Eat or Be Eaten
London, J. (1906). White Fang. United States: Macmillan.
Just like men, White Fang is bound to adapt in any circumstance or place he goes through. Jack London used a wolf to describe how men are shaped by nature and how men deal with and learn about the rules of this world. London’s White Fang shows that only the best and most adept being can survive in this world. And in this world, there’s the wild—which represents failures, challenges and pain—that has two principles: to eat or to be eaten and to oppress the weak and obey the strong.
To help them survive, humans or other beings acknowledge a being that has power and authority over them. This sovereign being is called as ‘god’ in the book, White Fang. Consequently, White Fang suggests that there are beings that are meant to be ruled or be a ruler, or both. Just like how White Fang sees humans as gods, humans also recognize a sovereign being that can enforce rules or laws.
Having gone to Yukon, Canada when gold’s discovered there, London sets most of the story of White Fang—the title of his book and the name of the book’s protagonist—in Yukon. People in Yukon were known for using guns in ending problems or arguments. White Fang was shaped by his environment in the wild in Yukon where he had his former gods, Grey Beaver, Beauty Smith and Weedon Scott respectively. His ‘gods’ travelled to Yukon to be involved in the gold rush.
The book revolves around the life of a wolf named White Fang. It talks about how Nature and its parts like the wild and civilization shaped White Fang. In the wild, White Fang met people and dogs that challenged him in his survival and gave him hurt, but there, he became strong and adept in adjusting and dealing with its rules. Later on, civilized California let him experience abundance and peace and order.
One of the theses of the book which states that only those who are the best and strong in the group will survive is supported by Herbert Spencer’s theory of Social Darwinism. This theory is an application of Charles Darwin’s Natural Selection. Most Social Darwinists promote less government intervention in a country’s economy to instigate competition among the citizens (Microsoft Encarta, 2000). They dislike organizations for social welfare. Competition for them is a way to realize a citizens’ full potential. Consequently, the people who excel in any aspect of life would survive.
Another argument that supports the second thesis of the book which states that humans acknowledge a being superior to them, that would help them survive, is enlightenment period philosophers Locke, Rousseau and Hobbes’ Social Contract Theory. This sovereign being is expected to give the people rules to instigate order, and punishment when a person does an act which could obstruct the sovereign to meet a desired end. The theory mentioned above states that people had an agreement to acknowledge a government that would rule them (Heywood, 2007). Because they agreed to this, they are also bound to obey and respect the government they acknowledge (Heywood, 2007). This agreement made by the people was due to their belief that the existence of peace and order in the society helps them survive (Heywood, 2007).
Lastly, the idea presented in White Fang that there are people who are meant to be ruled and meant to rule, or both, is consistent with Aristotle’s formation of political association or polis. Before a perfect political association is formed, two elements which couldn’t exist without the other should be united (Readings in Social Science II, 1993). Therefore, there should be a union of the ruling element and the ruled element. This is also for the reason that the ruled and the ruler share the same interest (Readings in Social Science II, 1993). A man can be a ruler if he is intellectually able, while a man can be ruled if he is physically able (Readings in Social Science II, 1993). In addition, Aristotle also believes that a man doesn’t live in a polis; he is either a beast or a god. For that reason, it is valid to say that a man is a political animal who is destined to live under a ruler in a polis (Readings in Social Science II, 1993).
London expressed two agreeable ideas in his book. Firstly, London raised in his book that freedom is not always pleasant, and confinement is not always awful. Their effect on anyone depends on where he is free from and to whom or what he is confined. This is both linked to Locke and Rousseau’s concept of freedom. Basing on Locke’s view, London agrees that a man is free when he is left alone especially if he is more productive and peaceful this way (Baradat, 1997). However, London also implied in his book that a lone individual is not self-sufficing so he needs to be ruled by a sovereign. Consequently, he would prefer to be confined in the ruling of that sovereign; or in other words, he would prefer to attain the greatest freedom he could achieve which is to be subordinated to the sovereign, as for Rousseau (Baradat, 1997). But a man would only choose to be confined in the ruling of a sovereign if it provides his needs better than he alone could do.
Secondly, London is agreeable when he implied in his book that a man whose rights are not preserved will show aggression. The more he becomes aggressive; the society he’s living in has no choice but to equalize its aggression to that of the man’s. It’s evident in his line referring to Jim Hall—a character in his book who experienced injustice in the society—which says, “He could die … and fighting to the last, but he could not live and be beaten. The more fiercely he fought, the more harshly society handled him, and the only effect of harshness was to make him fiercer.” This idea is supported by Janice Moulton’s (as cited by Hundleby, 2013) successful study which shows that women—who also experienced inequality in the society—living in an aggressive environment tend to become equally aggressive. Later on, women would use aggression to be noticed in their place. Consequently, their effort to be noticed will be seen as aggressive by the people around them. As a result, their neighbors would be equally aggressive to them, so as to oppress the offender. Those women, in effect, would be more aggressive.
On the other hand, London raised two arguable implications. Firstly, White Fang has a theme of suffering which implies that life is full of suffering that may or may not end (Shmoop Editorial Team, 2008). Man suffers when he competes. Man suffers when he fights for a good life. Nevertheless, a Chinese philosopher, Confucius insists on saying that life is actually simple and that humans only make it complicated (Edberg, 2006-2015). It’s man’s nature to desire to advance or to become greater than the other that makes life complicated and makes them suffer. It’s the mind that constantly desires for something more that makes life full of suffering or pain (Edberg, 2006-2015). If man only focuses only on what he needs, he won’t have to compete, unless the resources are really scarce. If man views simple things as the best, he would attain the good life without suffering.
Secondly, London suggested in his book that the products of civilization such as the buildings, factories, automobiles, electric cars and the like are manifestations of power. Behind the success of civilization are men, who then, are superior to creatures of nature and to nature itself. Men are exploiting nature and its creatures to advance. But men should also remember that—basing on the environmentalists view—they are dependent on nature (Wilson, 1993). Its available resources are what they use in order to survive or even to advance. As they continue to build factories and use cars that causes air pollution or continue to use plastic and make papers to increase productivity, they limit the sources available for the future generations. If they are dependent on nature in order to survive, then civilization and its products are subordinate to nature. They could be considered as manifestations of power, but not for nature. For nature, they are threats to sustainability that could not be solved or escaped despite men’s fierceness and intellect (Wilson, 1993).
Jack London’s White Fang is mainly about knowing to whom you are superior and to whom you are inferior. To have a ruler is not only part of nature; it’s also what individuals need in order to survive. This is for the reason that men are not self-sufficing, as said by Plato. You have to obey the powerful—which is the ruler—and oppress the weak. To obey the powerful being, you should know the rules he enforces, lest you receive a punishment. In a group where individuals belong, they consider the individuals of their kind as weak, because they are all under the ruling of a sovereign authority. In that group, they compete to survive or to advance. In that competition, they can either eat or be eaten. No one wants to lose or be eaten, so everyone really fights for the crown of survival.
Those are the rules of the wild, as mentioned in the book. However, the wild doesn’t only denote the jungle or an uncivilized area, for even in a civilized area, there’s a wild. The wild is a part of nature. The wild in a civilized area is the challenges and pain men face. They can choose to be free from it. But others choose to be deal with it because they are motivated by their loved ones.
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