In the opening section of Jack London’s novel White Fang, two men, Bill and Henry, are traveling across the arctic on sleds to deliver the body of a rich foreign nobleman to a military fort. As they move across the region, they realize that they are being tracked by a pack of starving wolves who have not eaten anything in days. As they make camp, their sled dogs begin to panic. As Bill feeds the dogs, he realizes that there are more dogs to feed then there should be, and tells Henry that he thinks a wolf snuck in to feed with them. They discuss the fact that such a wolf cannot be entirely normal, and must be some sort of wolf-dog hybrid. They go to sleep for the night and wake to find one of the original dogs, Fatty, has gone missing. They summarize that he must have been led away and devoured by the wolf pack. The men continue on their way and once they make camp for the second time Bill smashes the intruding wolf-dog on the head and scares it off. After a night’s rest they awake to find another dog, Frog, gone and eaten. After another day of sledding, Bill creates a stronger leash to hold the dogs. They encounter the wolf-dog again, a small female who they recognize has probably led the sled dogs to their dooms. When they wake up in the morning, Bill learns that One Eye, the lead sled dog, has chewed one of his peers, Spanker, loose. They continue on until the sled gets overturned and One Eye is drawn away by the She-Wolf. Bill goes after them and slams into the rest of the pack; Henry hears One Eye’s death and Bill running out of bullets. He moves on until he finally makes camp for the final time, and loses the rest of his dogs. After a prolonged battle with the wolves, he is rescued by men who have come to pick up the deceased nobleman.
One technique I tracked during this story was how Jack London characterized the setting itself. The Arctic is described as a malevolent entity that causes only grief and pain for those inside it. During the opening page Jack London writes that
The land itself was a desolation, lifeless, without movement, so lone and cold that the spirit of it was not even that of sadness. There was a hint in it of laughter, but of a laughter more terrible than any sadness — a laughter that was mirthless as the smile of the Sphinx, a laughter cold as the frost and partaking of the grimness of infallibility. It was the masterful and incommunicable wisdom of eternity laughing at the futility of life and the effort of life. It was the Wild, the savage, frozen-hearted Northland Wild.
Another notable example of this personification is how he describes the Arctic’s relationship with living things:
Life is an offence to it, for life is movement; and the Wild aims always to destroy movement.
Because this is how the story starts, we get a clear image of the setting and how the characters of the story are likely to interact with it. The Arctic is an active force within the context of the piece and our protagonists view it as such, as seen after the death of Frog:
Henry leaped out of the blankets and to the dogs. He counted them with care, and then joined his partner in cursing the powers of the Wild that had robbed them of another dog.
The other thing I paid attention to was how the story’s main “villains” are represented. The wolves make their presence felt throughout the opening of White Fang. As they stalk our protagonists through the narrative, Jack London paints a clear picture of their miserable state. Of their initial cries, he says:
It might have been a lost soul wailing, had it not been invested with a certain sad fierceness and hungry eagerness.
The wolves are characterized and given personified elements by both the “narrator” and the story’s two unlucky sled men, Bill and Henry. Throughout their encounters with the wolves we hear their thoughts and tirades on the hunters. This is where a bulk of our description on the pack comes from. Bill says
Well, them wolves is land sharks. They know their business better’n we do, an’ they ain’t a-holdin’ our trail this way for their health. They’re goin’ to get us. They’re sure goin’ to get us, Henry.
This line of dialogue conveys a few things to the reader. The first thing is a further understanding of our main characters’ relationship with the predators: Bill views them as cunning monsters that know both the land and how to obtain their food. But because the narrative offers no conflicting information, we assume his conclusions are true and add more info about the wolves to our minds. The narrator is not a passive voice in White Fang; at one point, it corrects our characters assumptions about the color of the She-Wolf:
“Kind of strange color for a wolf,” was Bill’s criticism. “never seen a red wolf before. Looks almost cinnamon to me.”
The animal was certainly not cinnamon-colored. Its coat was the true wolf-coat. The dominant color was gray, and yet there was to it a faint reddish hue — a hue that was baffling, that appeared and disappeared, that was more like an illusion of the vision, now gray, distinctly gray, and again giving hints and glints of a vague redness of color not classifiable in terms of ordinary experience.
This creates an interesting dynamic between the narrator and characters. The narrator is the dominant member that has the final word on truth and falsities. Yet still the characters are important in delivering the theme and ideas of the story to the reader, and through their dialogue the plot flows.
A few things I’d like to implement into my own work are both the incredible dialogue and vivid descriptions of setting. The dialogue works both to effectively characterize and develop the two men, move forward the plot, and give us valuable exposition and backstory.
- What do you think ultimately makes Bill snap and head off into the woods to confront the wolf pack?
- Why do you think Henry gives up near the end of the story?
- What would you have done in that situation?