As background knowledge for a full understanding of the novel White Fang, the reader should be familiar with London's earlier and equally famous novel, The Call of the Wild (1903). While London did not intend these novels to be sequential, or that one should follow another, there is, nevertheless, a thematic relationship that exists between the two. For example, in the earlier Call of the Wild, London treats the matter of a civilized dog's being converted to the ways of the wild in the primitive North. At the end of the novel, the previously civilized dog has become wild, and he has sired a new strain of wild dogs, a breed that is part dog and part wild wolf. In contrast, the novel White Fang (1906) begins with a previously tamed dog seen in his native habitat, functioning as a wild beast. In the first three chapters, this animal is simply referred to as a "she-wolf." We are not implying that London deliberately conceived this novel as a continuation of the preceding novel, but merely that he is using a situation analogous to that in the earlier novel.
Even though the first three chapters of White Fang are referred to as Part One, they have very little to do with the subsequent chapters of the book. For example, Henry and Bill are never heard of again, and Lord Alfred's corpse is left suspended in the tree. As is often the case with many novels, a certain portion of a novel can be published as a separate entity, and these first three chapters (in Part One) stand so independently from the rest of the novel that they can be looked upon as a separate short story.
However, in relationship to the entirety of the novel White Fang, these chapters do present dramatically and forcefully the desolation and isolation against which the main body of the novel is set. In other words, the reader is introduced rather dramatically to the harsh, frozen Northland, where all types of life struggle desperately for mere existence.
Thus, the novel opens with two men, Henry and Bill, struggling against the "Wild, the savage, frozen-hearted Northland Wild." The scene is made even more eerie by the nature of their journey — that is, they are trying to return to civilization, Fort McGurry, with the dead body of Lord Alfred, a man whom we know little about, except that his family is considerably wealthy. As the men struggle against the elements, the eerie, ghostly presence of Lord Alfred in his coffin becomes more dominant. The two men are also in serious trouble because they are being constantly pursued by a large pack of gaunt, starving wolves. The wolves are so desperate for food that they eventually venture within a few yards of the camp site. Moreover, the men are at yet another disadvantage because they have only three cartridges left for their gun, and they are thus unable to shoot at random at the wolves. Therefore, every night, the two men have to build a roaring fire, or else they will be immediately devoured by the starving, desperate wolves.
About the man in the "oblong box" — Lord Alfred — London tells us little, except that Lord Alfred was a man whom "the Wild had conquered and beaten down until he would never move nor struggle again." We are told that the reason for this is that it "is not the way of the Wild to like movement."
Each night as the two men build the campfire to keep the wolves away, they can gradually sense the wolves growing bolder and bolder as their starvation increases. Then, one night, Bill goes out with six salmon to feed the six dogs, and he comes back totally perplexed because there were seven dogs instead of six to be fed. The next morning, however, there are only five dogs waiting to be fed — two dogs have seemingly disappeared. Soon they discover, at a distance, a she-wolf that was brazen enough to lure one of the male dogs away from the camp. Then, after the dog was lured away from the protective camp site, the wolf pack attacked it and totally devoured it — all because of their intense hunger. During the mysterious disappearance of the dogs, the presence of the coffin begins to prey on the two men's active imaginations. The presence of the coffin and the desolation and the extremely harsh weather cause the men to question their own sanity — for example, if the seventh animal the night before had been a wolf, it seems only logical that the dogs would have "pitched into it." But they didn't; therefore, the seventh "dog" has to be familiar with the ways of civilized man.
The next morning, when they realize that another dog, Fatty, is gone, they are not too concerned because Fatty was not a very bright dog anyway. However, "no fool dog ought to be fool enough to go off and commit suicide that way." The next night as they are making camp, the same thing happens again. The she-wolf appears and takes half of a salmon from Bill's hand before he recognizes the she-wolf as being a strange dog and can drive it away with a club. Later that night, however, a second dog, Frog, the strongest, is lured away and devoured by the wolf pack. The third night, Bill is determined that they will not lose another dog, and therefore, he contrives a method by which he ties a dog to a stick in such a way that the restraining leather strap cannot be chewed away. The next morning, though, another dog — Spanker — is gone. His strap has been gnawed through. Henry and Bill assume that it was probably the dog next to Spanker, One Ear, that gnawed through the strap. London, however, implies that it was the she-wolf herself who gnawed through the leather strap, releasing Spanker. Bill then decides that he will tie the dogs out of reach of each other that night, because he notes that if it was the wolves who gnawed Spanker loose, they were so hungry that they ate even the leather strap that was tied to Spanker.
At this point, Bill becomes desperately angry over the manner in which the she-wolf is able to lure their dogs away from the camp, and he decides that the only solution is to use one of the three cartridges left; he must at least try to destroy the she-wolf. When they first see the wolf in the daylight, they observe that its coat is a "true wolf coat" — that is, the dominant color is gray, but there is a faint reddish-hue to the coat that indicates that the animal is not a full-blooded wolf. In fact, it looks "for all the world like a big husky sled dog." When Bill raises his rifle to get a good shot at the she-wolf, she immediately notices the weapon and darts for shelter.
When the fourth dog, One Ear, is lured away from the sled by the she-wolf, he and the other two remaining dogs were not, by coincidence, leashed to the sled because of an accident. Bill again decides that he must try to kill the she-wolf.
Meanwhile, One Ear, after declining to pursue the lure of the she-wolf, starts to head back to the protection of the men and the sled, but he is cut off by the pack of wolves, and he cannot get far enough ahead of the pack to cut through to the safety of the sled. Suddenly, Henry hears one shot followed quickly by two more in rapid succession, and he knows that the wolves have set upon One Ear and Bill.
Henry now realizes that he is completely alone, with only two dogs and no ammunition. So, using a man-harness, Henry, along with the two remaining dogs, begins to pull the sled. Before long, it becomes necessary to discard the heavy coffin bearing Lord Alfred, thus making the load considerably lighter. Each night, Henry stops well before dark in order to build two huge fires, but when he begins to doze off, he awakens to find that the wolves have crept up to within a couple of yards from him. Because Henry has on such heavy protective gloves, he is able to plunge his hands into the bed of coals and toss the glowing embers onto the wolves, thus frightening them off. This continues for many nights, until finally one morning, at daylight, the wolves refuse to retreat, thus forcing Henry and his two dogs to spend the entire day by the fire. He cannot even leave the fire long enough so that he can cut enough wood to kindle a fire; thus, he has to build a trail of fires to the nearby woods, where there are several dead trees which he can chop down.
One night, exhausted from lack of sleep, he awakens to find himself completely surrounded by wolves — "the teeth of one had closed upon his arm" — and he instinctively leaps into the fire and begins throwing live coals at his attackers. He then builds a circle of fire around him and sits on his blanket to protect himself from the wolves. Gradually, his supply of wood begins to disappear, and there seems no way for him to replenish his dwindling supply. Exhausted even further from lack of sleep, he resigns himself to the inevitable: he lies down and goes to sleep, only to be awakened by a "mysterious change that had taken place." He discovers that the wolves have disappeared, and he is now surrounded by several dog sleds and a half dozen men. One of the men asks about Lord Alfred, and Henry tells him that Lord Alfred is dead, and that his body is still "roosting in the tree at the last camp."
One of London's goals in this chapter is to show the constant conflict between man and primitive beasts, and, at the same time, to allow the reader to know that the animals are extremely cunning in their savagery — as can be seen particularly in the way that the she-wolf is able to lure off the male dogs, one by one. As noted at the beginning of this discussion, the desolation and the isolation of the wilderness is in direct conflict with the intelligence of man. Bill tries to destroy the animals, and he fails, and Henry has to use all of his native intelligence in order to survive the onslaught of the pack of wolves. The ending of this section is, however, melodramatic, since Henry is miraculously saved at a moment when all hope of escape has been abandoned. The reading audience of 1906, however, was enthusiastic; they loved melodramatic endings.