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We follow White Fang throughout the whole novel, from before he's even conceived right up to his happily ever after (which he earns about ten times more than any other hero you'll ever read). London puts us right in his wolfy skull for a lot of it and we can see the huge changes he goes through over the course of his life. Plus, London handily points out the lessons he learns along the way, so we understand just why we should care about this furry little creature. And it's not just because his name's the title of the book.
White Fang starts out as a puppy in the wild (or the Wild, as London likes to put it). He does plenty of cute puppy things like exploring where he shouldn't and getting into all kind of mischief. The catch is that said mischief can kill him… and actually would if his mother weren't looking after him.
Take, for example, his run-in with the Wolverine. Poor White Fang "did not know that it was a wolverine, standing outside, all a-trembling with its own daring, and cautiously scenting out the contents of the cave" (7.5). Poor White Fang doesn't know what's what—he's just a curious little pup. And of course London doesn't spare us the grisly details and White Fang learns his first big lesson in the wild: kill or be killed.
White Fang's wild instincts change a bit when he ends up in the Native American camp, but only just. Like a lot of things in life, people show up and pretty much ruin everything.
At the camp, White Fang grows up hard and tough, a literal lone wolf who obeys Grey Beaver partially out of loyalty, but also out of fear. Grey Beaver treats him like an asset, not a pet: "A kind word, a caressing touch of the hand, on the part of Grey Beaver, might have sounded these deeps; but Grey Beaver did not caress, nor speak kind words. It was not his way" (13.16). Yeah, let's just say that his master isn't exactly heaping the lovin' on our wolf. And to make matters worse, the other dogs in the camp would happily kill him if given a chance. What can we say? It's not easy being the odd wolf out.
So what does White Fang gain from his experience living in the Native American camp? Well, he definitely learns to have a healthy combination of fear and respect for humanity. But it's kind of a bum deal: he goes soft enough so that he can't survive without a master, but not so soft so that he can enjoy the fruits of his domesticity. If by now you're thinking it stinks to be White Fang, well, just you wait…
When the villain of the piece, Beauty Smith, takes him away, he turns White Fang into the devil incarnate, as the narrator tells us, "Under the tutelage of the mad god, White Fang became a fiend" (17.1). He hates everything, fights everything, and darn near kills just about everything too. He's a stereotypical mad dog without the foam, utterly irredeemable and probably due to get shot if he stays on the road Beauty put him on.
Things don't take a turn for the better until Scott shows up, and helps White Fang get in touch with the softer side of… being a carnivorous, predatory, wild animal. Rehabilitating him finally grants him the best of both worlds. On the one hand, he's got the toughness and will to live that comes with being of the Wild, or, as our narrator puts it, "A constitution of iron and the vitality of the Wild were White Fang's inheritance, and he clung to life, the whole of him and every part of him, in spirit and in flesh, with the tenacity that of old belonged to all creatures" (25.29). But he's also got a healthy sense of order and respect of civilization. More importantly, he learns how to trust and love another being, which brings him peace and contentment in addition to lots of free treats.
That balance probably defines White Fang even more than the "I'll bite your head off" toughness. He has a little dog and a lot of wolf in him, and while he might have made it in the Wild if humanity hadn't shown up to rain on his parade, he definitely can't go back once Grey Beaver has tamed him. He's kind of out of balance for most of the book: stuck between his two worlds and unable to make peace with it. Only when Scott shows him the benefits of civilization—real civilization, without the beatings and illegal dogfights—does he merge the Wild wolf with the domestic doggy, and finally find peace.
Interestingly enough, London doesn't spend a whole lot of time on a physical description of White Fang. We get a few "OMG he's huge" passages and a bit on the grey of his fur when he's born, but otherwise London focuses solely on his behavior and his thoughts. Considering all the changes he goes through—and how scary he can be—it's a bold choice. Then again, London likes him the sparse language, and figures we know what wolves look like. White Fang's thoughts and feelings make him far more unique a character than his fur (which we're sure is lovely, but otherwise unremarkable).
Still, it makes it easy to forget, at times, that dude's a wolf. Since no one can actually read a wolf's mind, London's had to take a little bit of license in showing us his thought processes. And yet. On the other hand, White Fang's thoughts are dominated by the laws of nature—which serves as a constant reminder that this creature is wild, wild, wild. There are certain impulses and instincts he has that can be repressed (by a handy treat or pat from Scott), but never fully.
All of this raises a key question: if he's a wolfy wolf (with doggy dog tendencies), why in the world should we care? Why aren't we reading a book about Weedon Scott, for example? Well, if you look close enough, you'll find a lot of parallels between White Fang's journey and that of humans.
For one, we sympathize with White Fang because we've all been hurt for reasons we don't understand, and we've (hopefully) found a way to grow and improve ourselves as a result. It's impossible to be hardhearted when reading about how the poor creature is constantly abused. And it makes it all the sweeter for us when he finally finds a safe, loving home in sunny California. By letting us experience that journey from a wolfy perspective, London makes sure we know it's another soul experiencing it all, and if we can see our feelings in White Fang, we might be more compassionate when we see the same feelings in another human. And we also might be nicer to animals, too.
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