White Fang opens with a beautifully detailed picture of the Yukon. Two men, Bill and Henry, with a team of six dogs pulling a sled on which is strapped a coffin, are fleeing down a frozen waterway, a wolf pack in pursuit. At night, the dogs are individually lured to their deaths by a she-wolf. London paints quite a portrait of the two men sitting around the campfire, seeing only the eyes of the wolves reflecting the light from the fire. Scared and frustrated, Bill decides one morning to go out with his rifle and three remaining cartridges. Henry hears three shots, but Bill does not return. Henry is left alone and night after night he feels the wolves coming closer and closer. Finally, one night, the wolves become so brazen that they come right up to the fire to collect their dinner. Henry literally climbs into the fire and begins hurling brands from the fire at the encircling wolves. At the last moment he is rescued as a search party looking for the dead body Henry and Bill were transporting. And that is the abrupt end of Part I. Henry drops out of the novel, and the scene shifts to the wolf pack and the birth of White Fang. It is difficult to understand why Jack London wrote the novel this way. The opening scene is masterfully written, but does not quite fit.
Part II of the novel is a complete break from Part I, as the story is now told from the perspective of the she-wolf. The famine is now over and the wolf pack begins to separate, little by little. She-wolf begins to travel with three males who are all vying for her attention, but she has now interest in any of them. ‘One-Eye,’ an older, more experienced wolf eventually kills the other two males and the she-wolf’s attitude towards him softens. They travel the forest together, but the she-wolf is restless, looking for something she does not quite understand. She finds this something, a cave where she can give birth to her cubs.
Shortly after the birth of the she-wolf’s cubs, another the Northland experiences another famine and all of the little wolves die except the gray wolf cub. This gray cub is much stronger and more active than the other cubs, adhering to the theme of the ‘survival of the fittest.’ London’s treatment of White Fang’s puppyhood is accurately and amusingly written. White Fang, who is three-quarters wolf and one-quarter husky, enters the story in the first month of his life, and London describes his step-by-step development as he emerges from the lair and learns how to hunt. It is apparent that London had done his research.
Before he is a year old, White Fang is captured by an Indian, Gray Beaver, who trains him as a sled dog. White Fang’s life in the Indian village is anything but pleasant as he is targeted for abuse by an older dog, Lip-Lip. His only protection is his mother, but shortly she is traded by Gray Beaver to pay a debt. When the gray wolf tries to follow his mother downstream, he is recaptured by the Indian and brutally beaten, learning that these men-gods are to be obeyed. Responding to constant attacks from other dogs in the village, White Fang gains a reputation for a savage ability to kill other dogs.
This reputation eventually proves to be a liability. While on an excursion to Fort Yukon, Gray Beaver is tricked into selling his dog to a man named Beauty Smith. Beauty Smith, who is so ugly that his name was an antithesis, is particularly impressed with the dog. Beauty does the cooking, the dishwashing, and the drudgery for the other men in the fort, where he is known for his ‘cowardly rages’ and his ‘distorted body and mind.’
Under Beauty Smith’s tutelage White Fang becomes a ‘fiend,’ earning a reputation as ‘The Fighting Wolf,’ living a public life in a cage. He is taunted and tortured not only by Beauty Smith, but also most onlookers. As the sourdoughs crowd around to place their bets, he beats all comers. But he eventually meets his match with a bulldog, who gets a grip on him that White Fang cannot shake. Just as he is about to die, the wolf is saved by Weedon Scott, who slugs Beauty Smith and manages to free White Fang from the bulldog. Scott, a mining engineer, buys the wolf-dog and takes him back to his cabin. It is here that White Fang first learns about love and becomes civilized. With great patience and great care, Scott teaches the dog to trust someone for the first time in his life. When Scott packs to leave the Yukon, White Fang senses what is coming, escapes from the house, and earns a trip to the Southland.
Weedon Scott’s father is Judge Scott, and it is to his estate, Sierra Vista, in the Santa Clara Valley in California that White Fang is taken. Although mostly wolf by nature, White Fang allows himself to become domesticated, and even allows Weedon’s two small children to caress him. But he does this only out of love for his master, and his wild instincts never leave him, as witnessed by the fifty or so chickens he kills in the yard. But all is soon forgiven when White Fang rescues Weedon Scott after an accident on a horse. The gray wolf even develops a love-interest with a sheep-dog named Collie.
One night when an escaped convict named Jim Hall breaks into the house to get the Judge for ‘railroading’ him to prison, White Fang, despite taking three bullets from Hall’s revolver, leaps on him and slashes his throat. White Fang is near death but is able to survive injuries that would have left other dogs dead, once again supporting the theme of the ‘survival of the fittest.’ The end of the novel comes quite abruptly when White Fang ventures from the house on his first excursion after his accident only to be greeted by his litter of puppies. White Fang lives on to play with his puppies in the California and earns the undying love of the Scott family through his courage and intelligence. The family, from that night on, refers to him as ‘the Blessed Wolf,’ but he remains what he his – three-quarters wolf – and can never by fully domesticated.