Hypothesis of Chilling Injury and Jack Londons Fang Meets
by Christopher Orson Spencer
The lipid-membrane hypothesis of chilling injury, developed to fruition
primarily in the 1970s, had been held by many nonscientists, on a more
basic level, as a secret belief akin to old wives tales. The hypothesis
postulates that tropical and subtropical beings (primarily fruit, but
studies have also shown indicators of this effect at work in fruit flies)
are damaged by cold temperatures at the most basic level: the lipids
in their cellular membranes freeze (solidify or crystallize) at some
critical temperature that varies with the ratio of saturated fats to
unsaturated fats in the membrane (Clark; Skog).
While this sounds like the beginnings of either a diet or Tarzan
Meets the Abominable Snowman, this hypothesis has found its way
into mainstream literature. Afrikaan Cathy Bauerhoffs Where
Diamonds Are Born is a Caldebury award-winning childrens book
retelling the adventures of Tonga, a native Tunisian who wins a trip
to South Africa for a dream date with a rich diamond miner. Before she
leaves, she fills her pockets with cut glass that she looks at often:
she has never seen real diamonds before and does not want to be tricked,
so she memorizes the appearance of glass. On her journey, a gust of
wind sweeps her to Antarctica: there her cut glass crystallizes into
diamonds. She realizes her independence is the real treasure and never
returns home except to sell her diamonds, the product of chilling theory
and magic, for food.
Perhaps one of the earliest and best-known appearances of this phenomenon
is in Jack Londons Fang Meets Kanii, a short story
written when he was twelve. Long held by London scholars as the first
instance of three themes combined--the Arctic, the South Pacific, and
dogs--Fang Meets Kanii is also a landmark tale of lipid-membrane
chilling theory in action.
Kanii, a Pekinese dog, has been pampered by its owner, a sailor named
John who specializes in the spice trade. Kanii has blown up to three
times her natural weight and can barely walk on her stubby legs. After
a sudden storm, her master and she are blown terribly off course and
land in the Aleutians. At first her extreme obesity acts as a winter
coat, protecting her from the impossibly cold Arctic air. John, a stringy
man without an ounce of fat, dies in the first day. The ratio of unsaturated
to saturated fat does not concern London, but only its end result. Kanii
is left to fend for herself in this cold world.
Fang, a St. Bernard, lives with his master Hank in a one-bedroom wood
cabin. Kanii finds the cabin by following the smell of blubber and smoke.
Her torso leaving wide, flat tracks behind her, she trudges to the fire
and passes out from exhaustion in front of it. The heat from the fire
restores some of the tropics to her, ceasing the immediate threat to
Fang has never seen a dog as tiny, yet gargantuan, as Kanii. After
sniffing her behind and smelling the salty air of the sea trapped in
her long hair, he understands immediately the problems she must face.
He convinces Hank to take her in; unfortunately, Hank does not allow
her into the cabin because there is not enough room for the bloated
lap dog. He puts out the fire and wishes Kanii the best, promising her
a biscuit in the morning.
That night, Kanii complains about her blood becoming molasses and she
whimpers, detailing the solidification of her internal organs to the
As Fangs blood would boil in Hawaii, so Kaniis
blood froze in the Arctic. The crystallization of her liquid essences
created small sharp shards in her arteries, jagged edges of ice yearning
to break from her vessels. She let another howl break from her throat,
now clogging with frozen saliva, that pierced the icicle night with
a shower of pain. She hacked a piteous cough, attempting to dislodge
the ice cube in the middle of her esophagus formed by the night air:
frost was forming on her fur and her natural orange color was blanketed
by white snowy death.
Hank, exhausted by swinging axes at trees all day, is oblivious to
her cries. Yet Fang hears all and is powerless to do anything. He knows
she will be dead by morning.
And so she is. Fang digs her a shallow grave before Hank awakes and
howls one last time for her memory. Hank awakes, complains, grunts,
and drinks coffee as Fang sulks and hides his workboots.
Applying chilling theory to this story resurrects it from the useless
biographical criticism of Jenkins and Maloney:
So here, it is clear that London is casting his own dog Rex
as a sympathetic, helpless creature unable to control both his desires
for the French poodle of Mrs. Mathers and also the torrential rains
around Jacks eleventh birthday. Unable to do anything, Rex simply
sulks in his doghouse, perhaps a literal image of the perennial doghouse
Jack was in for fistfighting with the immigrant children down the street
Jenkins and Maloney have often been used by the post-colonialist critics
to justify their readings of a xenophobic presence throughout Londons
oeuvre. As Maxwell writes, Of course the newcomer dies. The newcomer
always dies in Londons works. It is because London despised people
in general, but especially those different from himself (94).
Yet when we understand that Kanii must die because she is physically
unable to survive, we realize London is not telling us that she deserves
to die. It is the coldness of Hank that truly kills her. By using chilling
theory, London gives us an scientific explanation thus removing doubt
about his own interactions with non-Americans. Operating with the same
non-arguments, many feminist scholars wonder why the one female present
in all of Londons juvenilia must die: the answer is chilling theory,
not a desire to kill all women.
Although Fang Meets Kanii is largely a short story dedicated
to the tragic nature of love that every twelve-year-old boy believes
they should be writing about in order to be taken seriously, it has
strong elements of lipid-membrane chilling theory. That theory should
remove the criticism of the marginalized that this is just another example
of the <insert group here> being silenced. Instead, this story
reflects the relationship of science and literature. Yet again, science
learns a lesson from the beliefs of common man and attempts to validate
the observations of literary man.
Clark, Chris. An Inside Story on Chilling Injury.
Persimmon Profile. April 1995. 7.
Jenkins, Theodore and Patricia Maloney. Red Rover, Red Rover,
Send Jack London Right Over: Childhood Games, Dogs, and the Foundations
of a Literary Lifetime. Aleutian Review. March 1993, 124-38.
Lederman, I. E., Zauberman, G., Weksler, A., Rot, I. and Fuchs, Y.
(1997) Ethylene-forming capacity during cold storage and chilling
injury development in 'Keitt' mango fruit. Postharvest Biology
and Technology 10:107-112.
London, Jack. Fang Meets Kanii. The Collected Juvenilia
of Jack London. New York: Signet, 1974.
Maxwell, J. Simpson. Give Us Your White: Racism, Anti-Semitism,
and Xenophobia Throughout American Literature 1880-1920. U of Kentucky
P, 1989. 90-163.
Skog, Lisa J. Chilling Injury of Horticultural Crops. Ontario
Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs Factsheet. June 1998.