II.4 The Wall of the World
The gray cub (not now named, but who will come to be called White Fang), makes his initial, confusing yet invigorating foray beyond the "wall of light" into the world outside the lair. He adjusts, falteringly, to new terrain and to new animals, and comes to make a basic division of all things in the world between living and non-living. He even stumbles across a poorly hidden ptarmigan nest and makes his first kill. Before he can make his way back to the lair, however, he encounters a young weasel. He is attacked by the weasel's mother, and is rescued, just in time, by his own.
White Fang's passing out of the lair illustrates the dynamic interplay of instincts that animates life: "Fear urged him to go back, but growth drove him on." This chapter functions in some ways as a classic, archetypal initiation. White Fang experiences a summons to adventure: the instinctive draw of the light established in the previous chapter, the attraction all life feels toward light. He undergoes a separation from the world he has always known: the lair. He experiences change and gains new knowledge: "[T]he cub was learning. There were live things and things not alive." He even undergoes what might be classified a "baptism": White Fang steps into the stream and almost drowns. "The water rushed into his lungs. To him it signified death. He came to the surface, and the sweet air rushed into his open mouth." White Fang thus experiences a truly mythic, even "heroic" initiation: he "dies" and is "reborn," he transitions, true to his liminal nature, from one world to another. And he returns to the old world with a "boon," the gift of a new understanding of life: for instance, he has learned not to trust in appearances. "He would have to learn the reality of a thing before he could put his faith in it." This lesson, in particular, will serve White Fang well in his dealings with human beings throughout the rest of the novel.
This chapter also returns to the question of whether life is futile, even in the Wild. Note that the narrator tells us that, in killing the ptarmigan, White Fang is realizing his own purpose, his own reason for existence, and is therefore "justifying his existence." Readers may wonder if London intends for his readers to ask how they do or may justify their own existence-i.e., for what do they strive, or for what purpose have they been "equipped"? The novel is on one level about wolves; however, on a deeper level, as is all literature, it is about humanity, as the presence of such existential concerns in the chapter demonstrates.
The narrator's statement, "Fear!-that legacy of the Wild which no animal may escape nor exchange for pottage," is an allusion to Genesis 25:29-34, in which Esau sells his birthright to his brother Jacob in exchange for lentil stew ("pottage" in the King James Version). Readers will see that fear, in various forms, plays a large part in the narrative that is to come, and should note its occurrence as the story continues.