Sunday, September 11, 2016

On individual interpretations, abridgment and reading White Fang by Jack London

Brace yourself, this will be one of the long ones... 

Set in the coldest North Canada, White Fang is the story of a wild little wolf cub, White Fang, borne of a wolf and a female wolf-dog. The story of a wild animal who grows up near and in the company of man. The effect this has on him, and what it says about life, death, nature and nurture is what the book is all about. It is the companion book of The Call of the Wild, apparently its mirror.

For the last two months, for one reason or the other, I have been immersed in fantasy and children's books. White Fang was a welcome change. The writing left me spellbound. Here are two excerpts:

"It is not the way of the Wild to like movement. Life is an offence 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."

"Life flowed past him, deep and wide and varied, continually impinging upon his senses, demanding of him instant adjustments and correspondences, and compelling him, almost always, to suppress his natural impulses."

On individual interpretations and my takeaway - the evolution of the dog:

I finished this book towards the end of last month. Since then, I have discussed it, if fleetingly, with more than a couple of people. The interactions have left me somewhat amused. One friend finds it eerie, to another it's the classic classic (I have yet to understand exactly what being a classic classic entails) while my favourite is perhaps the idea that it belongs to the same class of quiet reflective books as Walden (which, by the way, I haven't read.) I agree with each takeaway, while being carefully aware that that is not how I saw the book, at all: because I, for one, am most affected by the most literal of interpretations this book could have. This, I admit, is not the deepest essence of White Fang, but this is what the post shall deal with foremost - the evolution of the domestic dog. 

I am a cat person to the core. One of my favourite things about cats is that they are not so much domesticated as willing to share space with not entirely unlikable creatures (that would be us) so long as we serve their every need. A dog, in very stark contrast, lives to please. It is as if there is something inside a dog that exists only for the human caress. And, London says there is. London repeatedly talks about this feeling hidden deep within the wolf, White Fang, this call of the civilisation (let's put it like that) and its slow awakening with increasing contact with people. There is a very obvious analogy there with the savage man, of course, but the book significantly overtly captured my amateur (mostly experiential) interest in animal behaviour. 

Recently, a friend told me that the evolution of dogs was genetic. Very simply put, this meant that there was a certain genetic marker that made wolves afraid of humans, and a kind of wolf evolved in whom this hormone (I suppose) was absent - a forefather of our dog. Hours of swift-fingered Googling (the easiest research there is) led me to interesting tidbits - my friend was right, dogs were not tamed by us, really, but somehow "invented themselves" by becoming steadily tamer around and dependent on humans, in a surprisingly parasitic fashion. 

The rapid and random breeding of dogs makes it hard to trace their precise origin, but it is generally agreed that they were domesticated at least 15000 years ago. The process, I'm sure, was not nearly as simple and affecting as was described in White Fang, yet I wonder what that first wolf-dog felt... (such is the power of historical fiction.)

"There was something calling to him out there in the open. His mother heard it, too. The stream, the lair, and the quiet woods were calling to him, and he wanted her to come. But she heard also that other and louder call, the call of the fire and of man - the call which it has been given alone of all animals to the wolf to answer."

Dogs and men have a special relationship, no doubt. And this book just gets it, from an utterly un-romanticized dog's perspective. The cruelty suffered by White Fang and the building of trust that forms the basis of any dog-human relationship is beautifully expressed. I read on Wikipedia that London suffered criticism for his "fake nature" writing and for overly anthropomorphic animals. I find this accusation ludicrous! The opposite is true. I loved how, throughout the book, London reaffirms that White Fang, the wolf, had no conscious clue of his nature or intentions, that it was plain instinct that guided his every move.

“Had the cub thought in man-fashion, he might have epitomized life as a voracious appetite, and the world as a place wherein ranged a multitude of appetites, pursuing and being pursued, hunting and being hunted, eating and being eaten, all in blindness and confusion, with violence and disorder, a chaos of gluttony and slaughter, ruled over by chance, merciless, planless, endless.”

That pesky allegory:

Yes, White Fang is about life and experience, or often lack thereof. It is so many things, layer beneath layer of story. A fable about a lone pup in search of warmth and love. It is about coming of age. About the pull of the unknown and the loss of innocence that comes of it. White Fang is about reconciling with the wild in us, the savage that lurks in the belly of every civilization. The book humbles you in the face of nature, like The Lord of the Flies, and makes you question your firmest beliefs. It is also, quite unlike The Lord of the Flies, immensely reassuring. A book of quiet reflection, it will give you plenty to mull over.

It is also supremely idiotic in how the white man makes a naturally superior god to the wolf than the tribal. I don't remember there being any memorable women among the humans in the book, but in the interest of not bristling at every turn, I do think that the mother wolf is one of the coolest female characters ever. 

Lost in abridgment; an afterthought:

Grade 5 of the school I teach at has an abridged chapter from this book in their English syllabus... The Grey Cub. It was this more than anything else that got me interested in Jack London - an author whom I have once, long ago, abandoned two pages in... (in a kiddy version of The Call of the Wild). I blame abridgment. Reading White Fang now, I kept wondering why we bother with abridged texts. Is it not a form of censorship?... taking it upon ourselves to decide what is and isn't appropriate for a certain age to read and experience. There is a lot, I realised as I read White Fang, that is lost in in this translation. 

The chapter from the Grade 5 book is mildly interesting, at best. It is simple and straightforward, where Jack London has poured multiple layers of meaning into every line, to peel back and marvel at. Look here - what is a mere "fall down a steep slope" in the textbook is originally this vivid gem of a line. Which child, tell me, won't chuckle at this?

"Now the grey cub had lived all his days on a level floor. He had never experienced the hurt of a fall. He did not know what a wall was. So he stepped boldly out upon the air."

And even if a book is deemed, rightly, as more appropriate for a certain age, then why distort it to suit another? Surely we have plenty of beautiful, profound children's literature to fill up all the textbooks in the world. Why bother with texts that need to be watered down when we have many available that cater to the very needs of the children? During my post-grad, I took up a course in teaching reading where we briefly dealt with how to edit texts for age-appropriateness: replace complex clauses with simple, use grade-level vocabulary and such. At the time, it never occurred to me simply ask; but why the hell just not stick to children's books instead! Thinking of the ones I have enjoyed over the years, I am not convinced they have any less to offer.
...

Too long to read? White Fang by Jack London - a must read, if ever there was one. 

8 comments:

Divers and Sundry said...

It's been a long time since I last read this, and you make me want to seek it out again. I agree with your reflection here: "Why bother with texts that need to be watered down when we have many available that cater to the very needs of the children?" I love the idea of finding works that are suitable and speak to the person where they are now or are just a bit ahead of them so as to challenge understanding. The idea of providing snippets of books or altered works instead of actual books feels odd to me. There are so many books appropriate for each age, I'd think picking from among those would provide plenty of options.

LacoScrib said...

Some of my most memorable reading experiences, novels to be precise, were on abridged and illustrated editions. Charles Dickens, Jules Verne, H.G.Wells to name a few, but have made up for it in recent years. :)

Nish said...

I am a fan of abridged novels, or illustrated classics which I grew up on. They were great to give me an introduction to books I might have struggled with. Later on if the abridged classic made an impression (like all those Dickens and Eliot, for example), I sought out and read the complete versions.

I think there is a place for these books. However I do not understand abridged versions of White Fang, which I don't think really needs it.

Trish said...

Thanks for such a thorough review! I've had this book on my shelf for years and I think it's time now for me to finally get on with reading it.

Brian Joseph said...

This is superb post.

It has been a very long time since I read this book.

I like the Evolutionary Biology angle to your commentary. Lately some folks have been advocating for incorporating this into literary analysis . I agree with this approach.

You correctly point out the racism and sexism that is common, with some exceptions in these older works.

I am also a cat person :)

Jenny @ Reading the End said...

I've never read White Fang, I'm ashamed to report! I am really interested though in the co-evolution of humans and dogs -- they've apparently evolved in particular ways that make them sensitive to our facial expressions and emotions, which is fascinating! "Invented themselves" is an excellent way to describe it.

Priya said...

Divers and Sundry, a bit ahead sounds good. If you need to significantly alter the writing for the child to understand, I think you should just choose a different text.

LacoScrib, Nishita - I am pleasantly surprised that you did. I never used to be fully involved in any illustrated classics I read, but maybe I chose the wrong ones. I did read Oliver Twist, and when I found out it wasn't the full version I almost felt a little cheated... I'm sure it's a matter of preference of course. But I do believe the emphasis on reading "classics" takes away from the pleasure of well-written children's books. It's a pity then that the classics concerned aren't even in their original form.

Trish - Do read it and I'd love to know what you think. :)

Brian - I should like to read the evolutionary biology approach to literary analysis. (Googling...)

Jenny - Sensitive to our expressions? That's news to me, but I'm not surprised. :)

DMS said...

I read White Fang and Call of the Wild when I was in 5th grade. I remember both of them, but after reading this post I think I should reread them as an adult. I know I will have a different perspective and your thoughts really intrigued me. I didn't realize the history of dogs. Very interesting!

Thanks for sharing. :)
~Jess

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