by Michael J. Cummings...©
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.
Carmack and other prospectors began harvesting the Yukon gold, they whetted
the appetites of people seeking instant riches. Thousands then descended
on northwestern North America in 1897 in what was called the Klondike gold
rush, usually arriving in southeastern Alaska, then using dogsleds to travel
northeast to the Yukon gold fields. Consequently, the demand for strong,
stout-hearted sled dogs to carry the prospectors to the Yukon was high.
Jack London, author of The Call of the Wild, was among the prospectors.
Although he did not strike it rich by finding gold, he did come away from
the north lands with a story about the sled dogs. His story about the sled
dog Buck is fictional, but he based it on real experiences.
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:
longings nomadic leap,
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. .Plot
at custom's chain;
from its brumal sleep...............[brumal:
the ferine strain...................[ferine:
savage, fierce, wild]
Michael J. Cummings...©
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.
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").
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.
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
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.
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").
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.
and drained of energy, Buck now realizes that he cannot compete with the
club. He remains where he has fallen.
learned your place, and I know mine,” the man says (Chapter I, "Into the
he gives Buck water and raw meat. Buck eagerly drinks and eats.
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
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
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.
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.)
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
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
Buck, heem pool lak hell,” François says. “I teech him queek as
anyt’ing” (Chapter II, "The Law of Club and Fang").
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.
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").
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
intervenes, knocking Hal backward. “If you strike that dog again,”
he says, “I’ll kill you” (Chapter V, "The Toil of Trace and Trail").
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!" said John Thornton; "Buck can start a thousand pounds" (Chapter
VI, "For the Love of Man").
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.
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.
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.
shouts Thornton to Buck.
goes into action, moving first to the right. The loads shakes. There is
the sound of crackling ice.
then moves left and breaks the sled free.
MUSH!” (Chapter VI, "For the Love of Man").
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").
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Buck arrives at camp, he sees the culprits—Yeehat Indians—and immediately
attacks. He tears the throats of two, killing them. The narrator says,
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").
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.
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").
of their hunters go into the forest but never return, for the Ghost Dog
has come upon them and slashed their throats.
summer, Buck returns to the place where John Thornton died. He pauses for
a time, howls, and then moves on.
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:
train in a baggage car bound for San Francisco.
saloon on the San Francisco waterfront. There, captors place Buck in a
shipping crate and take him on a wagon to a .....railway
depot, where Buck is placed on a train bound for Seattle.
backyard in Seattle, where captors open the crate. A man in a red sweater
beats Buck with a club before selling him .....to
a sled driver who carries mail to gold prospectors in Alaska and Canada's
boat that carries Buck and other dogs north.
Alaska, a boomtown port on the Taiya Inlet that competed with nearby Skagway
as a supply center for gold .....prospectors.
a Canadian boomtown just east of the Alaska border. It is situated on the
eastern bank of the Yukon River. .....Gold
was discovered nearby, in a tributary of the Klondike River, in August
1896, precipitating the famous Klondike gold .....rush.
Alaska, a boomtown port on the Taiya Inlet, just west of British Columbia.
waterways, wilds along sled-train routes in Alaska and Canada.
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.
Judge Miller: Buck's
master in California. The judge lives on a vast estate in California's
Santa Clara Valley.
Mollie, Alice: Daughters
of the judge. Buck accompanies them on their walks.
Sons of the Judge:
Buck goes hunting with them. They are not identified by name.
Grandsons of the Judge:
Buck allows them to ride on his back. They are not identified by name.
Toots: Japanese pug
owned by Judge Miller.
Ysabel: Mexican hairless
owned by Judge Miller.
Elmo: Father of Buck.
Elmo was a St. Bernard.
Shep: Mother of Buck.
Shep was a Scotch Shepherd.
Manuel: One of the
helpers of Judge Miller's gardener. Manuel abducts and sells Buck to pay
off a gambling debt.
Man in the Red Sweater:
Man in Seattle who beats Buck with a club.
Newfoundland who arrives in Alaska with Buck. When she attempts to make
friends with a husky, the latter dog attacks and severely wounds her. When
Curly collapses, other dogs close in and tear her to pieces.
sled driver and mail carrier for the Canadian government. He takes possession
of Buck in Seattle.
French-Canadian half-breed who is Perrault's coworker.
Spitz: Cunning lead
dog in Perrault's team and rival of Buck. In a showdown, Spitz is getting
the better of Buck until Buck changes tactics and kills Spitz.
Dave: Dog in Perrault's
team. When Buck joins the team, Dave helps break him in by nipping at him
when he makes a mistake on the trail.
Pike: Dog in Perrault's
team who teaches Buck to steal food.
Billee, Joe, Dolly, Sol-leks,
Pike, Dub: Other dogs in Perrault's team.
Sled driver and mail carrier for the Canadian government. In Skagway, Alaska,
he takes possession of Buck and the other dogs in Perrault's sled team.
Hal, Charles: American
adventurers who buy Buck and several other dogs from the Scotch-half breed
after the latter returns to Skagway from Dawson, Canada. They mistreat
Buck and other dogs during a trip north.
Mercedes: Wife of
Charles and sister of Hal.
John Thornton: Man
who rescues Buck from Hal and Charles after Hal beats Buck. Thornton nurses
Buck back to health and becomes his best friend. Buck loves him more than
he had loved any other human.
Irish setter. She befriends Buck and licks his wounds.
Nig: Mixed bloodhound
and deerhound who is another of Thornton's dogs.
Hans, Pete: Gold-prospecting
partners of John Thornton.
Black Barton: Troublemaker
who punches Thornton in a Circle City saloon, provoking Buck to attack
and severely injure him.
gold prospector. At the Eldorado Saloon in Dawson, he bets Thornton that
Buck cannot by himself break out and pull a sled carrying a thousand-pound
load. To the astonishment of Matthewson and other onlookers, Buck performs
the feat and wins Thornton $1,600.
Jim O'Brien: Friend
of Thornton who lends him money to bet against Matthewson.
Buck's "Wild Brother":
Wolf that Buck befriends while roaming the forest near John Thornton's
Yeehat Indians: Killers
of John Thornton, Hans, and Pete. Buck kills several Yeehats and drives
off the rest.
Old Wolf: Wolf that
welcomes Buck to a wolf pack after Buck proves himself in fierce combat
with the pack.
Various Other Dogs and
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.
may also characterize The Call of the Wild as an adventure novel
(because it depicts the exciting, suspenseful exploits of a heroic dog
against human, animal, and environmental adversaries) and as an allegorical
novel (because Buck's struggles toward independence can symbolize the struggles
every human faces in life).
addition, one may regard the novel as exemplifying some of the characteristics
of literary naturalism, an extreme form of realism
that developed in France in the nineteenth century. It was inspired
in part by the scientific determinism of Charles Darwin, an Englishman,
and the economic determinism of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, both Germans.
Four Frenchmen–Hippolyte Taine, Edmond and Jules Goncourt, and Emile Zola–applied
the principles of scientific and economic determinism to literature to
create literary naturalism. According to its advocates, the following are
among its tenets:
(1) Heredity and environment
are the major forces that shape human beings. (Because London personifies
Buck, giving him human characteristics, this tenet of naturalism can apply
to him.) In other words, like lower animals, humans respond mainly to inborn
instincts that influence behavior in concert with—and
sometimes in opposition to—environmental influences,
including economic, social, cultural, and familial influences.
(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.
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.
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.
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:
(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
devil, dat Spitz," remarked Perrault. "Some dam day heem keel dat Buck."
Buck two devils," was François's rejoinder. "All de tam I watch
dat Buck I know for sure. Lissen: some dam fine day heem get mad lak hell
an' den heem chew dat Spitz all up an' spit heem out on de snow. Sure.
I know." (Chapter III, "The Dominant Primordial Beast")
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
London's style at times seems hurried and raw. In the following passage,
for example, the highlighted words could have been omitted.
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
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").
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
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:
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
also read the ideas of Charles Darwin, developer of a theory of evolution
based on natural selection. In The Call of the Wild, London loosely
applies Darwin’s theory when he treats Buck as a dog that evolves from
a domesticated pet to a dominant wild animal. In On the Origin of the
Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured
Races in the Struggle for Life, Darwin wrote, “A struggle for existence
inevitably follows from the high rate at which all organic beings tend
to increase” (Chapter 3, “Struggle for Existence: Geometrical Ratio of
Increase.") In the same book, Darwin also wrote, “This principle of preservation,
or the survival of the fittest, I have called Natural Selection. It leads
to the improvement of each creature in relation to its organic and inorganic
conditions of life . . . " (Chapter 4, "Natural Selection; or the Survival
of the Fittest"). Darwin borrowed the term “survival of the fittest” from
British sociologist and philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903). Spencer
was among the early advocates of theories of evolution.
Questions and Essay Topics
character traits in Buck that enable him to become a leader.
2. Write an essay that compares
and contrasts the behavior of the sled dogs in the novel with the behavior
of the humans.
3. In your opinion, why
do the Yeehat Indians kill John Thornton, his friends, and their dogs?
Did the Yeehats really exist or did London ....invent
them for the novel?
4. Write an informative
essay about the Klondike gold rush. A good place to begin your research
5. To what extent does London
base events in The Call of the Wild on his own experiences?
6. Is Buck better off at
the end of the novel than he was at the beginning?
7. Are sled dogs still in
8. What is the Iditarod?