NOTE White Fang is divided into five parts of two to six chapters each. For quick reference, this commentary will refer to chapters with a Roman part numeral followed by an Arabic chapter numeral (for example, “The She-Wolf,” Part I, Chapter 2, would be indicated “I.2”).
Bill and Henry are sled-drivers in the Yukon who are conveying a dead body-the corpse of a man who was “a lord or something in his own country” who would not have had to come “a-buttin round the God-forsaken ends of the earth”-to the trading post of Fort McGurry. Six dogs pull their sled across the frozen wilderness; one man on snowshoes goes in front of the team, the other follows behind the sled itself. As they make their perilous trek, they hear, from time to time, the howling of wolves trailing them. When they make camp for the night, Bill tells Henry that he fed fish to seven dogs, not six. Apparently, a wolf infiltrated the dogs-unusual behavior for a supposedly undomesticated creature. Henry cannot understand why the teams dogs didnt attack the wolf. In the morning, Bill discovers that he and Henry are left with only five dogs. “Fatty” has been eaten-presumably, by the teams wolf visitor.
In his opening chapter, London quickly and dramatically establishes both a mood of suspense-will Bill, Henry, and their dogs get to Fort McGurry with their cargo and, more importantly, with their lives?-and one of the novels dominant themes, the perilous nature of life. The coffin on the sled serves as a physical symbol of mortality, a symbol made all the more stark and foreboding because of the backdrop of “the Wild.” London clearly indicates to his readers that “the Wild” refers to more than the rugged, undeveloped Yukon landscape of the late 19th century. It is the physical embodiment of all that is hostile to life: human life, to be sure;but also-as readers will soon discover when the narrative point-of-view shifts to the wolves-to life in general. The wolf-dog who infiltrates the sled teams dogs and lures Fatty to his death is, after all, acting for her and her packs survival. Bill and Henry may believe they are in control of the situation, but they are actually “the meat” of the chapter title. This sobering realization brings home for readers the “futility of life” invoked by the narrator in the opening paragraph. This chapter as a whole dramatizes the fragility of life, especially in such extremely cold and desolate conditions.