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Free Study Guide for White Fang by Jack London - Free Book Notes

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CHAPTER SUMMARIES WITH NOTES


PART I


CHAPTER 1


Summary

The novel starts with a description of the landscape in the Northland Wild, which is a cold and desolate place. Some “wolfish dogs” are harnessed to a sled without runners. The sled is made of birch bark and rests on the snow. On the sled lies a narrow, oblong box, along with other essential items, including blankets, an axe, a coffee pot, and a frying pan. The box is actually a coffin, and in it lies Lord Alfred, a companion of Bill and Henry, whom the reader meets in this chapter. Clothed in fur and leather, they are traveling across the snow. It is almost evening when they hear a wolf’s call, which is answered by other wolves; the lonely sounds of the wolves make the two men uneasy. Once it is dark, they bring the dogs together near a cluster of spruce trees along the water, where they set up camp. The dogs are restless but show no intentions of straying from the fire.

The two men begin talking. Bill tells Henry that he had to get an extra portion of fish to feed the dogs, because there were seven dogs instead of six. After counting only six dogs, Henry scoffs at Bill and tells him he is seeing things. Bill confirms his story by saying that he has seen the tracks of a new animal coming into the camp. Just then, they hear the wolves howling, and Bill thinks that the visitor may have been one of the wolves. The conversation turns to the dead companion, who was a wealthy man -- a “lord or something in his own country.” The talk is interrupted by the dogs, who grow very agitated. One dog’s coat is nearly burned when he gets too close to the fire in his restlessness. The men look up and see a pair of gleaming eyes in the darkness.

The men, with only a couple of cartridges left for their gun, wish they had more ammunition. Bill, in fact, wishes he had not come on this trip. Like the dogs, he is restless. When he tries to sleep, he is awakened by the dogs. When he counts their number, there are seven dogs again. Bill makes an unsuccessful attempt to wake Henry to prove he is not seeing things. The next morning, Henry is the first to wake. Bill rolls up the blankets and prepares the sled. He tells Henry that they now have only five dogs left, for Fatty has disappeared.



Notes

The first chapter of the novel begins with a powerful description of the Northland Wild, a cold and remote place. The land is lifeless, with “a laughter cold as the frost and partaking of the grimness of infallibility.” The author further captures the mood of this place by saying that “it was the masterful and incommunicable wisdom of eternity laughing at the futility of life and the effort of life.” There is something about the Northland Wild that tries to defeat man and makes a mockery of his attempt at survival.

The author builds the atmosphere of the novel with his eerie description of the setting. The howling of wolves, the interminable stretching of the snow, and the image of sunless days contribute to a fearful tone. Additionally, there has been a death, for a coffin sits on the sled. It is interesting that the dead man occupies a place on the sled among odds and ends, such as the coffee pot and the frying pan.

As Jack London describes the Wild, he gives it a distinct identity. It is personified as an enemy of man, an animate figure drawing life out of all other things. In fact, to the Northland Wild, “Life is an offense. . .for life is movement.” In contrast, man revolts against lack of movement, for if there is no movement, there is death. To fight against death, the men are bundled in heavy clothing; still there are frozen crystals on their faces, making them look like “undertakers in a spectral world at the funeral of some ghost.” It is these and other such eerie metaphors that establish the bleak atmosphere in Chapter 1 of White Fang.

It is important to note the lack of noise in this frozen environment. The inevitability and invariability of the silence of the land recalls death itself. The silence forces the men into accepting the enormous power of the natural world that surrounds them; in the process of acceptance, they feel reduced in stature, defenseless in the face of cruel and ruthless Nature. Because Henry and Bill understand the demands of this natural world, they rarely even speak to each other; their unspoken fear prevents them from idle chatter, and they must save their breath for their hard work. Their fear is heightened by the fact that they are running out of food and ammunition. They have not caught a rabbit in days and have only a couple of cartridges left. It is no wonder that they feel threatened when they hear the wolves.

The chapter also shows Henry and Bill to be very different personalities. Henry is the more practical one, who believes in solid evidence; he does not accept Bill’s claim that there are seven dogs and complacently brushes off the information. In contrast to Henry’s more relaxed nature, Bill is a bundle of nerves. He is also much more sensitive to the environment. He feels that something is wrong and grows tense, sleeping fitfully and awakening to the sounds of the wolves’ howls. Because of his uneasiness, the death of their companion, and their depleted supplies, he regrets making the excursion to this cold, lonely place. Henry does not seem to be nearly as concerned.

The chapter ends with a bit of suspense. The men have seem gleaming eyes in the darkness, the dogs are restless, the men are out of ammunition and food, and Bill has been tense and unable to sleep. Additionally, the reader is given no explanation about the death of their companion or the presence of a seventh dog. To make matters more suspenseful, the chapter ends with the news that Fatty, one of their dogs, is missing.

 

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