The Call of the Wild
The Call of the WildIntroduction
For Further Study
The Call of the Wild first appeared in serial form in the popular magazine The Saturday Evening Post in 1903. Later that year, an expanded version was published in book form and enjoyed favorable reviews and commercial popularity. The novel's simple style and crude depiction of harsh realities in the frozen Klondike region appealed to a reading public tired of the sentimental, romanticized fiction that dominated the literary marketplace. At the same time, readers were drawn to it as an adventure story, a popular genre in turn-of-the-century America.
In writing the novel, Jack London drew on his experiences in the Klondike gold rush of 1897. In fact, many critics see parallels between the author's and the protagonist's experiences. The novel has been one of the most beloved animal stories ever written precisely because London was able to keep the story of a dog's adventures realistic while allowing readers to relate to Buck's perspective.
Although the novel has long been considered a children's book, many literary scholars have argued that the novel's complexities warrant close analysis. Chief among the topics of interest to scholars is the novel's relationships to the philosophy of the "survival of the fittest" that was in vogue at the turn of the century.
One of America's most prolific and beloved authors, London was born in 1876 in San Francisco, California. His family was so poor that he went to work as soon as he finished grade school. His early experiences working in a saloon and a factory, hunting seals, tramping on the railroads, and spending thirty days in prison for vagrancy provided London a wealth of material for his gritty, naturalistic fiction.
In 1894 London completed high school, attended the University of California at Berkeley for one semester, and joined the Socialist Party. He immersed himself in the writings of Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Herbert Spencer. He was intrigued by socialism and Darwin's concept of the "survival of the fittest," two ideas that would influence his later writings.
In 1897, frustrated with his unsuccessful attempts at starting a literary career, he went with his brother-in-law to the Klondike, in the Yukon territory of Canada. The gold rush in the Klondike was underway, and London hoped to strike it rich. Although he did not discover any gold, he did find subject matter for his fiction. His experiences in the frozen Northland inspired his first stories, which appeared in the nation's leading periodicals. London's fiction was very popular with the public; his stories were new and exciting and very different from the tales of romance that flooded the market during that time.
The most popular book to come out of his Alaskan experiences was The Call of the Wild (1903), the story of a dog's difficult transition from the warm, comfortable Southland to the wild, treacherous Northland. Many scholars find autobiographical elements in this novel, in particular London's exciting and dangerous adventures in the Klondike and his short stint in prison. Just as Buck has to learn to accept the "law of the club" and the "law of the fang," London learned how to survive in prison. The novel was one of London's greatest critical and commercial successes. Unfortunately London had accepted $2,000 for the book instead of a share of the royalties. London would not make the same mistake with his subsequent novels and short fiction. He became a wealthy man writing adventure novels. He died at the age of forty of uremia.
Chapter 1: Into the Primitive
Buck is a dog living with Judge Miller at a sprawling ranch in Santa Clara Valley, California. He lives the life of a country gentleman's dog, beloved by his master and given the run of the property.
Buck's idyllic life is cut short by one of the ranch hands, Manuel, whose gambling habit and large family prompt him to sell Buck on the black market. Buck is taken by rail to a man in a red sweater, a dog breaker, who uses a club for training. Buck's spirit is beaten, but not broken; he learns to adapt to his changing environment. He's bought by two French Canadians, Perrault and Francois, fair men who have a shrewd eye for a good dog and realize Buck's worth.
Chapter 2: The Law of Club and Fang
The law of the club refers to the method humans use to extract obedience from a dog; the law of the fang refers to the method dogs use to subjugate other dogs. Buck learns about the law of the fang when Curly, one of the friendlier sled dogs, makes advances toward another dog. This other dog rips open her face, then jumps aside to avoid retaliation. Curly is then killed by thirty to forty dogs. Buck learns life in the Klondike is violent, survival belongs to the alert, and leadership belongs to the most cunning.
Buck has his first experience as a sled dog and proves to be adept at the job. The team expands to nine dogs, including Spitz, the white husky leader; Dave, an antisocial but hardworking team dog; brothers Billee and Joe, one sweet and the other sour; and Sol-leks, a one-eyed dog whose name means "the Angry One."
Next Buck learns how to survive the night by digging a hole in the snow and curling into a ball. He also learns how to steal food without getting caught and clubbed. This is the only way to ensure survival in a cruel, cold land where a dog runs all day, sleeps to run the next day, and in between might lose his life in a dog fight.
Chapter 3: The Dominant Primordial Beast
As the team works its way up the frozen Thirty Mile River to Dawson, Buck prepares to challenge Spitz. One night when Spitz confronts him, Buck attacks. However, a gang of starving, marauding dogs interrupts the fight and turns the camp upside down looking for food. The team runs off into the woods until they leave. A few days later, due to the strain of the trip, Dolly goes mad, howling like a wolf, chasing Buck until Francois finally axes her to death.
Once in Dawson, Perrault wants to travel back to Dyea. During this trip Buck undermines Spitz's authority by siding with any dissenting dog. Eventually, Spitz is powerless to make the team run as a unit. One night near the Northwest police camp, team dogs and police dogs spot a snowshoe rabbit and give chase, with Buck in the lead. Spitz challenges Buck for the rabbit. This begins their fight to the death. Although Spitz is a formidable fighter, Buck has the greater imagination and wins. As soon as Spitz falls, the other dogs kill him.
Chapter 4: Who Has Won to Mastership
Perrault and Francois promote Sol-leks as the head of the team but Buck pushes him out of place. This happens several times until, finally, Buck's demand to lead is met. With him heading the team, they make a record run. Afterwards, the men and dogs are exhausted, and the team is sold to a man who runs the Salt Water mail from Dawson to Skag-way. Due to all the gold rushers, the mail load keeps growing and the dogs are pushed to their breaking point. Along the route, Dave weakens and is cut from the team. However, he refuses to be cut and returns to his place. Finally he is allowed back and, although he stumbles now and then, he does his best to pull his weight. One morning, however, Dave cannot even crawl to his place. He is left where he is and the team leaves. A few miles out, the man stops the team and walks back. The team hears a gunshot.
Chapter 5: The Toil of the Traces
The team is again sold, this time to a brother and sister and her husband. All three are inexperienced and must be told by the locals how to pack a sled. Unfortunately, they have their own ideas and end up with fourteen dogs pulling an oversized load plus the woman, who insists on riding instead of going on foot. Due to their poor calculations, the trio eventually runs low on food and must ration the dogs. Soon everyone is irritable and the dogs are starved and beaten.
The threesome asks an old, experienced Klondiker, John Thornton, for advice. He tells them they have been lucky to travel so far on a thawing river. Nevertheless, they decide to continue, but Buck will not move no matter how much they beat him. Thornton, enraged at their treatment of Buck, steps in to cut Buck from the traces, saving his life. As the man and dog bond, they watch the team run along the river, hit a thawing patch, and drown.
Chapter 6: For the Love of a Man
Thornton is a loving master, and Buck begins to love him. If not for Thornton, Buck would leave the company of men and join the wild. Buck proves his love by obeying Thornton when he commands Buck to jump over a cliff. At the last second, Buck is saved. Twice Buck saves Thornton's life, once by defending him from a bully and again by rescuing him from drowning. Finally, Buck wins a bet for him by breaking a sled from the ice and dragging its heavy load one hundred yards.
Chapter 7: The Sounding of the Call
The money won from the bet allows Thornton to fulfill his dream of searching for a lost gold mine. When they eventually find it, the men work the mine and Buck has a chance to explore the wild. He even brings down a wounded moose by stalking it for days. When Buck comes back to the camp he finds the men and dogs massacred by the Yeehats. He takes his revenge on the tribe, killing the greatest predator of all, man.
With Thornton's death breaking his last tie to humanity, Buck joins his ancient ancestors, the wolves. With the Yeehats, he gains a reputation as the Ghost Dog, but each year he visits Thornton's grave. This is his only concession to the past.
Half St. Bernard, half Scotch shepherd, Buck is a dog and the protagonist of The Call of the Wild. The novel is told largely from Buck's perspective, although the narrator interprets his "feelings" and "thoughts" for the reader. Buck is a loyal friend to his owner, Judge Miller, and he "lived the life of a sated aristocrat" on his California ranch. But he is physically strong from hunting expeditions, and his thick coat and strength are exactly what the men going North to seek their fortune in the Klondike gold rush need.
Buck is stolen by the gardener and sold to a group traveling north. Before long Buck knows that he is in a strange land with different rules and expectations. A man in a red sweater teaches Buck his first lesson of the Northland: "a man with a club was a law-giver, a master to be obeyed, though not necessarily conciliated." Buck's first masters are just, but he must make a difficult adjustment to his new life of labor and near-starvation. He even steals food from his master, an act which marks "the decay or going to pieces of his moral nature, a vain thing and a handicap in the ruthless struggle for existence." Although Buck is a dog, his "development (or retrogression)," as London calls it, is depicted in almost human terms. He is losing all the trappings of civilization. "The domesticated generations fell from him," and "instincts long dead became alive again."
Buck is more and more drawn to the wild. He discovers the thrill of the blood hunt, and he defeats his rival, Spitz, for the position of lead dog. But when he meets his third master, John Thornton, a strong relationship develops between man and dog. Buck stays with Thornton because he loves him, not because of the "law of the club." He risks his life for Thornton on more than one occasion. Yet he is still attracted by the call of the wild. He meets a wolf, a "brother," and longs to run off with him, but he stays with Thornton. Only when Yeehat Indians murder Thornton does Buck join the wolf pack, becoming the "Ghost Dog" in Yeehat legend. The wolves are greatly feared, and Buck "may be seen running at the head of the pack."
Charles is one of Buck's masters. He is searching for gold, but his group is completely unprepared for the harsh, demanding environ-ment. Through their ignorance, lack of sense, and cruelty, they starve the dogs and nearly work them to death. When they travel on a precarious river trail, they crash through the ice to their deaths.
Dave is the wheel-dog on the team. His pride in his work is so great that he ends up working himself to death, unwilling to be carried when he becomes ill.
Dolly is a dog who goes mad on the trail. She comes after Buck in her madness and is killed by Francois.
Francois is a dog driver, one of Buck's first masters in the Klondike. He and his partner, Perrault, are mail couriers. They are just masters who treat the dogs fairly, although they get the maximum amount of work out of their dogs with the minimum amount of food.
Hal is Charles's brother-in-law. When Buck refuses to lead the dogs further on the trail, he beats him severely. Hal is the one who leads the party to their deaths.
Manuel is the gardener who steals Buck and sells him.
Mercedes is Hal's wife and Charles's sister. Because she "had been chivalrously treated all her days," she is particularly ill-suited to the life of the trail. She feels sorry for the hungry dogs, so she gives them more to eat, only to have them run out of food. And she refuses to walk, making the exhausted dogs carry her weight on the sled.
Judge Miller is Buck's original owner on the California ranch.
Perrault is Francois's partner and one of Buck's first masters.
Sol-leks is one of the sled dogs who shows Buck the ropes. He takes great pride in his job, and Francois and Perrault make him lead dog after Spitz's death. But Sol-leks relinquishes his position when Buck claims it. Sol-leks goes down with the team when Charles, Mercedes, and Hal drive them into the thawed river.
Spitz is the lead dog of the team, and he is Buck's nemesis. Buck resents his power and intends to challenge him, knowing that it must be a battle to the death. When Buck, in the full frenzy and "ecstasy" of the "blood lust," closes in on a rabbit, and Spitz steps in to claim the prey for his own, Buck attacks Spitz. After a long and bloody fight Buck is the victor, the "dominant primordial beast."
John Thornton is Buck's last master. He intervenes when he sees Hal beating Buck for refusing to go any further on the trail, and he saves the dog's life. Thornton "was the ideal master. Other men saw to the welfare of their dogs from a sense of duty and business expediency; he saw to the welfare of his as if they were his own children." Buck becomes his loyal friend and loves him more than any human or beast he has ever known.
Thornton tests Buck's loyalty by ordering him to jump off a cliff. Only by jumping in front of Buck does he prevent him from plunging to his death. Although Buck is drawn to life in the wild, he remains with Thornton. When his beloved master is killed by Yeehat Indians, Buck avenges Thornton's death, killing his first human; he then leaves the world of men forever. The bond between Buck and Thornton had been Buck's last and strongest tie to civilization.
Civilization vs. the Wild
The main conflict in The Call of the Wild is the struggle between civilization and the wild. The novel traces Buck's gradual transformation from a domesticated dog to a wild one.
- Jack London Cassette Library, read by Jack Dahlby, includes readings of The Call of the Wild, Martin Eden, and The Sea-Wolf.
- The Call of the Wild is read by Arnold Moss on a cassette made by Miller-Brody.
- The Call of the Wild was first captured on film in 1935 by United Artists.
- In 1972, a film was made of The Call of the Wild starring Charlton Heston as John Thornton. It is available on video.
- The Call of the Wild was adapted for television in 1983. This version stars Rick Schroder as John Thornton and is available on video.
Buck has to learn to adapt to an entirely new way of life and code of conduct in order to survive. He must give up his life of leisure and his trusting nature. He learns "the law of the club and fang," meaning that those who have the greatest physical strength are the rulers. The chain of command is comprised of men with clubs; the lead dogs, who have achieved mastery by wounding or killing dogs that challenge them; and the other dogs, who do most of the work.
Buck starts out on the bottom of this hierarchy, but soon adapts to his new life. He begins to steal food, losing his moral nature. Most of all, Buck is fit, and his superior strength, conditioned by his experiences, allows him to be more aggressive. He challenges the lead dog and wins the coveted top position. His survival instinct leads him to refuse to lead the team any further when they travel on thin ice.
At this point in the narrative, Buck's consistent "development (or retrogression)," as London calls it, from civilization to the wild is halted. When Thornton becomes his master, he discovers a stronger bond—love—than any he has ever experienced. His risks his life for his master, in direct contradiction to the new ethos he has learned on the trail. With Thornton, Buck lives a domesticated life, but he continues to hear the call of the wild. Although he is torn between the two, he remains with Thornton, unable to break the bond between them. When Thornton is killed, he is released, finally able to fulfill his true nature and join the wolf pack. Only then is his transformation from domesticated dog to wolflike wild one complete.
As Buck metamorphoses into a wild creature, he discovers within himself instincts that have been dormant for generations. In The Call of the Wild, London glorifies the almost metaphysical element of Buck's nature that allows him to survive in conditions that are completely foreign to him. He does more than learn to adapt, London argues, he draws on his ancestral memory to show him how to behave.
It is this metaphysical aspect of Buck's nature that has led critics to detect a supernaturalist or spiritualist slant to this novel. Even though Buck's experiences determine that he will become wild, leaving civilization behind, after he meets Thornton he is lured back into the domesticated life. Thornton will protect and feed him, treating him more like a beloved member of the family than a mere dog or work animal. Throughout his relationship with Thornton, it is his growing awareness of his ancestral memory that lures him into the wild. The "call of the wild," therefore, refers to the mystical natural forces at work within Buck, making the story more supernatural.
Topics for Further Study
- Research the philosophies of the "superman" and the "survival of the fittest" as espoused by Friedrich Nietzsche and Herbert Spencer, two thinkers who influenced London. Compare them to London's philosophies found in The Call of the Wild.
- Read Ralph Waldo Emerson's seminal essay "Self-Reliance" (1841). Write an essay considering whether or not you think it was possible for Buck to be a "self-reliant" individual at the end of the nineteenth century.
- For decades The Call of the Wild has been considered by many to be a children's book. Do you think it is an appropriate book for children, and why? Who do you think the intended or most appropriate audience for this book is—children, teens, adult readers, or literary scholars?
- Research changing views of nature and the American wilderness in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, studying such figures as Henry David Thoreau, Theodore Roosevelt, and John Muir. Write an essay in which you discuss London's place within these debates/traditions.
Point of View
Point of view is the narrative perspective from which a work is presented to the reader. The Call of the Wild is told from a very unusual point of view—that of a dog. Yet a human narrator stands outside of Buck's consciousness and makes sense of the dog's universe to human readers. London also tries to maintain Buck's believability as a dog. So while he explains his motivations, London reminds the reader that Buck does not actually think. After a lengthy passage about Buck's moral decline, explaining why Buck steals food from his master, London writes, "Not that Buck reasoned it out … unconsciously he accommodated himself to the new mode of life."
Setting is the time, place, and culture in which the action of a narrative takes place. The Call of the Wild is neatly divided into two regions that are diametrically opposed—the Southland and the Northland. The former represents civilization and the latter the wild. In the South, Buck lived a domesticated and perfectly stable life. When Buck arrives in the North, he realizes that survival is the only concern.
The difference between the two regions is typified by their climates. In the South, it is warm, food grows easily, and people enjoy their leisure. In the North, the harsh, cold conditions are very dangerous if one is not prepared, and people must work hard and suffer much to survive.
Many critics perceive that The Call of the Wild was more than the story of a dog. Many believe that it is an allegory about human society. An allegory tells two stories at once: the surface narrative, which in this case would be Buck's transformation; and the "real" story that is suggested by the literal narrative. As such, then, this novel also tells the story of the savagery of man, who is transported into a hostile world against his will, must confront his inability to determine his own fate, must learn to survive by any means necessary, and who must choose between the bond of love with other humans and his own desire to live outside of human connections.
Earle Labor deems The Call of the Wild a "beast fable," because it "provoke[s] our interest—unconsciously if not consciously—in the human situation, not in the plight of the lower animals." Charles N. Watson Jr. provides another assessment of this aspect of the novel: "This is not a matter of observing, as some critics have done, that the dog story involves a human 'allegory,' a term implying that Buck is merely a human being disguised as a dog. Rather, the intuition at the heart of the novel is that the process of individuation in a dog, wolf, or a human child are not fundamentally different."
Although there has been much debate about how much The Call of the Wild conforms to naturalism, some of the novel's basic ideas are perfect illustrations of the theory. As an outgrowth of realism, naturalism dawned in the 1890s, when writers like Stephen Crane and Frank Norris produced fiction that examined life with scientific objectivity, concluding that biology and socioeconomic factors ruled behavior. While local color and sentimental fiction dominated the literary marketplace at that time, these writers promoted a literature that was "real" and "true" in its depiction of the underside of America's burgeoning cities. Influenced by Darwinist theories of biological determinism, they applied such ideas to society, where the struggle for existence was often brutal and dehumanizing.
Buck's fate is in the hands of men. He is unable to decide his own course of action. London underscores this when he writes that Buck found himself where he was "because men had found a yellow metal in the North, and because Manuel was a gardener's helper whose wages did not lap over the needs of his wife and divers small copies of himself." In other words, circumstances well beyond Buck's control are guiding his life. The Call of the Wild perfectly illustrates the doctrines of naturalism because Buck "is a product of biological, environmental, and hereditary forces."
Despite the naturalist elements of The Call of the Wild, some scholars also perceive romantic tendencies. Although romanticism as a movement peaked in the mid-nineteenth century in America, its central tenets have always been popular in American fiction. In this style, strict adherence to reality is not important. Rather, setting or characters take on mythic or symbolic proportions. As Buck begins to heed the "call of the wild" he hears through his ancestors, the story becomes less realistic and more mythic.
As Earle Labor and Jeanne Campbell Reesman have argued, the novel is a "mythic romance" because "the call to adventure, departure, initiation, the perilous journey to the mysterious life-center, transformation, and apotheosis: these are … all present in Buck's progress from the civilized world through the natural and beyond to the supernatural world." Although he starts out as a real character, Buck is transformed into the mythical "Ghost Dog" of Yeehat legend. Likewise, the setting of the Northland begins as a real region and ends up a dreamlike, mythical realm.
The Klondike Gold Rush
Many early settlers in North America had migrated in search of the gold that Spaniards had found in Central and South America. Dreams of a continent paved with gold did not begin to come true until the 1840s, when gold was found in California. In the subsequent decades, gold was found in many regions of the West. Most prospectors that traveled to California never realized their dream. By the 1880s, mining had become big business, making it even more difficult for optimistic individuals to seek their fortunes.
When gold was found in the Klondike region in 1896, part of the Yukon territory of Canada, new dreams were kindled in the minds of many who viewed it as the last opportunity to make it big. This gold rush attracted hoards of people to the Alaska territory, which adjoined the Yukon. This forbidding region had barely been explored, and most had very little idea what to expect. Many were totally unprepared for the harsh conditions, like Charles, Hal, and Mercedes in The Call of the Wild. For the first time, towns were established in the interior of Alaska. In 1897, the year Jack London set sail for Alaska, the Klondike yielded $22 million in gold.
At the turn of the century, Charles Darwin's theory of evolution was applied to human society by philosophers and a new cadre of social scientists, including Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner. Adapting the notion of natural selection, they argued that life was a struggle for survival and that the "fittest" would come out on top. It was inevitable that only a few individuals would prosper; the rest would suffer in poverty. According to Social Darwinists, these conditions were not only inevitable but a positive process of weeding out those who were unfit, or inferior.
This theory of social evolution seemed to complement the competitive strain of capitalism that was shaping America in the 1890s and 1900s. Wealth was concentrated in the hands of a very few, like Andrew Carnegie, whose book The Gospel of Wealth (1900) used Social Darwinist ideas to justify his position in society. The prevailing view was that by extending charity to the needy, one would not only prolong the survival of people who were not fit to live but jeopardize the survival of society as a whole. Nonetheless, Carnegie felt he had a responsibility to use his millions to benefit others, so rather than simply give his money away, he set up trusts for the establishment of universities, art galleries, and public libraries.
For many Americans, among them Protestants and social Progressives, the philosophies of Spencer and Sumner were ruthlessly barbaric and amoral. They accused Social Darwinists of degeneracy and nihilism. Instead of merely accepting that those on the lowest rung of the ladder would simply be weeded out of society, they attempted to level the playing field for all Americans by enacting legislation and providing social services. They rejected the ideas of "rugged individualism" and "survival of the fittest" and promoted the idea of social cooperation.
Some, like the philosopher Lester Frank Ward, maintained that people possessed the capacity to change the world around them. Ward believed that a greater society would result from people's active protection of the weak rather than the laissez-faire doctrine of letting competition take its course.
Compare & Contrast
- 1900s: Americans recognize the need for conserving or protecting the environment. The U.S. government begins forest preservation efforts in 1891. In 1892 John Muir founded the Sierra Club. In 1903 President Theodore Roosevelt created the National Wildlife Refuge System.
Today: The Sierra Club still exists and is a major force in the environmentalist movement. Business and environmentalists clash frequently over America's natural resources and endangered species.
- 1900s: Indigenous to the area, wolves inhabit most of the northwestern United States, Canada, and Alaska.
Today: Wolves have long ago disappeared from most of the United States. A project to reintroduce wolves to Yellowstone National Park is hotly contested by local ranchers, but is implemented with some success in the 1990s.
- 1900s: Alaska, which became part of the United States in 1867, was sparsely populated until the gold rushes in Juneau (1880) and the Klondike (1897). The excitement regarding these discoveries brought streams of fortune hunters to settle the interior.
Today: Alaska became a state in 1959. For many years, oil was the major economic product of the state. But in the 1980s, with the depression of the oil market, Alaska's economy suffered. When the Exxon Valdez ran aground in 1989, the oil polluted more than 1,285 miles of shoreline, including the Prince William Sound wildlife sanctuary. Alaska possesses the largest area of unspoiled wilderness in the United States and continues to try to balance its economic and environmental interests.
- 1900s: In 1901 Theodore Roosevelt became President of the United States. A member of the "Rough Riders," a volunteer cavalry regiment, Roosevelt was a war hero in the Spanish-American War in 1898. He was also an avid sportsman, hunter, and adventurer, and he embodied the robust manliness that set a new standard for American manhood.
Today: President William Jefferson Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives in 1998 for lying under oath about an affair he had with a White House intern. Many Americans believe Clinton's affairs and lying to cover them up are a disgrace to America's values and a sign of the deterioration of the presidency.
Arts in the 1900s
Greatly influenced by Social Darwinism, the growth of poverty in urban areas, and labor unrest, writers and artists of the 1900s perceived the world as bleak. These younger writers and artists wanted to remove literature and art from the drawing rooms of genteel society and depict life in the street, in the factory, and the deteriorating farm in all its gritty detail. These writers believed that a kind of natural selection was taking place in society, but they did not share Spencer's and Sumner's optimism about the outcome. Instead, they focused on how the individual (the primary subject of literature) was affected by the unrestrained capitalist forces that drove this new society.
Naturalist writers, such as Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris, Stephen Crane, and Jack London, created memorable characters who had to learn to survive in an uncaring and amoral society. The title character in Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie (1900) is lured to Chicago by dreams of big-city sophistication and material prosperity, only to find herself trapped in a low-paying, stifling factory job. She escapes by becoming the mistress of a well-off man, whose demise corresponds to Carrie's rise as an actress. While she adapts to the new economy, he is destroyed by it.
In the visual arts, a new group of artists—called the ash can school—depicted the realities of everyday urban existence. They rejected the credo of earlier artists, who believed that beauty was the only true subject of art. Centered in New York City, this movement eschewed traditional views of technique and training in favor of painting from the gut in an impressionistic style. Their art featured an abundance of brown and gray landscapes crowded with buildings and bridges. But often the work of ash can artists celebrated the life of immigrants and the urban working class, finding aesthetic value in these groups neglected by earlier artists.
When The Call of the Wild was published in 1903, it was a resounding critical and popular success. Reviewers applauded this exciting adventure tale and viewed it as a welcome alternative to the popular fiction of the day. J. Stewart Doubleday, reviewing the novel in The Reader, praised London's "suggestion of the eternal principles that underlie [life]," admitting that "it is cruel reading—often relentless reading;… But we forgive the writer at last because his is true! He is not sentimental, tricky; he is at harmony with himself and nature."
The Atlantic Monthly found "something magnificent in the spectacle of [Buck's] gradual detachment from the tame, beaten-in virtues of uncounted forefathers,… and his final triumph over the most dreaded powers of the wilderness." Overall, the reviewer praised it as "not a pretty story at all, but a very powerful one."
London's reputation also extended overseas, where he was considered one of America's foremost writers. Yet in America, despite the early attention the novel received, The Call of the Wild came to be seen as escapist fiction most suitable for children. London was barely mentioned in the literary histories published in the 1920s and after, and he was dismissed by the New Critics, the prominent literary scholars of the 1940s and 1950s.
London's fiction, especially The Call of the Wild, continued to be popular with the reading public. It wasn't until the 1960s that scholars reassessed their opinions regarding London's work. Since that time a flood of critical and biographical material on London has been published, elevating him once again as one of America's most important authors.
Critical commentary on The Call of the Wild focuses on autobiographical aspects of the story, the nature of the novel's allegory, and the question of whether it can be considered an example of literary naturalism. Joan Hedrick views the novel as London's attempt to deal with his past. "London had consciously closed the book on his working-class past. That self dwelt in a black and slippery pit to be recalled only in dreams. But in The Call of the Wild London was able, through his canine hero, to return to the scenes of his past, and, having got in touch with them, to imagine a different future."
Andrew Flink maintains that the novel is London's attempt, "either consciously or unconsciously," to deal with one specific part of his past, namely his stint in prison. He draws extensive parallels between London's experiences as a prisoner and Buck's life in the Klondike.
Most critics agree that the novel functions as an allegory, at least on one level. Abraham Roth-berg expresses this view: "London was not only treating animals like human beings, but treating human beings like animals, recognizing no essential difference between man and animal. In The Call of the Wild he equated men with dogs and wolves, and equated the harshness of the trail with the harshness of society, implying that force, savagery and cunning were equally the ways to success in both areas."
According to Charles N. Watson Jr., the novel is "about society as well as about the wilderness—or rather,… it is about the conflict between the two." In other words, the novel is more than a simple allegory about society; it is a complex rendering of competing ideologies. Watson addresses the debate regarding the novel's naturalistic theme. To Watson, The Call of the Wild embodies both "Zolaesque naturalism …—a reversion to savagery, a process of degeneration" and "romantic primitivism," by conveying "the forward movement of an initiation rite, through which Buck attains maturity and even apotheosis as a mythic hero." This dualism is perhaps the most discussed aspect of the novel.
While a few scholars, including Mary Kay Dodson, perceive the novel as a perfect embodiment of naturalism, others, such as Earl J. Wilcox, argue that the "naturalism that characterizes this novel is not consistently developed." Jonathan Auerbach sums up most opinions on the issue when he states, "There is a massive set of contradictions about Buck at the heart of the narrative, which moves in two seemingly opposite directions: toward nature from culture (the standard naturalist plot of decivilization), and a more troubled but also more passionate movement toward self-transcendence, which cannot be fully contained by the conventional naturalistic model."
Watson argues that it is precisely these contradictions that have made this novel appealing to readers and critics. In the novel he perceives "a fruitful tension between the naturalistic impulse, with its emphasis on society and environment, and the romantic impulse, which emphasizes the power of the exceptional individual to act on his own. Such a tension … is one of the most fundamental themes of American fiction." As critics continue to explore the complexity of The Call of the Wild, it is becoming recognized as one of America's most enduring classics.
Bolan is an adjunct English instructor at the College of Lake County and Columbia College of Missouri extensions, a playwright, short story writer, poet, and essayist. In the following essay she speculates on why The Call of the Wild is one of the most popular American novels in the world.
Jack London's Call of the Wild, one of the most widely read American novels in the world, seems a strange choice for this distinction. The setting is the wilderness of the Klondike region, the protagonist is a dog, and the theme of the novel is devolution of the protagonist. Yet these are the same elements that garnered fame for the novel when it was first published in 1903; and these same elements continue to attract readers almost a century later.
In the late 1800s the Klondike region was swept by a gold rush. Gold had been found in California in 1848, and later in British Columbia, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. Yet this rush was in Alaska, purchased from Russia thirty years earlier in 1867, and Canada's Yukon Territory, and rivaled all previous gold rushes. It had formidable challenges, though; not only the forbidding cold, but also the uncharted geography made it a treacherous choice for the unprepared prospector. Still, many answered the call of quick money, including the young Jack London.
Although London staked a claim which he later abandoned, he was awed by the natural beauty he found in the ice-locked rivers and snow-encrusted mountains, in the spring thaw and sudden summer blooms, in the abundance of animal life from king salmon in the streams to caribou and bear on the plains to sheep and goats in the highlands. Before a year was up, London returned to his California home with debilitating scurvy. Yet he had found gold: his visions of the Klondike, the tales from the sourdoughs or old-timers, and his own intense experiences gave him enough material to write brilliant stories including his most masterful of all, The Call of the Wild.
Most early readers of the novel were content to curl up in a warm corner and read about the inhospitable climate and terrain of America's last frontier. Today, although Alaska attracts tourists, its environment and weather conditions will never attract as many permanent residents as, for example, the Sun Belt states do. The exotic land skirting the Arctic Circle is still forbidding—and if the environmentalists maintain their influence in the region, its pristine and primitive beauty will be preserved for future generations and future readers.
A beautiful, dangerous setting alone does not guarantee a great novel. Character is often paramount. In The Call of the Wild, however, the main character is assumed to be enslaved by man and by its own instinct. Both of these considerations would make Buck, the Saint Bernard-Scotch shepherd mix, a poor candidate for a riveting, dynamic character. Yet, by following his instincts, Buck takes his readers to the deepest reaches of the mind; and the readers, following their instincts, immediately translate Buck's canine qualities into human ones. Buck, therefore, becomes a mythic hero, and here lies the real power of the novel.
In the first chapter, "Into the Primitive," Buck meets all the criteria necessary for becoming a mythic hero, according to Joseph Campbell's out-line in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The hero must first answer "[t]he [c]all to [a]dventure"—although Buck is kidnapped instead of called. But since a domesticated dog would rather die than desert his master, only a violent act could wrench the loyal Buck away from the Judge and his happy life in a California valley.
The next step, the "[r]efusal of the [c]all," is fruitless. Buck's attempt to escape from the rope around his neck only tightens the rope and makes him more enraged. After this, "[s]upernatural [a]id" is offered in the form of the saloon keeper removing the rope and checking in on Buck throughout the night. Although "supernatural" is stretching a point, the saloon keeper frees Buck from a dangerous device and allows the dog to suffer alone, foreshadowing the self-reliance he'll need in the hostile environment to come.
"Crossing of the [f]irst [t]hreshold" comes when Buck meets the man in the red sweater, the dog breaker, who teaches Buck to obey by beating him with a club. Some dogs won't adapt, and they die fighting; others adapt with a broken spirit; Buck adapts a spirit that bends without breaking.
The last step is entering the "passage into the realm of night" and here, at the end of the chapter, is where Buck experiences snow for the first time. Despite the beauty of a veil of falling snow or the serenity it lends to a landscape, the snow symbolizes a formidable foe for the sled dogs and their mushers: the dogs need the ice accumulated from the day's run removed from their paws to prevent frostbite; the mushers need to be alert to the poor visibility and the disguised trails that could result in an accident in an environment where carelessness can quickly lead to death. Although Buck is mystified by the snow, it clearly belongs to the darker side of experience.
What Do I Read Next?
- Social Darwinism in European and American Thought, 1860–1945: Nature as Model and Nature as Threat (1997), written by Mike Hawkins, explores the way individual thinkers and larger social groups define and interpret the theories of Social Darwinism. It also examines the traditional and revisionist approaches historians have taken with Social Darwinism.
- Modern Man in Search of a Soul (1933) summarizes many of Carl Jung's psychoanalytical theories. London discovered Jung's work late in life and found in it an expression of many ideas that corresponded with his own. Most notably, Jung's theory of the "collective unconscious" was anticipated in The Call of the Wild.
- Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book (1895) is a collection of tales featuring Mowgli, a young boy raised by wolves. The stories take place in the jungles of India and include a cast of talking animals who teach Mowgli valuable lessons. These stories were among the most popular animal stories for children when London wrote The Call of the Wild.
- Martin Eden (1909) was London's most autobiographical novel. It chronicles the story of a young man who rises from poverty to fame as an internationally-acclaimed author.
- In The Road (1907), London describes his early tramping experiences and traces his development from hobo and "blond-beastly" adventurer to an author and a socialist.
- In White Fang (1906), considered a companion piece to The Call of the Wild, London depicts a wild dog who becomes domesticated, reversing Buck's transformation.
- Frank Norris's McTeague (1899) is a classic example of naturalism, as heredity and environment determine the fate of luckless individuals in turn-of-the-century San Francisco.
The following six chapters of the novel fall into place with the hero's "[r]oad of [t]rials." Here Buck learns important things from the other dogs: how to steal food without getting caught, how to sleep outside, how to interact with the other dogs. The friendly Newfoundland, Curly, greets a dog who attacks her in the wolf style—biting her face, then jumping back to avoid retaliation. When she stumbles to the ground because of her wounds, the other dogs tear her apart. Buck learns it's better to be wary, or even antisocial like Dave and Sol-leks. He also learns to deal with Spitz, the pack leader, whom he eventually defeats in a fight to the death, because he has one great advantage—imagination.
"Meeting with the [g]oddess," the next step, suggests the scene where Buck meets Mercedes, who is tenderhearted towards him at first, until her own survival takes precedence. She insists on riding the sled that is already overloaded. Her rationale for her husband and brother beating the dogs is circuitous: if they'd only run faster, they wouldn't get whipped. This is not a woman Buck likes, but she is the only one of the three Yukon greenhorns who could protect the dogs, and she fails.
The following step, "[w]oman as the [t]emptress," is missing because this is a novel without sex. While London never avoided writing about intimate relationships, he did avoid their sexual aspects, due in large part to his Victorian audience. Prostitution was rampant in the Klondike yet is never mentioned in the story. Since the focus is on the dog instead of man, this fact isn't missed; however, Buck is a sexual creature, and that part of his life is never directly addressed.
The next two steps involve Buck's relationship with John Thornton. "Atonement with the [f]ather" casts John Thornton in the fatherly role of the loving master, replacing Buck's former father-figure and master, the Judge. Through Thornton, Buck comes to believe in man again—not man in general, but man in particular. The "[a]potheosis," or elevation to divine status, occurs when Buck has avenged John Thornton's death by killing several Yeehat Indians and gains a reputation as the Ghost Dog. Finally, the "[u]ltimate [b]oon" may well be the markings on the young wolves, evidence of Buck's leadership, accompanying sexual dominance and contribution to the pack.
Campbell concludes that the hero's reintegration into society may be his most difficult task. In The Call of the Wild, there is no reintegration into the society of the domestic dog, a creature whose evolution is in the hands of its master. Buck has left that society, has devolved, undone the canine choice made in prehistory and referred to in the novel: the image of anxious prehistoric man sitting before the fire. Buck has visions of this, but he is moved to follow his deepest instincts: to break the pact with man and join the wolf pack—in fact, to strengthen the pack by broadening the gene pool.
This reversed ending, devolution over evolution, is the one that works best on the narrative level, for Buck has at last found his place. On the analogous level, it suggests the human struggle to answer heroically the wild call within, the call of individualism, a call all the world understands.
Source: Chloe Bolan, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 2000.
Leonard R. N. Ashley
In the following essay, Ashley asserts that London should be remembered as more than "a once-popular author, an author of juvenile literature, the master of the dog story," but concludes, "Nonetheless, London's place in literary history depends now and always will depend on the appeal of The Call of the Wild."
In the Soviet Union, Jack London is regarded as one of the greatest of American writers, chiefly because of such sentiments as are found in now-obscure works of his such as "A Night with the Philomaths." There he has a firebrand orating about a revolution of the proletariat.
Twenty-five millions strong … to make rulers and ruling classes pause and consider. The cry of this army is: No quarter! We want all that you possess. We want in our hands the reins of power and the destiny of mankind…. We are going to take your governments, your palaces, and all your purpled ease away from you, and in that day you shall work for your bread even as the peasant in the field or the starved and runty clerk in your metropolises…. You have failed in your management of society, and your management is to be taken away from you…. This is the revolution, my masters. Stop it if you can.
However, the early poverty and struggle that drew London to Marx and to communist or socialist ideology as he read books in the Klondike winter were followed by success and belief, according to Charles Child Walcutt, in himself as "an epitome of the Darwinian Struggle for Existence, his success an example of the [Herbert] Spencerian Survival of the Fittest." He had also read Nietzsche, and he came to people his prolific output of fiction with supermen, heroes who could succeed without or in spite of either communism or democracy, heroes that were not so much self-sacrificing socialists as rapacious capitalists of the spirit. They conquered by force of will and indomitable courage rather than by cleverness. In the great American tradition, they "hung in there"; and when the going got tough, they got tougher. London liked to think of himself as one of these semi-divine heroes. A newspaper reporter once noticed that his Korean houseboy called London "Mr. God." The reporter added, "Jack liked it."
In London's most popular novel, The Call of the Wild, the hero is a dog—the story is told entirely from the dog Buck's point of view—and even when ill treatment causes him to revert to the "dominant primordial beast" he is a symbol of what man can do to overcome obstacles and become the leader of his fellows. A mongrel, a cross between a German Shepherd and a St. Bernard, Buck is uprooted, stolen from his comfortable California home, and sold for work as a sled dog in the Gold Rush of 1897. Then he becomes the companion and eventually the savior of a young prospector. Finally he becomes the leader of a wild pack, and the book ends with these triumphant and famous words:
When the long winter nights come on and the wolves follow their meat into the lower valleys, he may be seen running at the head of the pack through the pale moonlight or glimmering borealis, leaping gigantic above his fellows, his great throat a-bellow as he sings a song of the younger world, which is the song of the pack.
In some sense Buck is a representation of the author as he would like to see himself. An illegitimate child of a spiritualist (who later married John London, not his father), London quit school at 14, worked in a cannery, became a pirate on the ship Razzle Dazzle in San Francisco Bay at 16 and a sailor to Siberia and Japan at 17, tramped around, and went to the Klondike in 1897. There he found more adventure, opportunity for the will to power, risk and challenge and self-fulfillment, freedom from civilization's restraints—the life suited to a man who once said "morality is only an evidence of low blood pressure."
London returned from the Klondike without gold but with a rich vein of wilderness experiences which he industriously mined thereafter. The Call of the Wild is but one of his tales of heroism and violence in circumstances of danger. Where Bret Harte told the story of "A Yellow Dog" that became a snob in the gold fields and Eric Knight was to sentimentalize canine faithfulness in Lassie Come-Home, London told the tale of a dog who went from snob to superdog. London's was a rousing tale that had a message as well as a love for mankind.
London, who always had more drive than deftness in writing, was extremely clever to focus on Buck rather than on the human world around him. Judge Miller, by whose Santa Clara, California, fireside the young Buck lay in innocence and peace before he was "dognapped," has more of a function than a character in the book. John Thornton, the strong, silent, noble type to whom Buck becomes attached in the Yukon, is a stereotype: we provide his qualities from other reading rather than discover them in the novel. "Black" Burton and other bad guys are also stock characters. So are the greenhorns and the French-Canadians and the other humans. The animals, however, are sufficiently humanized, and if they, too, are stereotypes we are more impressed with the personalities they are given than with their lack of depth. Pike (the thief), Dub (the clumsy one), Dave and Sol-leks (the sled dogs who are dedicated "professionals"), Curly (the amiable Newfoundland dog) who "made advances to a husky dog the size of a full-grown wolf" and was "ripped open from eye to jaw" in an instant—these animals each have their place in the story and can be said to be characters in the fiction in a sense in which the humans are not. Among the dogs are the "bully" personalities so beloved of the Teddy Roosevelt period of American history. Among them is clearly shown "the law of club and fang": "So that was the way. No fair play. Once down, that was the end of you." Among them, also, there are treachery and nobility, faithfulness unto death, and a conviction that moral nature is "a vain thing and a handicap in the ruthless struggle for existence." They learn that "kill or be killed, eat or be eaten, was the law." Towering above all is Buck. "When he was made, the mould was broke," says Pete. And in awkward dialect Hans affirms: "Py jingo! I t'ink so mineself."
That a good deal of the book is given to describing the feelings of the animals is an advantage in the light of London's clumsiness with cliche ("Every animal was motionless as though turned to stone") and dialogue ("Plumb tuckered out, that's what's the matter"). The action moves swiftly; we are seldom aware of the "stoppages" of the sleds or that characters are "lessoned," of the awkward prolepsis or the literary infelicities, as the melodramatic tale unfolds of how Buck "put his name many notches higher on the totem pole of Alaskan fame." We discover that sentiment can exist without a love story; Mercedes, the only woman in the book, is a shadow. Popular writers discover that a riveting story, as of the "kidnapped king" tried in the furnace and emerging pure gold (or "a yellow metal," as London would say), is enough.
Those who want more can see London as a racist, fascist, Social Darwinist; as a predecessor of Jack Kerouac and other "on the road" writers; as a tough-guy writer in the tradition developed by John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, and Norman Mailer, though perhaps best exemplified in Dashiell Hammett and other writers of crime fiction; as a writer about animals (such as Buck and the wolf-dog that seeks civilization in White Fang) foreshadowing George Orwell's Animal Farm in using them as metaphors of humanity; as a giant in his time—in 1913 the most popular and best-paid writer in the world—who was denigrated in later times; as (to note Andrew Sinclair's argument) a path-finder in areas as different as the boxing novel and sociobiology of the school of Lorenz, Ardrey, and Desmond Morris.
In the biography Jack (1977), Sinclair makes a gallant effort to rescue London from too close identification with the message that "a man with a club was a law-giver, a master to be obeyed" and the view of "nature red in tooth and claw." Sinclair does much to bring him to serious consideration as much more than a once-popular author, an author of juvenile literature, the master of the dog story. Nonetheless, London's place in literary history depends now and always will depend on the appeal of The Call of the Wild.
Source: Leonard R. N. Ashley, "The Call of the Wild," in Reference Guide to American Literature, third edition, edited by Jim Kamp, St. James Press, 1994.
John S. Mann
In the following excerpt, Mann suggests that various doubles, or pairings of antithetical characters and plot elements in the novel, contribute to the enduring popularity of The Call of the Wild and to the value of the novel as an object of critical study.
Dogs and men are fundamentally alike in the Klondike world of Jack London's The Call of the Wild: There was imperative need to be constantly alert; for these dogs and men were not town dogs and men. They were savages, all of them, who knew no law but the law of club and fang. Dogs and men answer the call of their savage natures and their terrifying environment in a violent, bloody, and continual struggle for survival. The primitive fears and desires which surface in Buck—the splendid animal on whom the story centers—also control his human masters. London describes the dog's development—his regression to instinct—in terms of human personality and action, so that by the end of the tale Buck emerges as a fully-realized character whose motivation can be thoroughly understood. The Call of the Wild remains, curiously, a dog story made humanly understandable: it is a story of the transformations that a dog undergoes in the development of a new identity.
London patterns the relationships between dogs and humans with special care, and they strike the reader with clarity and richness. In part this justifies one's discovery in the story of a controlling metaphor, a theme, usually applied to a peculiar facet of human character. The theme of the double in fact illuminates The Call of the Wild in several important ways, offering focus for revelations about Buck and his human masters alike. The double as theme, as idea, as complex symbology provides a radiant metaphorical center for the whole landscape of Buck's tale. It encompasses charac-ter—the presentations of Buck, men and other dogs, and their necessary relations—but it also touches the action, the points of view involved in the telling of the story, and its atmosphere and setting in significant ways. Doubles and doubling themselves become controlling, almost obsessive preoccupations in London's narrative. Accordingly, a consideration of the double can help to account for the fascination the book has had for readers in the seventy-odd years since its publication in July, 1903. It can also suggest ways in which the book, surely one of London's best, is worthy of continued serious critical attention….
If the theme of the double usually depicts men as deeply divided within themselves, at war with their own natures and with their surroundings, then its first manifestation [in The Call of the Wild] is in the opposing values, the polar attractions, of civilized and uncivilized worlds at work on the consciousness of a dog. The story develops through the impact of Buck's new Klondike environment upon his habits and expectations, conditioned as they are by his four-year sojourn in the civilized Santa Clara Valley of California. The logic of Buck's experience is to drive him increasingly, dramatically into the wild, so that even the interruption of this process by the civilizing love of John Thornton is not enough to return him to men and civilization.
London called the process the devolution or decivilization of a dog. Buck's first theft of food from the government courier Perrault early in the book marks the decay or going to pieces of his moral nature, a vain thing and a handicap in the ruthless struggle for existence. Stealing food helps Buck stay alive, and the narrator remarks that the completeness of his decivilization was now evidenced by his ability to flee from the defence of a moral consideration and so save his hide. The remainder of the story parallels the outer conflict between Buck and his new Klondike environment with the inner conflict between the savage character of his buried nature and the patterns of conduct imposed on that nature by civilized society. Like the chief character in O'Neill's Emperor Jones, Buck faces experiences that force instincts long dead [to become] alive again. The domesticated generations fell from him.
London dramatizes this split between civilization and savagery in several interesting ways, each involving a kind of double in turn. Though he once commented that God abhors a mongrel, he carefully states that Buck is of mixed breed—half St. Bernard and half Scotch shepherd. This racial split in Buck's physical nature shrewdly underscores the inner conflict between civilized values and their opposites.
More important in defining the antithetical parts of Buck's nature is London's constant use of images of war throughout the book. Civilization and savagery fight a war inside Buck; much of Chapter Three chronicles the secret growth of the dominant primordial beast within him. Marks of war are everywhere in the plot of The Call of the Wild: in the huskies' savage killing of the Newfoundland, Curly; in the fight of Buck's team with a pack of starving huskies; in the constant fighting among the dogs on the team; in the murder of John Thornton and his partner by marauding Yeehat Indians; in Buck's battle with the wolf pack at the end of the book. Buck fights a literal war with his rival Spitz, first as a rebellious underling deposing the leader of the dog team, and later in a significant affirmation of his savage inheritance:
In a flash Buck knew it. The time had come. It was to the death. As they circled about, snarling, ears laid back, keenly watchful for the advantage, the scene came to Buck with a sense of familiarity. He seemed to remember it all, the white woods, and earth, and moonlight, and the thrill of battle. Over the whiteness and silence brooded a ghostly calm…. To Buck it was nothing new or strange, this scene of old time. It was as though it had always been, the wonted way of things.
The war between Buck and Spitz provides London with one of his clearest metaphors for Darwinian struggle and survival. The taste of Spitz's blood remains with Buck, drawn back and waiting for the other dogs to finish off the wounded rival: Buck stood and looked on, the successful champion, the dominant primordial beast who had made his kill and found it good.
Francois, the team driver, notices the change in Buck the next day in a significant phrase: 'Eh? Wot I say? I spik true w'en I say day Buck two devils!' As if in confirmation of that statement, London further dramatizes the theme of the double in an explicit set of controlling oppositions. Each of these projects Buck's inner and outer conflicts in things of opposite value. The original opposition between civilization and the wild encompasses all the others. The civilized world of the Southland, described continually in the book as warm, soft and easy, is opposed to the wild Northland, a terrifying arena of cold, hard brutality and sudden, violent death which yet—in London's most intriguing paradox—is finally seen as life-giving for the transformed Buck. The human world of ethical impulse and civilizing sanctions against violence is placed against the savage world of animals and savage men. More civilized dogs like Newfoundlands and even huskies find primitive counterparts in the wolves whose howl at the end of the story is the very sound of the wild.
Less obviously, London doubles the story into opposing worlds. Buck begins in the waking world of reality and ends in a silent, white wasteland which is also the world of dream, shadow, and racial memory. Buck survives to embrace life at the end of a book informed by death as the horrifying, rhythmic reflex of an entire order of things. Life in The Call of the Wild is a survival built on the death of other living creatures.
Between these opposing worlds and these opposing values Buck hovers continually in the action of the tale. Even the call of the wild itself, to which Buck responds with growing intensity throughout, receives double focus, twin definition: it is both lure and trap. In the second chapter, when Buck learns The Law of Club and Fang, he builds his first warm sleeping nest in the snow, to discover the next morning:
It had snowed during the night and he was completely buried. The snow walls pressed him on every side, and a great surge of fear swept through him—the fear of the wild thing for the trap. It was a token that he was harking back through his own life to the lives of his forbears; for he was a civilized dog, an unduly civilized dog, and of his own experience knew no trap and so could not of himself fear it. The muscles of his whole body contracted spasmodically and instinctively, the hair on his neck and shoulders stood on end, and with a ferocious snarl he bounded straight up into the blinding day, the snow flying about him in a flashing cloud.
The alluring world of snow and silence remains no less a tomb at the end of the book; though Buck is able to respond to it and still survive, John Thornton cannot.
It is impossible to view such doubled worlds and values, such connected oppositions, for very long without returning to London's pairing of dogs and humans with a renewed sense of its interest and complexity. Both Maxwell Geismar and Charles Child Walcutt have pointed to London's skill in keeping the story within an animal point of view while retaining for balance and proportion a wise degree of human perspective. In fact, The Call of the Wild does retain a double point of view throughout, and London's cunning alternation of dog and human perspectives becomes the essential mark of his craft in the story.
Source: John S. Mann, "The Theme of the Double in The Call of the Wild," in Markham Review, Vol. 8, Fall, 1978, pp. 1-5.
Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 92, November, 1903, pp. 695-96.
Jonathan Auerbach, "'Congested Mails': Buck and Jack's 'Call,'" in Rereading Jack London, edited by Leonard Cassuto and Jeanne Campbell Reesman, Stanford University Press, 1966, pp. 25-45.
Joseph Campbell, "The Hero and the God," in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Princeton University Press, 1968, p. 36.
Mary Kay Dodson, "Naturalism in the Works of Jack London," in Jack London Newsletter, Vol. 4, No. 3, September-December, 1971, pp. 130-39.
J. Stewart Doubleday, in a review of The Call of the Wild, in The Reader, Vol. 2, No. 4, September, 1903, pp. 408-09.
Andrew Flink, "'Call of the Wild'—Jack London's Catharsis," in Jack London Newsletter, Vol. 11, No. 1, January-April, 1978, pp. 12-19.
Joan D. Hedrick, "The Call of the Wild," in Solitary Comrade: Jack London and His Work, The University of North Carolina Press, 1982, pp. 94-111.
Earle Labor and Jeanne Campbell Reesman, Jack London, Twayne, 1994.
Abraham Rothberg, in the introduction to The Call of the Wild and White Fang, by Jack London, Bantam Books, 1963, pp. 1-17.
Charles Watson Jr., "Ghost Dog: 'The Call of the Wild,'" in The Novels of Jack London: A Reappraisal, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1983, pp. 33-52.
Earl J. Wilcox, "Jack London's Naturalism: The Example of The Call of the Wild," in Jack London Newsletter, Vol. 2, No. 3, September-December, 1969, pp. 91-101.
For Further Study
Raymond Benoit, "Jack London's The Call of the Wild," in American Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 2, Summer, 1968, pp. 246-48.
Benoit contends that The Call of the Wild is part of the tradition of "pastoral protest" literature in America and that it embodies the "American dream of escaping from the entangling complexity of modern living."
Jacqueline Tavernier-Courbin, The Call of the Wild: A Naturalistic Romance, Twayne, 1994.
Offers a detailed analysis of the novel's competing ideologies.
――――――, editor, Critical Essays on Jack London, G.K. Hall, 1983.
This collection contains important early assessments of London's works as well as contemporary critical essays.
Charles Child Walcutt, "Jack London: Blond Beasts and Superman," in American Literary Naturalism, A Divided Stream, University of Minnesota Press, 1956, p. 87-113.
In the chapter on London in his classic study of American naturalism, Walcutt discusses the nature of morality in The Call of the Wild.
Earl J. Wilcox, editor, The Call of the Wild by Jack London: A Casebook with Text, Background Sources, Reviews, Critical Essays, and Bibliography, Nelson Hall, 1980.
In addition to the text of the novel, this book contains reviews, helpful essays on the novel, the story "Batard," and nine letters by London pertaining to the novel.