White Fang by Jack London (1907)

Review by Helen N

This was quite a hard read for me. If it is not inappropriate to talk about gender-specific books, this is very much a man’s book. Particularly at the time it was written it would have been written for a masculine audience, who would have had experience of hunting and working with animals. There is a problem at the heart of the book. On page 73, during a vivid description of how the cub, White Fang, learns about the world around him, the author comments

“In fact, the grey cub was not given to thinking – at least, to the kind of thinking customary of men. His brain worked in dim ways. Yet his conclusions were as sharp and distinct as those achieved by men.”

But in order that the story is not just a blur of sensations experienced by White Fang, he has to think and indeed be humanised.

This kind of story has gone out of fashion – our interest in wild animals is now fed by films and by studies which observe and do not attempt to interpret actions by referring to human behaviour. But those handful of books, including the work of Henry Williamson and Kipling and going further back to “Black Beauty” are loved and cherished by many readers.

Jack London’s description, in the first part of the book, of the wild landscape and fierce weather conditions have the accuracy of his own experience. The wolf cub, although born in the wild, is gradually brought back into the world of men and very slowly learns, through harsh punishment not to attack everyone round him.

He first is used as a fighting dog for a brutal owner but then is rescued by Weedon Smith. The dog thinks of the man as “a god” – this made me uneasy – the concept is very far away from the world of animals and the setting up of the human as so far superior to the animal, unbalances the narrative to my mind.

Weedon Smith takes White Fang to California which seems a very unkind thing to do, although it is because he cannot leave the dog behind. Once there he has further fights and tussles with other dogs, winning out in the end. With one last great act of courage White Fang despatches a convict on the run and ends to book with the title of “Blessed Wolf” bestowed by the ladies of the family.

With my modern mind I feel that such an animal would be put down before he came anywhere near a family with children. But in the book even though he several times bites humans it is generally represented as their fault because they failed to understand the dog.

It is vivid in its writing and I understand why it has become a minor classic in spite of the sentimentality but it is not a book I really enjoyed reading.

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3 thoughts on “White Fang by Jack London (1907)

  1. You wrote

    “He first is used as a fighting dog for a brutal owner but then is rescued by Weedon Smith. The dog thinks of the man as “a god” – this made me uneasy – the concept is very far away from the world of animals and the setting up of the human as so far superior to the animal, unbalances the narrative to my mind.”

    And in doing so, you fell into the trap of revisionism; like everyone who has ever lived or indeed is living, London was a product of his time – a time when all that was not human was referred to as “brute creation.”

    In reading modern reviews of old books, one often finds reviewers lamenting such things as “racism;” or the description of homosexuals as e.g. “pansies;” this practice is irrelevant and pointless unless of course used to illustrate changing times.

    • Thanks for the comment, Paul. I think that Helen is talking specifically about her perspective as a modern reader, from which it is very hard to read racist attitudes that were commonplace at the time of the novel.

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