Part One Summary:
Part I opens as London vividly describes the "wild, the savage, frozen-hearted Northland Wild." Two men, Henry and Bill, struggle to pull the long, narrow coffin of Lord Alfred on a dog sled through the cold, desolate terrain. Dressed in fur and leather, their faces are completely covered in frozen crystals. Making the setting bleaker, the men are being pursued by a pack of hungry wolves. Down to only three cartridges for their guns, the travelers are unable to shoot at the wolves, whose behavior is becoming more brazen. Bill voices concern to Henry about an extra dog at feeding time, who appears out of nowhere and blends in with the six regular sled dogs. The next morning the men find one dog missing, lured away by the wolves. A dog that both men agree is not very smart.
As Bill and Henry travel through the frozen, snow covered territory they notice the wolves following a little closer every day. Building fires at night to keep warm and to keep the wolves at bay, the men sense the animals closing in slowly but surely every day and every night.
The next morning as Bill is feeding the dogs he notices the wolf (a she-wolf) amidst the sled dogs and is able to land a blow with a club. The following morning the men find another sled dog, Frog, gone. Unlike Fatty, the first dog to disappear, Frog was "no fool dog" and also the "strongest of the bunch." The men eat a very gloomy breakfast, harness the sled and repeat another day across the frozen Northland. After dinner, however, they decide to tie the dogs to stakes with leather straps to prevent another dog from running away to certain death. As they settle down for the evening the dogs become agitated and Bill and Henry look up to see the she-wolf wandering through the camp, eyeing the dogs. She is a decoy for the wolf pack, remarks Henry, luring the sled dogs away as food for the pack. After much discussion, the men decide it would be prudent to use some of the remaining ammunition to take care of the troublesome she-wolf.
Left with only three dogs, the men start out the next morning only to meet more catastrophe as the sled overturns on a bad price of trail. Stuck between a tree trunk and a large rock, the men are forced to unleash the dogs to straighten the sled. One-Ear immediately begins to run across the snow towards the waiting she-wolf, who is flirting and playing in order to lure him away. All of a sudden One-Ear turns, deciding to return to the safety of his masters but is cut of by the rest of the wolf pack. "I won't stand it," says Bill. "They ain't a-goin' to get any more of our dogs if I can help it." He takes the gun, the limited ammunition and stomps off to save One-Ear. Henry sits on a stump to wait and instantly hears three shots in rapid succession and realizes Bill's ammunition is gone. He then hears loud yelps and cries and knows that he is all alone with only two sled dogs and no ammunition.
Henry now knows he must abandon his cargo, the coffin bearing Lord Alfred. Deciding to stop for the night, he makes sure he has a generous supply of firewood for the long night ahead. With his dogs on either side of him, he settles down for the evening but rest is not part of the equation. He sees the wolves all about him in a circle. Each time they try to move in closer, Henry hurls "brands from the fire" and they retreat.
As he travels during the day, the wolves follow closer and closer. The nights are long and sleepless as Henry begins to envision his fate. One morning, the wolves will not let him leave camp and he is forced to extend the campfire slowly towards a dead tree, literally leaving a trail of fires in order to obtain firewood.
Completely exhausted, Henry finally gives into sleep a few nights later but awakens to find himself being attacked by the wolves. Without thinking he throws himself into the fire, scooping and throwing coal and embers in all directions. He extends the fire in a circle around his body and continues to ward off his attackers until dawn. Unable to overcome the effects of numerous sleepless nights, he dozes off, resigned to a near certain death. The end of Part I is abrupt as Henry is awakened, not to the sound of wolves, but rather the sound of human voices asking "Where is Lord Alfred?" As the men and their dog sleds surround him, he falls to sleep and begins to snore.
Part One Analysis:
Critically acclaimed as a powerful though not so great a book as The Call of the Wild, White Fang is vital to our understanding of Jack London's literary naturalism. In tone as well as in theme, White Fang is significantly more naturalistic than the earlier book, and London's opening description of setting is as effective as anything he ever wrote in this vein:
Dark spruce forest frowned on either side of the frozen waterway. The trees had been stripped by a recent wind of the white covering of frost and they seemed to lean toward each other, black and ominous, in the fading light. A vast silence reigned over the land. 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."
Unlike the animated The Call of the Wild that calls so movingly to Buck, this Wild is predicated on the death principle: "Life is an offense to it, for life is movement: and the Wild aims always to destroy movement. It freezes the water to prevent it running to the sea: it drives the sap out of the trees till they are frozen to their mighty hearts; and most ferociously and terribly of all does the Wild harry and crush into submission man - man, who is the most restless of life, ever in revolt against the dictum that all movement must in the end come to the cessation of movement." Viewed from this bleak cosmic perspective, and deprived of the amenities of civilization, men are no more than "puny adventurersÖpitting themselves against the might of a world as remote and alien and pulseless as the abysses of spaceÖspecks and motes, moving with weak cunning and little wisdom amidst the play and interplay of the great blind elements and forces."
The structural similarities between the two stories become clearer when one realizes that Part One, in which Bill and Henry are stalked by the wolf pack, does not belong in the novel at all. To say this is not to deny that Part One is compelling. As a narrative of life and death on the long trail, it ranks with some of the finest short stories. The skill with which London captures the mounting horror of the inexorably closing pack provokes comparison with such masterpieces of psychological terror as Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum." The plight of Poe's prisoner resembles that of Henry and Bill, who confront the encircling wolves while "the wall of darkness presses about them from every side." In London's story, the terror is augmented by a number of fine touches. The dogs, for example, disappear silently, lured one by one to their deaths by the cunning of the she-wolf. Equally chilling are the ring of eyes in the darkness, reflecting the firelight with an almost supernatural luster; the death of Bill, all the more terrifying because it occurs out o sight and must be imagined; and the desperation with which Henry, now alone, fends off the wolves by hurling brands from the fire. Another striking psychological touch is Henry's sudden appreciation of the details of his own body when he realizes he will soon become the wolves' next meal.