Friday, July 23, 2010

On "The Wife of a King" by Jack London (5718 words) ***

The most touching of The Son of the Wolf stories to me is this tale about an Indian woman whose husband runs off to find a white gal. As a cycle of stories, Son of the Wolf seems to run chronologically in terms of the history of the Yukon. In early stories, men are just happy to have a wife, even if it's a woman they steal from the Indians. But in the later stories, as is made plain here, white women begin to settle on the frozen frontier. No longer is just any woman good enough. Indian women are declasse. And if you're a man with any social status, you're going to have yourself a woman from the balmy lower forty-eight--even if that means deserting the woman you stole many years ago.

Here, the wife doesn't take her man's appearance lightly, however, and with the help of a few locals, she takes on a set of My Fair Lady-like lessons on how to be more cultured, more "white." She learns, in short, how to dance like a white person. It's hard to see the "superior" white culture as being quite so superior when it's men are so willing to throw off duty and love for a little bit of status. And in that comes the bit of irony in the story: this woman, striving so hard to become white, who seems in many ways far superior than the kind of people she's striving to become. London's stories provide some rather difficult readings on race; sometimes he seems downright racist, but at other times he seems to undercut his point, and this story seems mostly to be one that does the latter. Read the story here.

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