Analysis: Plot Analysis
Most good stories start with a fundamental list of ingredients: the initial situation, conflict, complication, climax, suspense, denouement, and conclusion. Great writers sometimes shake up the recipe and add some spice.
London was nice enough to divide his story up into five parts, which perfectly match the five segments of classical plot analysis. (Somebody sure paid attention in English class.) Of course, it's not a perfect fit, making our job a little tougher, but we think we've got you covered.
Exposition (Initial Situation)
Portrait of the Death Wolf as a Young Cub
London plays the reversal game in his eternal sparring between man and nature, first putting us in the shoes of a hapless pair of dog mushers trying to escape a pack of wolves. Right away, we see how hard life is out in the wilderness: how it has no pity for these poor guys and treats them like any other piece of meat (literally, since the wolves are going to eat them.) But there's more to it than just pointing out how small and puny we are in the face of the big, bad world. He shows us how we persevere and survive: how we hold on even when hope has left us.
From there, London shifts our point of view: suddenly the she-wolf who we'd been rooting against becomes the character we're rooting for. Besides throwing us for a loop, it demonstrates how nature—in this case, the she-wolf—is neither good nor evil. It simply is, and London turning his villain into a hero at the drop of a hat shows it off in a really snazzy way.
More importantly, it helps set the stage for the real hero, White Fang. We watch how the she-wolf operates and understand why White Fang, her son, is so tough and scary, as well as how she reacts when her little baby death machine is finally born. She looks out for him when various hungry critters come a'calling, and gives him his first taste for killing in the name of staying alive. Ironically, his time with her is the happiest White Fang will be for most of the story.
Rising Action (Conflict, Complication)
Fun and Games with Racial Stereotypes
With the state of nature now fully explored, it's time to bring in the twist. Mankind, he of the wholesale deforestation and polluting factories, soon takes White Fang and his mother by the neck. Okay, it's a little better than that. These men are Native Americans and they treat White Fang with a modicum of respect (if not always love). They mark a bridge between the wild and civilization, as Grey Beaver offers a fairly harsh life, not unlike that in the wild. But he also gives out perks like tasty, tasty meat, and White Fang soon decides that he can't live without them.
This brings up the tricky question of racism. In our enlightened times, we take a dim view of Native American stereotypes, some of which London embodies here. (Oh, Grey Beaver loves whiskey? Classy.) At the same time, they sure come across as better than most of the white men, and show an understanding of nature that we don't see later in the story. They're a little stereotype-y, but we've definitely seen worse, and as a stepping-stone on White Fang's journey to civilization, they work just fine. Also, they give him that really cool name.
Climax (Crisis, Turning Point)
The Most Inappropriately Named Character in the History of Everything
Big trouble comes with Beauty Smith, who is, in reality, just about the ugliest dude around. And not just physically: this man's ugly goes straight to the soul. He twists White Fang into something genuinely evil, which London differentiates between the cruelties of nature (and life under Grey Beaver). In the wild, you have to kill or be killed: gobbling up a fluffy baby bird is ugly, but it's the only thing that lets you survive. Under Beauty, White Fang kills because he hates… something he'd never do out in the wild. We're the real monsters; White Fang just points our own evil back at us.
Strangely enough, his evil (which we gave him) is seen as a sign of the wild (which does some messed up things, but at least doesn't pit dogs against each other for money): "He was regarded as the most fearful of wild beasts, and this was borne in to him through the bars of the cage." (16.10). That's pretty wussy of humanity, blaming him for things we're frightened of. But since we're in the low point of Fang's journey, it's only appropriate that he would be surrounded by jerky-jerks… one of whom tries to beat him to death when he's slowly dying of acute bulldog-to-the-throat.
Nice Guy to the Rescue
Having seen the worst civilization has to offer, we now see the best. Weedon Scott, bastion of the mining companies and avowed foe of lethal dog fights, shows up to save White Fang. Along the way, he demonstrates how love and kindness are supposed to work, and what kinds of rewards they can earn. White Fang will cheerfully fling himself in front of a bus for Scott, something that didn't come from a copious beating or free food, but from demonstrating some honest-to-God morality. He's the exact opposite of Beauty Smith, giving White Fang the full spectrum of what humanity has to offer.
As for us, the gentle readers cheering from the sidelines while Scott acts, we get a little lesson in how humanity responds to the cruelty of the wild. We can do better like he does, or we can do worse like Beauty does. Both ways have consequences, but one finishes up with a happy dog lying in the sun, and the other involves a lot of swearing and cowering in the snow.
A Happy Ending at Last
Speaking of which… the last section of the novel delivers a nice warm fuzzy after all those icky Beauty-Smith-related chapters. White Fang arrives at Scott's family spread in California, loses his virginity (as one does in California) and learns the virtues of being a very good dog. We've earned the happy ending—and more importantly, he sure as heck has—but there's more to it than that. We get to see how some of the bad things that happened to White Fang help him be stronger, and an even better dog.
For example, we know that he never barks because back in the Native American camp, it helped him attack other dogs: "He learned the value of surprise. A dog, taken off its guard, its shoulder slashed open or its ear ripped in ribbons before it knew what was happening, was a dog half whipped" (10.4). Here, it keeps him quiet as a mouse when the ex-con shows up to kill the judge, letting him take the villain by surprise. In London's world, everything has a purpose, and even a lot of injustice can become a strength if it's turned and channeled in the right way. Very Zen of you, Jack.