Summary and Analysis
Part 2 (Chapters IV-VIII)
This part of the novel reverts backward in time, and, in addition, it makes a shift in the narrative point of view so that we now see events from the viewpoint of the she-wolf. It is not until Part Three of the novel, however, that we discover the name of the she-wolf — "Kiche" — and discover that the she-wolf was once a tame animal that now belongs to an Indian named Gray Beaver. Instead, Part Two concerns itself with showing the she-wolf in her own environment with a pack of wild wolves. In Part One, we saw that when the wolf pack was closing in on Henry for the kill, and that when the other men came to the rescue, "the pack was loath to forego the kill it had hunted down." In a like fashion, they work together as a group, tracking down a big bull moose, and London gives the reader a vivid description of the manner in which the wolf pack stalks and kills the bull moose.
After the pack is driven away, they break into smaller packs, and each pack goes its own way. At this time, the she-wolf attracts three males to her, one a very young three-year-old, who has just attained his adulthood, the second a mature wolf, and the third an old, one-eyed wolf, tattered from many fights.
There is famine in the land, and as long as the wolf pack works together, they survive, but as soon as the famine is over, fights begin for the attention of the she-wolf, and the inexperienced three-year-old is attacked by the old, one-eyed wolf and the mature wolf, and the two quickly destroy him. Then the old, one-eyed wolf, using his experience and trickery, catches the other wolf off-guard and kills him. He is now the sole companion of the she-wolf. Significantly, the she-wolf seems pleased by the death battles for her attention.
Together now, the two wolves roam the countryside stalking game, and it is the she-wolf who teaches the old wolf how to raid Indian traps. After some time, however, the she-wolf begins to grow "heavy and restless," and she begins to search for a nesting place where she can give birth to her litter. She finally finds a place under a rocky crag, close to a river, in a cave that gives her protection on three sides.
One day, when the old, one-eyed wolf comes back from a day of hunting, he pauses at the mouth of the cave, and he is surprised by the "remotely familiar" sounds and finds five young wolf cubs in the nest. Since this is not the first time that he has been a father, he understands what has happened. Likewise, when he approaches the cubs and is violently repulsed by the she-wolf, he accepts the rebuke knowingly. The she-wolf, "in her instinct," knew that male wolves had often "eaten their new-born and helpless progeny." The old, one-eyed wolf accepts his new role and position, which is now, for the most part, to go out and forage for food and bring it back to the female, who then feeds it to her cubs.
Another famine, however, is soon upon the countryside, and the male wolf cannot find food for his family. He tries to kill a porcupine, which protects itself by rolling into a ball; later that day, the old wolf comes upon a ptarmigan bird, which he kills, and, out of instinct, begins to eat — then, remembering his duty, he carries the ptarmigan back to the den. Another time, he watches a female lynx, but he knows that she is too dangerous to allow herself to be attacked and killed. As he watches the lynx, though, he sees it give the porcupine a death blow, but before the porcupine dies, it wounds the lynx sufficiently enough to drive it away; consequently, old One Eye is able to wait until the porcupine dies and then carry it back to the lair.
The she-wolf's instinctive fear of the father of her progeny is abating; "he was behaving as a wolf father should." Meanwhile, one gray cub is drifting away from his brothers and sisters. The others, coincidentally, seem to have a trace of fur which indicates that they are closer to the domestically raised mother in their instincts, whereas, in contrast, the gray cub seems to be related closer to the pure wolf stock. Furthermore, the gray cub is the fiercest and most adventuresome of the litter.
In the time of the great famine, when there is no more meat, and there is no more milk from the mother's breasts, the other cubs die from starvation. Only the gray cub is left — due to his natural superiority. The survival of the gray cub is a reiteration of London's theme concerning "the survival of the fittest," nature's way of assuring the continuance of a species.
Sometime during the famine, old One Eye leaves, however, and never comes back. The cub cannot understand this, but the she-wolf knows, instinctively, that he has been killed by the lynx.
As the young cub grows, he becomes more adventuresome, and one time when the she-wolf is out hunting for food, the cub wanders out of the cave. But, as will often happen, without his knowing why, some instinctive fear drives him back into the shelter of the cave; this is a fear that is "the legacy of the wild which no animal may escape." On subsequent explorations outside of the cave, the cub gains more and more courage, and he travels farther and farther away from the lair. Once, by accident, he stumbles into a nest of baby ptarmigans. At first, he is frightened, and then his instincts take over, and, in London's words, the cub's "jaws closed . . . and there was a crunching of fragile bones and warm blood ran from his mouth. The taste of it was good." The gray cub eats the entire brood, and then, as he leaves the nest as a conqueror, he is suddenly attacked by the ptarmigan hen. "It was his first battle. He was elated. . . . he was no longer afraid of anything." But he is about to lose the battle, when, by a stroke of luck, a great hawk suddenly swoops down and snatches up the mother ptarmigan and carries her away, thus saving the gray cub from certain death. It is a good learning lesson for him: kill or be killed. It is the law of the wild. Exploring farther, the gray cub falls into a river and almost drowns before he is able to crawl out. Thus he learns another lesson about survival — water can be dangerous.
The gray cub next comes upon a young weasel, which is so small that the little cub begins to play with it. Suddenly, however, the mother weasel appears, and even though she is even smaller than the gray cub, the cub quickly discovers that she is savage and fierce, and that she would have killed him had not the cub's mother, the she-wolf, appeared just in time to save him.
The cub develops rapidly, but then there comes a famine upon the land, and the she-wolf runs herself thin in search of meat. The famine becomes so terrible, in fact, that the she-wolf becomes desperate — so desperate, in fact, that she is finally forced to raid the nest of the lynx, knowing full well that the lynx is a vicious animal and is fully capable of killing her. Nevertheless, she raids the lynx's nest and brings back the four lynx kittens, and she and her gray cub devour them. The mother lynx, not unsurprisingly, comes to the she-wolfs lair for revenge, and the she-wolf is no match for the powerful lynx until the young gray cub rushes forward and sinks his teeth into the hind legs of the lynx. This so hampers the lynx that, together, the mother and her cub are able to kill the fierce lynx. However, during the battle, the cub's shoulder is ripped to the bone, and the she-wolf is wounded almost to the point of death. From this encounter, the gray cub learns another lesson: "the aim of life was meat. Life itself was meat. Life lived on life. There were the eaters and the eaten. The law was EAT OR BE EATEN."
Basically, this part of the novel focuses on the lessons which the gray cub learns — that is, eat or be eaten, or, in simple ecological terms, animals kill other animals for food. Also in this chapter, London gives us a vivid picture of many aspects of life in the wilderness, and not only does he show us the savagery with which one animal kills another animal for food, but he also shows us how a mother wolf, or a mother ptarmigan, a mother weasel, or a mother lynx, will endanger themselves in order to protect their offspring. Part of the law of the wilderness, therefore, is that of instinct — which the gray cub quickly learns and develops.
By extension, London is using his own philosophy of Naturalism, believing that man is a victim of a hostile universe. Therefore, in this novel, London shows us that in the wilderness, as well as in the life of civilized man, all is "blindness and confusion. . . . violence and disorder, the chaos of gluttony and slaughter, ruled over by chance [which is] merciless, planless, endless."