Happy International Women’s Day!
I still have the copy of White Fang I was supposed to read in high school. It’s a Scholastic Classic with a forward by K. A. Applegate (The Animorphs, Everworld).
As problematic as the characterizations are (Gray Beaver takes all of thirty seconds to develop a debilitating addiction to firewater), it’s easy to lose oneself in the mysterious world of wild Yukon.
Using a plot structure faithful to the tradition of 19th century epics, Jack London’s close third-person omniscient narration tells the story of White Fang beginning not with his birth but with the meeting of his parents.
Old One-Eye is White Fang’s father, so-named because he’s old and only has one eye. He’s not the only wolf seeking to mate with White Fang’s mother, but he earns her acceptance through experience and cunning more so than physical fitness.
Kiche – whose name, as best I can tell, is Algonquin for “river” or “running water” – is half-wolf and half-dog, and London portrays her as having adapted to use the best aspects of her mixed traits. The beginning of White Fang’s story is actually Kiche’s story.
Kiche is a real animal mother. Her fondness for her male partner dissipates once his purpose has been served – that is, once he has given her cubs. Her urge to nurture these cubs does not go beyond keeping them alive and fed. When food is scarce, she eats first, even though her cub cries for food. It’s only logical, after all, that the superior hunter takes priority.
London doesn’t anthropomorphize these animals, as humans tend to do. We project human emotions and psychological fixations onto our pets, but further still, onto wild creatures we’ve only seen on screen or at a zoo. We don’t find it odd to give lions Swahili names and have them act out Shakespearean fantasy. The symbiotic relationship between the oxpecker and the rhino becomes a buddy comedy, and if that llama seems sad, it’s because he dreams of becoming an architect despite his lack of thumbs.
It’s not just a sentimental urge that leads us to do this but also a need to alter that which is strange and incomprehensible to us. We cannot imagine a life that is so different from our own, so we have decided to reject this reality, which we find distasteful, and substitute our own, in which rats aspire to become great chefs.
Similar urges are behind the infantilization of women – that is, applying childlike traits to women or declaring childlike traits to be “feminine.” The manic pixie dream girl is a perfect example of this: she’s small and energetic, she’s whimsical and doesn’t take anything too seriously – except her devotion to her man once she finally meets that special guy who can harness her.
Kiche, it seems, is harnessed eventually. Rather, she accidentally happens upon the man who “harnessed” her, and her instincts tell her to submit.
It is this submission that takes us into the story’s main plot and the true beginning of White Fang’s stories. It’s the introduction to the theme of humans as providers – even gods. There are three gods in this story.
Gray Beaver: the Indifferent God. Gray Beaver is Kitche’s owner and, therefore, becomes White Fang’s owner. He is the first to teach White Fang the ways of humans and dogs, and White Fang’s time there teaches him that he must respect and trust man (White Fang quickly figures out that men are the true masters, while women and children are just higher than dogs).
Beauty Smith: the Cruel God. Gray Beaver is of the First Nations, so of course he is easily tricked by the cunning white man. Beauty Smith plies Gray Beaver with whiskey, gets him nice and addicted, and then offers to buy White Fang. By this point, White Fang has gained a reputation as a vicious fighter, with the instincts of a wolf but the obedience and trainability of a dog. As Beauty Smith “trains” him with the help of a club, White Fang becomes even more vicious until even the author laments that White Fang may never find his place among wolves or dogs; that he is too ferocious even for the Yukon.
Weedon Scott: the Glorious God. He is everything Beauty Smith is not: handsome, wealthy, brave, and kind. He takes pity on White Fang, so much so that when the wolf-dog bites him, he aw-shucks it and continues coaxing White Fang from a “safe distance” while the animal is tied up outside Scott’s cabin.
Scott’s interactions with White Fang remind me very much of Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man and the way Timothy Treadwell philosophized on the relationship between man and beast.
Treadwell, despite spending a great deal of time in the wild outdoors, fell into the trap of anthropomorphizing beasts (which, arguably, may have been his downfall, but nobody wants to talk smack about a guy who was torn to shreds by a bear).
London breaks his own rule with the wealthy white god. While Scott is not necessarily a 1-to-1 facsimile of London, he’s clearly the character with which London most closely identifies.
White Fang and Scott develop a relationship that draws out Fang’s dog traits, thus “saving” him from his wild wolf-self that prevents him from successfully interacting with the humans and dogs that have been part of his world for the majority of his existence. The animal is so grateful for Scott that he refuses to leave the man’s side.
Scott does not discourage this devotion. In fact, he allows White Fang to accompany him to San Francisco. Scott freely admits that the southern Californian climate is not good for White Fang. Not only this, but the man brings White Fang to his family farm despite knowing the wolf-dog’s violent history. He takes Fang through the streets of San Francisco, full of humans and machines that are unfamiliar to this creature reared in the Yukon wilds. At the family farm for the first time, White Fang is unleashed in full view of young children (Fang hasn’t been around kids since he himself was a pup).
London’s intended message seems to be that love trumps all. Love trumps meat. Before he lived for The Master, White Fang lived only to hunt and eat meat. London comes right out and says this: his love for meat was replaced by his love for The Master.
This is where my love for the story falls down, and why my favorite part of the book remains the beginning – the story of Kiche. She never develops love for humans. Instead, she exploits them. When food is scarce, she runs off and fends for herself, even stealing meat from her human’s traps for herself. As when she eats before her cub, she does not concern herself with what a human might consider “right” or “just.” Like a true animal, she is concerned only with the survival of herself and her genetic code.
Kiche beats humans at their own game. Human exploitation of animal labor is another major theme in White Fang, but Kiche’s not having it. I like to believe that had Weedon Scott “saved” her, she never would have developed the love that London applies to the relationship between White Fang and Scott. It has nothing to do with her being unfeeling or incapable of love. She is an animal, and a damn good one.
That’s why Kiche is my hero. She is the true hero of the White Fang story. Despite her submission to Gray Beaver, you never get the impression that she has been truly harnessed. Her true nature is incorruptible. Yeah, she’s a bitch, and, to quote the great Tina Fey: “Bitches get shit done.”
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