner in which London describes Buck's return to the Wild, Fang's experiences are over-drawn and padded. Yet the psychology of the cub's learning of the laws of survival is centrally important. As Dreiser's Carrie, Crane's Maggie, and London's own Buck all had learned how environment treats people and how to adjust to that hostile environment, Fang also learns his lesson well. But Fang is schooled not only for survival; he also lustfully relishes the idea of finding meat and of battling with the birds. Parallels with Buck's gluttony are obvious.
Even Fang's first swim is significant since it provides London an opportunity to establish once more that the fear of death, of the “trap,” dominates Fang's world. London's description of Fang's reaction to near drowning might as easily be Lucretius in “De Rerum Natura” explaining that he is a materialist because he does not fear death like those who are not materialists. To eliminate this fear, Lucretius said, would provide the highest summit of man's experience and provide for him a more healthful attitude toward sense experience. The cub instinctively has the same fear of drowning:
This is a fear of the same trap which Buck constantly sensed in his “dream visions” of the primitive state to which he eventually retrogressed. But Fang recovers from the dip and tries to kill a weasel which is, he learns, far his superior. With the first great day of adventures over, London cannot resist tacking on a fairytale ending of the mother's reaction to the son's return. The style here is noticeably anything but naturalistic:
Fang's initiation into the ritual of his world is arduously labored in the inflated chapter, “The Law of Meat.” Here London reiterated the naturalistic concern with physical survival. The instinctive, non-reasoning law of the universe, Fang learns in going on the meat hunts with his mother, is to kill or be killed. This is the law of life:
Once the cub learns this, “he has no quarrel with his hostile environment.”24 Thus Part II of the novel ends with Fang well on his way to becoming a citizen of the world, governed by citizens who have the same philosophy. Part III introduces the “man-animal” again, this time in a more primitive state than that of the trappers who survived the attack of wolves before Fang's birth. Through the “man-animal” Fang learns a corollary law of fang, parallel exactly Buck's education in reverse. It is obvious that adaptability to environment, plus astute perception about the “law of life,” assure Fang's survival, indeed his eventual “descent” to civilization.
Just as Buck's killing Yeehats provided him both with the “noblest game of all,” and with his final encounter with human beings, Fang's first step toward civilization is contact with the “makers of fire,” a tribe of Indians. At the tribe's camp, the cub is named, and he learns that his mother is actually “Eiche,” a semi-domesticated dog formerly belonging to the Indians and that with clubs the “man-animals” protect him from the other wolves. For the men with the clubs are “makers of law and executors of law.”25 In a partly facetious and satiric tone, perhaps intimating his tacit allegory of humanity's foibles in making judgments about its leaders, London pictures Fang's first conclusion about men:
Fang's education in survival tactics continues as Lip-lip (the parallel to Spitz in The Call of the Wild) becomes his personal enemy. Fang learns too that he must forage for his food, so he becomes a clever thief.27 And during his revery (to make the parallels with Buck more trite than they already are), he wanders to the edge of the forest and stands “and listens to something calling him far and away.”28 The rigidity with which London makes Fang's progression to civilization adhere to Buck's retrogression is intriguing, if unoriginal in the philosophical mishmash that serves as a backdrop to the episodes. Like The Call of the Wild, structurally, White Fang is also episodic. Little attempt is made by London to show a relationship of cause and effect in the implicit determinism in Fang's progression, except in the constant arguments about the force of environment. The “how” “why” of the laws which are ostensibly in operation is likewise never explored. Thus, to hasten to the conclusion of Fang's educative process, the episodic scenery shows Fang's becoming the outcast, a role in which he becomes extremely ferocious because of the need to survive by the law of the club. The code he learns in the familiar survival refrain is “to obey the strong and to oppress the weak.” For he had to become all these things, else he would not have held his own nor survived the hostile environment in which he found himself.29 And the law of fang dictates that “the dog younger or smaller than himself was weak, a thing to be destroyed.”30 As a corollary, then, the survival tactics make his body strong, just as precisely, London argues with Darwin, as the environment had made the bodies of the people of the abyss weak, puny, and diseased. Fang “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.”31 And when the dogs are put into traces, White Fang's obvious superiority brings the wrath of his peers upon him. After long journeys the dogs are always well fed, wasting nothing lest their share be taken by another. But none dare cross Fang, for he is the plunderer — and the wise servant of law: “White Fang knew the law well: to oppress the weak and obey the strong.”32 One feels that the entire assessment London makes of Fang's development often hinges not so much on Fang's need for strength for survival as on his egotistical, rebellious nature with which his Creator, London, has endowed him.
It is clear that the same strictures which have been noted in Buck's “adaptability” must be leveled against London here too. It is not possible to consider Fang as a typical product of environment because he quickly becomes a superior type — the evolved, dominate race, among dogs. Consequently the naturalistic concern with the idea of survival of the fittest serves only an initial thematic configuration, not a philosophical reality. Indeed in a famine that grips the Indian tribe, while the other dogs perish (and are eaten), because they cannot find food, Fang survives. The law of natural selection would seem to be at work — the strong becoming stronger and the weak becoming weaker. But not so with Fang. It is the old nemesis of the naturalists, the inscrutable world which defeated Hurstwood but developed Carrie. In Fang, the Darwinian “accident” proves his salvation:
At last when Fang is fully developed and the “gods” have recognized his superiority, he becomes a monstrous tyrant who has been exposed to (and survived) the pitiless struggle for life.
But his outlook is not a happy one. Few clearer statements of the naturalistic paradox of joy in momentary and sensuous pleasure being clouded by a pall that shrouds even the happiest summits34 can be found in London's fiction than his summary of Fang's outlook at the moment of realization:
Structurally, the reason for this insertion is clear enough. This comment permits London later to explore the ostensible differences in the Northland and the Southland. For all the while Fang's destiny leads to a luxurious life in California. There he will find life, apparently, different.
The erratic Part IV reiterates the parallels between Buck's and Fang's life. In this section Fang is sold to a “mad god,” Beauty Smith, who uses Fang in dog fights. Predictably, Fang is rescued from the fiendish Smith by Weedon Scott (Fang's John Thorton) who takes him to civilization. But during Fang's stay with Smith, London uses the occasion to luxuriate in a Simon Legree description of Smith, who, London insists, is not responsible for his horrible looks and behavior: “He was not responsible. The clay of him had been so moulded in the making.”36 Even he, London asserts, is a creature of a deterministic world that moulds and makes a man without the man's will coming into play. Smith is an ape-like man with “an enormous prognathous jaw,” large yellow teeth, and eyes that are also yellow and muddy. While obvious, the color imagery is effective, for Smith was “known far and wide as the weakest of weak-kneed and sniveling cowards.”37 But his physique and his cowardice are not his fault. And all this becomes very important and obvious shortly as London draws an explicit parallel between the evil Smith, whom Fang hates, and the good Gray Beaver, whom Fang loves. Just as Smith is not responsible, Fang cannot know why he loves Gray Beaver:
And when Fang is sold and forced to fight, the love which he has felt for the man-god degenerates and he becomes a fierce fighter. His environment again shaped his destiny:
Becoming famous as “The Fighting Wolf,” he regards all other dogs as enemies, despite his earlier love for some of his comrades. And London quips, “It was another instance of the plasticity of his clay, of his capacity for being moulded by the pressure of environment.”40
From this point in the narrative to the end of the book it is only too obvious that London is merely rounding out an already padded novel. In rapid order Fang is finally defeated, being nearly killed by a monstrous bull dog, and then quickly rescued by Scott, the love-master. With Scott, “it was the beginning of the end for White Fang — the ending of the old life and the reign of hate.” The new way of life is meant to convince one of the power of environment again, for Fang adapts:
The conclusion of the novel adds little to these naturalistic tendencies. For London merely places Fang on Judge Scott's ranch in Sierra Vista, and the transformation from Wild to civilization is complete. This is the setting in which Buck began, and Fang, “being adaptable by nature,” knows that even here adjustment will be necessary. With a ring of Spencerian evolutionary thought, Fang concludes that the primitive life had been simple, but in Santa Clara Valley it is different.42 How different are the two worlds as seen in reference to the passages which describe the land of the White Silence, cited at the beginning of this discussion, and the new Southland. It seems more than a geographical difference. Fang learned that:
Here he achieves “staidness, and calmness, and philosophic tolerance. He no longer lived in a hostile environment.”44 To London's credit he does not end his propaganda pamphlet at the point of Fang's dreams of love and humanity. For this too is a land of evil doers, and the good must be protected from the evil. So a beast — “a human beast, it is true, but nevertheless so terrible a beast that he can best be characterized as carnivorous,”45 — Jim Hall, an escaped convict, invades Fang's Edenic world. Hall is bad because of “the treatment he had received from the time he was a little pulpy boy in San Francisco slum — soft clay in the hands of society and ready to be formed into something.”46 He is formed into a bad “thing” and is captured by Fang, who earns the approbation of all as “The Blessed Wolf.” The novel fades out with Fang drowsing in the sun with puppies at his feet.
The naturalistic tendencies in the novel seem clear. Obviously London is still intent on using his fiction to present a popularly acceptable adventure story buttressed by a thin philosophical background rather than arguing in any systematic way for the philosophy. For the Darwinian and Spencerian motifs are clearly not discussed either in forceful or clear terms, except as London wishes to impress his audience with the plasticity of the individual. The strengths of the novel, in a larger sense, lie not in the book itself, but in its parallels with the much superior work, The Call of the Wild. The episodic structure here, as in The Call of the Wild, indicates more than any other feature London's almost total disregard for assimilating and integrating with depth either the philosophy or the style of the naturalists. Yet the dominate themes in the novel, one feels, are more naturalistic in concept than with any other genre in which the novel can be classified.47
Copyright © 1970 by Earl J. Wilcox
1 Maxwell Geismer, Rebels and Ancestors (New York, 1953), p. 187.
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