By Jack London (1876-1916)
A Study Guide
Compiled by Michael J. Cummings...© 2008
intermittently discovered gold in the Yukon region of Canada in the 1870s
and 1880s. News of their finds attracted modest numbers of other prospectors
hoping to find great deposits of the precious metal. On August 16, 1896,
George Washington Carmack,
a native Californian, and two of his friends from the Tagish Indian tribe–Chief
Charlie and Skookum Jim Mason–found significant deposits of gold in Rabbit
Creek, a tributary of the Klondike River, after receiving a tip from another
prospector, Robert Henderson. (Rabbit Creek was later renamed Bonanza Creek
to reflect the significance of its yield.) Because Carmack filed the first
claim for the gold, encyclopedias and history books usually credit him
with the discovery.
.......At the beginning of The Call of the Wild, Jack London presents a quotation from "Atavism," a 1902 poem by John Myers O'Hara that encapsulates one of the main motifs of the novel:
Old longings nomadic leap,The old longings are the instincts of a wild animal that manifest themselves in Buck, a dog that is the main character, after his captors expose him to the savage northland environment. For more about the motif of atavism, see Themes, below.
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2008
.......The year is 1897. On Judge Miller’s vast estate in Santa Clara Valley, California, four-year-old Buck is the top dog. While the judge's other dogs keep to the house or live in kennels, Buck has the run of the grounds—the pastures, orchards, lawns, and graveled driveways winding beneath poplar trees to the wide veranda of the judge’s home.
.......“The whole realm was his," the narrator says. “He plunged into the swimming tank or went hunting with the Judge's sons; he escorted Mollie and Alice, the Judge's daughters, on long twilight or early morning rambles; on wintry nights he lay at the Judge's feet before the roaring library fire; he carried the Judge's grandsons on his back, or rolled them in the grass, and guarded their footsteps through wild adventures down to the fountain in the stable yard, and even beyond, where the paddocks were, and the berry patches" (Chapter I, "Into the Primitive").
.......The offspring of a St. Bernard named Elmo and a Scotch shepherd named Shep, Buck carries his one hundred forty pounds with imperial majesty. But he does not allow his privileged life to turn him into a lazy house dog. Rather, he keeps himself lean and sinewy with his outdoor adventures.
.......One day, while Judge Miller is attending a meeting of the Raisin Growers’ Association and his sons are making plans for an athletic organization, one of the Judge’s employees—Manuel, a gardener’s helper—takes Buck for a walk. Manuel, who needs cash after running up a gambling debt, plans to sell Buck as a sled dog for service in Alaska and the Yukon during the Klondike gold rush. At a nearby train station, Manuel puts a knotted rope around Buck’s neck and turns him over to a man after receiving payment. Up to this point, Buck has been docile, for he had learned to trust the men working on the estate.
.......“But when the ends of the rope were placed in the stranger's hands,“ the narrator says, “he growled menacingly. . . . Then the rope tightened mercilessly, while Buck struggled in fury, his tongue lolling out of his mouth and his great chest panting futilely." (Chapter I, "Into the Primitive"). Moments later, he is on a baggage car bound for San Francisco. After it arrives, the man turns Buck over to a saloon keeper. Holding him down, the two men remove his collar and the rope, then place him in a crate.
.......The next morning, other men send the crate via ferry, cart, and train to Seattle. For two days and two nights, Buck receives no food or water. By the time the train reaches Seattle, “his eyes turned blood-shot, and he was metamorphosed into a raging fiend" (Chapter I, "Into the Primitive").
.......After four men deliver him to a backyard with high walls, they post themselves behind one of the walls to watch while a man in a red sweater opens the crate and releases Buck. Immediately, Buck springs at him, but the man deals him a brutal blow with a club. Buck charges again and again, but each time the man knocks him down. Reeling and bleeding from the nose and mouth, Buck is too disoriented to renew his attack. However, when the man clubs him in the nose, the excruciating pain provokes Buck to charge again, but the man topples him with a blow to the jaw. When Buck attacks one more time, the club again knocks him down.
.......Dazed and drained of energy, Buck now realizes that he cannot compete with the club. He remains where he has fallen.
.......“You’ve learned your place, and I know mine," the man says (Chapter I, "Into the Primitive").
.......Then he gives Buck water and raw meat. Buck eagerly drinks and eats.
.......Over the next few days, the man similarly greets other dogs—some docile and some defiant like Buck. One dog that continues to resist dies under the club.
.......One day, the man sells Buck to a French-Canadian named Perrault, who pays the asking price of $300 because he recognizes an extraordinary animal when he sees one. Perrault takes Buck and an easygoing Newfoundland, Curly, aboard a ship, the Narwhal. There, Perrault places her and Buck in the custody of a partner, François, in a ‘tween deck, where there are two other dogs. One of them, a snow-white dog
named Spitz, steals a bone from Buck, but François’ whip lashes him before he can get very far. Buck retrieves his bone, thankful that François–like Perrault–at least seems to be a fair man.
.......After the ship arrives in Dyea—an Alaska boom town that outfits prospectors with sled dogs, food, and other supplies needed to reach the Yukon gold fields—Buck sees and tastes snow for the first time, then becomes part of a savage world. When poor Curly approaches a husky to make friends, the wolflike dog rips at her, opening a wound from the eye to the jaw. Other huskies close in on her. After men with clubs chase back the frenzied attackers, Curly lies dead, “almost torn to pieces" (Chapter II, "The Law of Club and Fang"). All the while, Spitz enjoys the spectacle. (Spitz's name is the same as his breed, Spitz, a family of dogs that include the Samoyed, the chow chow, the American Eskimo dog, the Greenlandic Eskimo dog, the Finnish spitz, and the Lapland spitz.)
.......After Perrault and François acquire a complete team, they hitch Buck to a sled team they use to carry mail for the Canadian government to faraway locales inaccessible by other means. The narrator notes that
Buck had been purposely placed between Dave and Sol-leks [two veteran dogs] so that he might receive instruction. Apt scholar that he was, they were equally apt teachers, never allowing him to linger long in error, and enforcing their teaching with their sharp teeth. Dave was fair and very wise. He never nipped Buck without cause, and he never failed to nip him when he stood in need of it. As François's whip backed him up, Buck found it to be cheaper to mend his ways than to retaliate. (Chapter II, "The Law of Club and Fang")Buck also learns how to dig a snow shelter for cold nights on the trail and how to answer the stop and go commands, ho and mush. He is a fast learner.
.......“Dat Buck, heem pool lak hell," François says. “I teech him queek as anyt’ing" (Chapter II, "The Law of Club and Fang").
.......But Buck is unhappy, for the malevolent Spitz is the team leader. During their travels, their hatred for each other grows. One day, the dogs encounter a pack of huskies from an Indian village. Mad with hunger, they attack; a brutal fight ensues. Perrault and François wield their clubs, then leave the fight to save the food. Most of the sled dogs run off, for they are hopelessly outnumbered. Although wounded, Buck fights back fiercely, closing his jaws on the throat of one husky. The taste of blood fires him to attack another. While engaging the second foe, another dog sinks his teeth into Buck. It is Spitz. Against the crowd of frenzied huskies and with Spitz attacking from one side, Buck frees himself and joins the other runaways. At dawn, the dogs return to camp, bloody and limping. Half the food is gone.
.......It is clear now that the time will come when Buck and Spitz must fight to the death. That time comes when the dogs chase a snowshoe rabbit with Buck "ranging at the head of the pack, running the wild thing down, the living meat, to kill with his own teeth and wash his muzzle to the eyes in warm blood" (Chap[ter III, "The Dominant Primordial Beast").
.......But Spitz leaves the pack, cuts across a narrow strip of land, and takes the prize for himself. Immediately, Buck charges him, just missing his throat, and Spitz rips into Buck’s shoulder. They roll in the snow, then circle, looking for an opening. The other dogs gather around after devouring the rabbit. Buck lunges at Spitz, a seasoned fighter, but fails time and again to penetrate his enemy’s defenses. Meanwhile, Spitz repeatedly opens gashes in Buck’s flesh. Buck, tired and bloodstained, has trouble keeping his footing, and the other dogs stand ready to finish him off. But Buck renews his attack, this time feinting a shoulder-high attack but at the last minute diving down and closing his teeth first on the left foreleg, then on the right, breaking bones. Defeated, Spitz runs off.
.......In the morning, with Spitz missing, Perrault and François attempt to harness Sol-leks (“which means the Angry One," the narrator says) into position as leader of the pack. But Buck claims the position, driving Sol-leks back. Attempts to pacify Buck fail until the sled drivers relent and replace Sol-leks with Buck. "At a bound," the narrator says, "Buck took up the duties of leadership; and where judgment was required, and quick thinking and quick acting, he showed himself the superior even of Spitz, of whom François had never seen an equal" (Chapter IV, "Who Has Won to Mastership"). But Buck doesn’t just guide the dogs through the snow. He also disciplines slackers and malcontents.
.......Over the next two weeks, Buck and the team drive on to Skagway, covering 560 miles in temperatures never warmer than 50 below zero Fahrenheit. In this busy port, a rival of Dyea as a supply center for Klondike and Yukon gold prospectors, the resting dogs are the talk of the town for the next three days.
.......It is here that another man—a “Scotch half-breed," the narrator calls him—takes over the team. With twelve other dog teams and their masters, the team carries a heavy load of mail up to Dawson and, after two days of rest, returns to Skagway. The round trip takes a heavy toll: One dog dies and the others lose weight. Buck is down to one hundred fifteen pounds. Several dogs are limping. All of them are sore to the bone and dead tired. Typically, the government sells dogs in such condition rather than waiting for them to recuperate.
.......Four days later, a middle-aged man named Charles and a young man named Hal buy the team. With them is a woman named Mercedes, who is Charles’s wife and Hal’s sister. These adventurers are bound for Dawson. As sled drivers they are raw novices. First, they overload the sled. Next, they attempt to start the team when the sled’s runners are frozen to the snow. When the sled fails to move, Hal whips the dogs. An onlooker advises them that they must break out the sled by rocking it back and forth. After freeing the sled, the dogs begin moving the heavy load under the crack of Hal’s whip. But as the sled makes the turn onto Skagway’s main street, half of the top-heavy cargo tumbles down. As the dogs race on, the rest of the cargo spills here and there. The Skagway folks help them retrieve their belongings, tell them they need more dogs, and offer them advice about how to handle a sled and its team.
.......The new owners do add more dogs, bringing the total to fourteen, but their cruelty and inexperience on the trail kills several animals and wears down the others to sorry condition. At the mouth of White River, Charles, Hal, and Mercedes stop at the encampment of a man named John Thornton, who is whittling a rod of birch into an ax handle. When Thornton warns them that the ice on the trail may give way if they go any farther, Hal says others had previously given them the same warning, “and here we are" (Chapter V, "The Toil of Trace and Trail"). So they decide to forge ahead anyway. But the dogs, half-dead with fatigue, do not respond to Hal’s commands. When he whips them, the dogs slowly rise one by one. But Buck refuses to go on even under the bite of the lash and then the blows of a club.
.......Thornton intervenes, knocking Hal backward. “If you strike that dog again," he says, “I’ll kill you" (Chapter V, "The Toil of Trace and Trail").
.......When Hal menaces Thornton with his hunting knife, Thornton raps his hand with the ax handle. The knife drops. Thornton picks it up and cuts Buck loose.
.......Defeated, Hal and his companions move on while Thornton tends to Buck’s wounds. A quarter mile away, the ice gives way. Hal, Charles, Mercedes, the dogs—the entire sled train—all disappear into a gaping hole.
.......In the warmer spring weather, Buck recuperates under the ministrations of Thornton. His Irish setter, Skeet, regularly licks Bucks wounds. In time, Buck puts on weight and he, Skeet, and Thornton’s other dog, Nig–part bloodhound and part deerhound–play and romp while Thornton awaits a raft that will transport them to Dawson.
.......Buck loves Thornton as he had loved no other man, for Thornton treats him as if he were his own child. Although Buck never begs for attention as the other dogs do, Thornton gives it to him anyway. Buck follows Thornton everywhere, for he does not want him to abandon him as did Perrault and François and even the half-breed Scot. Yet Buck also had a deep yearning for the wilds, which the rough northern climes awakened in him. If he had been the charge of a less worthy man, he would have run off and become part of the wilds. Yes, the narrator says, Buck acted at times like a house dog as he sat next to Thornton’s fire.
[B]ut behind him were the shades of all manner of dogs, half-wolves and wild wolves, urgent and prompting, tasting the savor of the meat he ate, thirsting for the water he drank, scenting the wind with him, listening with him and telling him the sounds made by the wild life in the forest, dictating his moods, directing his actions, lying down to sleep with him when he lay down, and dreaming with him and beyond him and becoming themselves the stuff of his dreams. (Chapter VI, "For the Love of Man").......After the raft arrives with Thornton’s partners, Hans and Pete, Thornton and Buck go with them to Dawson. There they get a grubstake and set out for the headwaters of the Tanana. While stopping in a tavern with Buck at Circle City, an ornery man known as Black Burton picks a fight with a man at the bar. When Thornton calmly tries to settle the dispute, Burton punches Thornton. Buck immediately leaps at Burton, knocking him to the ground and opening a gash in his throat. Witnesses side with the dog, and thereafter word of his prowess spreads to distant camps.
.......Sometime later, Buck performs another heroic feat after Thornton and his partners encounter rapids while poling a boat down Forty-Mile Creek. Hans and Pete go ashore with Buck and hold fast to a Manila rope tied to the boat while Thornton attempts to negotiate the rapids in the boat. Whenever the boat lurches off course, Hans and Pete wind their end of the rope around a tree, a practice called snubbing, to allow Thornton time to regain control. At one place, the current quickens. When Hans snubs the boat, it turns over and the rapids carry Thornton downstream. Buck jumps in and swims to Thornton, who grabs his tail. But as the rapids become more violent, Thornton pitches against rocks. No use. He lets go of Buck while managing to cling to one of the rocks.
.......After Buck swims ashore, Hans and Pete tie the rope to his neck and shoulders. He swims back out and saves Thornton. Of course, the only witnesses to this feat were Hans and Pete. But that was not the case in Dawson that winter. In the Eldorado Saloon, men were bragging about their dogs when a man named Matthewson claimed his dog could start and walk off with a sled loaded with seven hundred pounds.
......."Pooh! pooh!" said John Thornton; "Buck can start a thousand pounds" (Chapter VI, "For the Love of Man").
.......Matthewson then bets $1,000 in gold dust that Buck can’t do it. It so happens that he has a sled outside already loaded with a thousand pounds of flour. Thornton now regrets his boast, for Buck has never been tested with such a load. Besides, Thornton doesn’t have the money to bet. But an old friend, Jim O’Brien, backs him up even though he doubts that Buck can meet the challenge.
.......The saloon empties to witness the event. Odds are set at two to one against Buck, and some men bet in his favor. It’s sixty below zero and the runners of Matthewson’s sled are frozen to the snow. A question arises as to whether Buck is required to break the runners free in addition to pulling the load. When most of the men agree that this additional feat is part of the agreement, the odds rise to three to one. Matthewson now wants to increase the bet. Throwing caution aside, Thornton confers with Hans and Pete, and they manage to scrape up another $200. Since the odds are now three to one, Matthewson has to put up $600 more.
.......Matthewson’s team is unhitched from the sled and Buck takes their place. He is now in magnificent condition, weighing 150 pounds, Men walk up to feel his muscles, and one man offers $800 for him on the spot. But, of course, Thornton refuses to offer. Meanwhile, some gamblers now reduce their odds back to two to one. Then big moment arrives.
.......“Gee!" shouts Thornton to Buck.
.......Buck goes into action, moving first to the right. The loads shakes. There is the sound of crackling ice.
.......Buck then moves left and breaks the sled free.
.......“Now, MUSH!" (Chapter VI, "For the Love of Man").
.......With his head down and chest forward, Buck pulls the sled half an inch at a time, then two inches, and then hauls it the distance agreed upon—100 yards, to a pile of firewood. "Thornton rose to his feet," the narrator says. "His eyes were wet. The tears were streaming frankly down his cheeks" (Chapter VI, "For the Love of Man").
.......With the $1,600 in winnings, Thornton to pays his debts and launches an expedition to look for a fabled lost mine. With his partners, Buck, and other dogs, Thornton heads east, traveling 70 miles on the Yukon River, then turning left onto the Stewart River. They live on the fish they catch and the game they kill. In the spring and summer, then through the fall, they press on until winter arrives. In the spring, they discover a valley rich in gold. Although it does not contain the lost mine, it does contain great deposits of gold. Each day they carry away thousands of dollars worth of gold dust and nuggets in moose-hide bags.
.......Buck, meanwhile, has visions in which he and a hairy man traipse through the wilds long ago, in some primordial age. The man can leap high and swing in trees. Buck also experiences yearnings to go off into the wilds—for what, he is not sure. But he goes, exploring the forest and listening its sounds.
.......After he returns to Thornton's camp, the howl of a wolf awakens him one night, and he runs into the forest and comes across the beast. The wolf is wary of him at first, but they later make friends. As he romps through the forest with the wolf, Buck recalls an earlier time—another age in another place—when he had run wild and free. However, remembering Thornton and civilization, Buck returns to camp and resumes his life with his master.
.......But his contentment there lasts only two days before he returns to the wilds, sometimes for days at a time. He eats game and fish and kills a black bear blinded by mosquitoes. After returning to the carcass two days later, about a dozen wolverines are dining on it. He drives them off, killing two of them. (Here, London grossly exaggerates Buck’s abilities. It is unlikely that Buck could defeat a single wolverine, let alone a dozen of them.) At another time, he kills an old bull moose after nipping at it and stalking it for four days.
.......On his way back to Thornton’s camp, he smells strangers and senses something is wrong. He finds one of the dogs, Nig, lying dead, arrows in both sides of his body. About a hundred yards beyond, he finds a dog in its death throes–and then the dead body of Hans pierced with arrows.
.......When Buck arrives at camp, he sees the culprits—Yeehat Indians—and immediately attacks. He tears the throats of two, killing them. The narrator says,
There was no withstanding him. He plunged about in their very midst, tearing, rending, destroying, in constant and terrific motion which defied the arrows they discharged at him. In fact, so inconceivably rapid were his movements, and so closely were the Indians tangled together, that they shot one another with the arrows; and one young hunter, hurling a spear at Buck in mid air, drove it through the chest of another hunter with such force that the point broke through the skin of the back and stood out beyond. Then a panic seized the Yeehats, and they fled in terror to the woods, proclaiming as they fled the advent of the Evil Spirit. (Chapter VII, "The Sound of the Call")........Buck comes across Pete lying dead in his blankets, then finds the lifeless body of Thornton in a pool of water. Buck’s discovery “left a great void in him, somewhat akin to hunger, but a void which ached and ached, and which food could not fill. . ." (Chapter VII, "The Sound of the Call").
.......Later that day, Buck encounters a wolf pack. One attacks him, but Buck breaks his neck. Three others then set upon him, but they retreat after Buck rips them open. When the other wolves close in, Buck holds them off, whirling left and right with snapping jaws. Finally, a wolf approaches him docilely and rubs noses with him. It is the wolf Buck romped with earlier in the forest. Then an old wolf comes forward and, with a howl, welcomes Buck into the pack.
........As time passes, Buck becomes the pack leader and sires many offspring. Their markings–“with splashes of brown on head and muzzle, and with a rift of white centring [centering] down the chest"–make the Yeehats conclude that a new breed of timber wolf lives among them. They also speak of the “Ghost Dog" that leads the pack, “stealing from their camps in fierce winters, robbing their traps, slaying their dogs, and defying their bravest hunters" (Chapter VII, "The Sound of the Call").
.......Some of their hunters go into the forest but never return, for the Ghost Dog has come upon them and slashed their throats.
.......Each summer, Buck returns to the place where John Thornton died. He pauses for a time, howls, and then moves on.
.......The action begins in California in the fall of 1897 on the estate of Judge Miller in Santa Clara Valley, just west of San Jose and about fifty miles south of San Francisco. It continues in the following places after an employee of Judge Miller abducts and sells Buck:
1...A train in a baggage car bound for San Francisco.Characters
Buck: Strong, courageous,
intelligent dog that is abducted from his California home and sold into
servitude as a sled dog during the Klondike gold rush at the end of the
nineteenth century. Buck is part St. Bernard and part Scotch shepherd.
He is aptly named, for "buck" as a verb means to throw off, oust, reject,
expel, or remove. During his adventures, Buck throws off his old way of
life as a pet dog in civilized society and becomes an imposing and redoubtable
wild animal that accedes to leadership of a wolf pack.
Call of the Wild is
a bildungsroman (coming-of-age novel) that centers on the transformation
of a tame dog subservient to humans into a proud and independent wild animal.
Ordinarily, a bildungsroman focuses on a boy or girl (or a young man or
young woman) who learns the ways of the world through positive and negative
experiences and through the tutelage of others. London trains his attention
on a young dog, Buck, who progresses toward independence after learning
to cope in a hostile world.
(2) A literary work should present life exactly as it is, without preachment, judgment, or embellishment. In this respect, naturalism is akin to realism. However, naturalism goes further than realism in that it presents a more detailed picture of everyday life. Whereas the realist writer omits insignificant details when depicting a particular scene, a naturalist writer generally includes them. He wants the scene to be as “natural" as possible. (London often ignores this tenet.) The naturalist writer also attempts to be painstakingly objective and detached. Rather than manipulating characters as if they were puppets, the naturalist writer prefers to observe the characters as if they were animals in the wild and then report on their activity. Finally, naturalism attempts to present dialogue as spoken in everyday life. Rather than putting “unnatural" wording in the mouth of a character, the naturalist writer attempts to reproduce the speech patterns of people in a particular time and place.
.......The Saturday Evening Post, a magazine, first published the novel in weekly installments between June 20 and July 18, 1903. The Macmillan Company published it in New York as a book later in the same year.
.......Jack London tells the story in omniscient third-person point of view, enabling him to reveal the thoughts of both humans and animals. The plot moves swiftly, with frequent action scenes and suspenseful episodes. From time to time, the action halts while Buck reflects on primordial instincts that begin to manifest themselves in his behavior as he progresses (or regresses) to a feral state.
.......Dialogue is sparse, since London focuses most of his attention on Buck and the other dogs. When he does use dialogue, it captures the jargon of the sled drivers whenever necessary, including the following commands shouted at sled dogs: mush! (start or go faster), gee! (turn right), haw! (turn left), and ho! (stop). The dialogue also captures accents and dialects, as in the following exchange between two French-Canadians, Perrault and François:
......."One devil, dat Spitz," remarked Perrault. "Some dam day heem keel dat Buck."Style
.......London's prose is straightforward and easy to understand. His personification of Buck, Spitz, and the other dogs—turning them into individuals with distinct temperaments, eccentricities, habits, and psychological problems—is convincing. Consider the following passage, which focuses on Buck's fear of abandonment:
For a long time after his rescue, Buck did not like Thornton to get out of his sight. From the moment he left the tent to when he entered it again, Buck would follow at his heels. His transient masters since he had come into the Northland had bred in him a fear that no master could be permanent. He was afraid that Thornton would pass out of his life as Perrault and François and the Scotch half-breed had passed out. Even in the night, in his dreams, he was haunted by this fear. At such times he would shake off sleep and creep through the chill to the flap of the tent, where he would stand and listen to the sound of his master's breathing. (Chapter VI, "For the Love of Man")........Unfortunately, London's style at times seems hurried and raw. In the following passage, for example, the highlighted words could have been omitted.
Billee, terrified into bravery, sprang through the savage circle and fled away over the ice. Pike and Dub followed on his heels, with the rest of the team behind........Occasionally, London stoops to triteness and melodrama, as in the following passage describing John Thornton's reaction after Buck wins Thornton $1,600 by pulling a sled loaded with a thousand pounds of flour:
Thornton fell on his knees beside Buck. Head was against head, and he was shaking him back and forth . . . Thornton rose to his feet. His eyes were wet. The tears were streaming frankly down his cheeks. (Chapter VI, "For the Love of Man").Imagery
.......The dominant figure of speech in the novel is personification, a form of metaphor that instills human qualities in objects or animals. Buck and the other dogs exhibit a broad range of these qualities, including jealousy, love, hatred, imagination, creativity, melancholy, and the ability to reason. In the last paragraph of Chapter I, Buck experiences embarrassment when he licks at snow after his arrival in Alaska:
He sniffed it curiously, then licked some up on his tongue. It bit like fire, and the next instant was gone. This puzzled him. He tried it again, with the same result. The onlookers laughed uproariously, and he felt ashamed, he knew not why, for it was his first snow. (Chapter I, "Into the Primitive")........In Chapter II, Curly's death amuses Spitz: "[Buck] saw Spitz run out his scarlet tongue in a way he had of laughing." Spitz's reaction arouses animosity in Buck: "from that moment Buck hated him with a bitter and deathless hatred" ("The Law of Club and Fang").
.......In Chapter III, pride becomes an important driving force.
Buck . . . had been gripped tight by that nameless, incomprehensible pride of the trail and trace—that pride which holds dogs in the toil to the last gasp, which lures them to die joyfully in the harness, and breaks their hearts if they are cut out of the harness. This was the pride of Dave as wheel-dog, of Sol-leks as he pulled with all his strength; the pride that laid hold of them at break of camp, transforming them from sour and sullen brutes into straining, eager, ambitious creatures; the pride that spurred them on all day and dropped them at pitch of camp at night, letting them fall back into gloomy unrest and uncontent. This was the pride that bore up Spitz and made him thrash the sled-dogs who blundered and shirked in the traces or hid away at harness-up time in the morning. Likewise it was this pride that made him fear Buck as a possible lead-dog. And this was Buck's pride, too. ("The Dominant Primordial Beast").......Paradox also plays a significant role. For example, the more Buck regresses—taking on the traits of a wild animal while casting off his civilized California demeanor—the better educated and capable he becomes.
.......The Call of the Wild begins building to its climax when Buck returns from the wilds to John Thornton's camp and discovers the bodies of Nig, a sled dog, and Hans, one of Thornton's partners, then attacks their killers, the Yeehat Indians. The climax itself occurs when Buck finds the body of John Thornton in a pool of water. It is at this moment that Buck completes his transition from servant of man (or, in the case of Thornton, friend of man) to wild animal free and unattached. While brooding over Thornton's body, he hears and answers the call of the wild:
From far away drifted a faint, sharp yelp, followed by a chorus of similar sharp yelps. As the moments passed the yelps grew closer and louder . . . It was the call, the many-noted call, sounding more luringly and compellingly than ever before. And as never before, he was ready to obey. John Thornton was dead. The last tie was broken. Man and the claims of man no longer bound him. (Chapter VII, "The Sounding of the Call")Themes
Atavism: Hearing and Responding to the Call
.......Buck’s experiences in the northland wilderness awaken in him the long-dormant instincts of a wild carnivore. When he acts on these instincts—by killing the moose, for example, or befriending the “wolf brother"—he is responding to the call of the wild. His atavism—that is, his reversion to the behavior of his canine ancestors—gradually transforms him into a wolflike creature that prefers to live in a savage environment in which he must fight and kill to live.
Survival Through Adaptation
.......Buck’s strength and courage support him through his ordeals. However, more than anything else, it is his ability to adapt to his environment that ensures his survival. For example, after the man in the red sweater beats him with a club, he learns to subdue his rage. On the trail, he quickly masters the ways of the sled dog. When he fights his cunning rival, Spitz, he alters his tactics after first failing to penetrate his foe’s defenses. In the wilds, he himself becomes wild, stalking and killing prey, including a moose. Eventually he becomes the leader of a wolf pack. In contrast to Buck, the good-natured Newfoundland, Curly, fails to survive because she acts civilly in a savage environment. She does not adapt.
.......In adapting to his new way of life, Buck transforms himself from a happy-go-lucky domestic pet to a predatory wild animal.
Cruelty vs Compassion
.......Buck experiences cruelty at the hands of his captors, notably the club-wielding man in the red sweater, and compassion at the hands of his liberator, John Thornton. Each experience sharpens his ability to evaluate humans.
Love and Friendship
and John Thornton become loyal and loving friends after Thornton rescues
Buck from the doomed sled train of Hal, Charles, and Mercedes. Even though
Buck is developing into a fierce creature of the wilds, he remains docile
and loving in the presence of Thornton. After Indians kill Thornton, Buck
never forgets him—even when he becomes leader
of a wolf pack.
Nietzschean and Darwinian Overtones
the philosophers Jack London read was Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844-1900).
This German thinker developed the concept of the Übermensch,
or superman, a person who attains superior status in society after mastering
himself and exhibiting a “will to power" and creative use of his energies.
In Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spake Zarathustra), Nietzsche
enunciated his Übermenschtheory,
saying the achievement of superman status requires the individual to reject
democracy, modern civilization, religion, and western morality because
they inhibit him from realizing his full potential. London loosely applies
some principles of Nietzsche’s complex philosophy to Buck, as demonstrated
when Buck masters his passions and achieves dominance through creative
use of his powers. In the end, Buck chooses to forsake civilization and
live in the wilds as an “über" wolf—that
is, the leader of the pack.
Study Questions and Essay Topics
character traits in Buck that enable him to become a leader.