During the four years since his puppyhood he [Buck] had lived the life of a sated aristocrat; he had a fine pride in himself, was even a trifle egotistical, as country gentlemen sometimes become because of their insular situation. But he had saved himself by not becoming a mere pampered house-dog. Hunting and kindred outdoor delights had kept down the fat and hardened his muscles; and to him, as to the cold-tubbing races, the love of water had been a tonic and a health preserver. (p. 6, Library of America edition)
The story of Buck, a St. Bernard-Scotch shepherd dog, is Jack London’s most famous tale. In less than a hundred pages, he explores the changes in Buck as he transforms from a symbol of civilized life to the epitome of “savagery.” Yet this simple description does not hint at the wealth of social commentaries that London makes in this novella.
The Call of the Wild begins in the Santa Clara valley in California in 1897 with a description of Buck before he is stolen away and told to trainers seeking suitably large dogs to haul the dog sleds during the great Klondike Gold Rush of 1896-1899. The depravities that Buck endures, learning the “law of club and fang,” are vividly described in the second chapter:
He had never seen dogs fight as these wolfish creatures fought, and his first experience taught him an unforgetable lesson. It is true, it was a vicarious experience, else he would not have lived to profit by it. Curly was the victim. They were camped near the log store, where she, in her friendly way, make advances to a husky dog the size of a full-grown wolf, though not half so large as she. There was no warning, only a leap in like a flash, a metallic clip of teeth, a leap out equally swift, and Curly’s face was ripped open from eye to jaw. (p. 15)
In the span of less than ten pages, we witness Buck’s initial transformation. Exposed rudely to the violent code of kill or be killed through the sudden killing of the friendly Curly, Buck is confronted with a dilemma: does he try to resist the changes being forced upon him, or does he learn to adapt to this brutal code of life in which there are no such concepts as “fair play” or “equal treatment.” London does an excellent job of using Buck’s situation to allow us greater insight into not only what the more “civilized” dogs had to face in the harsh Arctic clime, but also how humans themselves had to shed off layers of civilized behavior if they were to able to survive.
London’s prose mirrors the changes in Buck. At first, there is almost a staid pomposity to Buck’s initial self-description, but as he becomes acclimated to the sled pack and learns how to fight back against the cruel, imperious Spitz for control of the pack, his observations and thoughts become sharper, more staccato in their bursts of activity. There is lesser and lesser room for introspective thought as the pack makes their way toward Dawson City, the hub of activity during the gold rush. The focus shifts more to the immediate, materialistic aspects: will there be enough food to eat tonight?; how shall dominance be shown or rejected?; and how to make shelter against the blistering wintry winds? This narrative shift occurs gradually, enabling readers to make connections between events and their subsequent effect on Buck’s behavior and thoughts.
It is tempting to describe what The Call of the Wild is about: a staging of Social Darwinist “survival of the fittest” in the Klondike; a reverse “hero’s journey” through the shedding of layers of civilization to reach a pristine primordial state; or conflicts of an anthropomorphic dog against self, nature, and other dog-men. There certainly are elements in the story that supports each point of view, especially in how Buck comes to relate to his succession of so-called masters and his increasing unwillingness to follow the “law of club” blindly. This can be seen in how he subverts Spitz’s authority before dethroning him in a fight to the death that resembles that of Spitz’s savage treatment of Curly; but even more in how he refuses to follow the inept Hal down into certain death in a Yukon about to shed its icy mantle.
However, there is more to The Call of the Wild than these plausible themes. Although it is rarely stated until the final chapters, there is the condition of affectionate love that is part and parcel of Buck’s transformation from civilized dog to one who ultimately answers “the call of the wild.” This is most evident in his time spent with the outdoorsman John Thornton and how theirs is a bond that transcends normal civilized niceties (Thornton’s swearing at Buck and Buck’s leaving teeth imprints in Thornton’s hand both are signs of rebellion against “normal” polite signs of affection). This is most readily apparent in a wager that Thornton makes that Buck, without any cracks of the whip from Thornton, could haul a half-ton sled 100 yards. When Buck manages to achieve the seemingly impossible, winning Thornton $1600, Thornton is made a staggering offer for Buck:
Every man was tearing himself loose, even Matthewson. Hats and mittens were flying in the air. Men were shaking hands, it did not matter with whom, and bubbling over in a general incoherent babel.
But Thornton fell on his knees beside Buck. Head was against head, and he was shaking him back and forth. Those who hurried up heard him cursing Buck, and he cursed him long and fervently, and softly and lovingly.
“Gad, sir! Gad, sir!” spluttered the Skookum Bench king. “I’ll give you a thousand for him, sir, a thousand, sir – twelve hundred, sir.”
Thornton rose to his feet. His eyes were wet. The tears were streaming frankly down his cheeks. “Sir,” he said to the Skookum Bench king, “no, sir. You can go to hell, sir. It’s the best I can do for you, sir.”
Buck seized Thornton’s hand in his teeth. Thornton shook him back and forth. As though animated by a common impulse, the onlookers drew back to a respectful distance; nor were they again indiscreet enough to interrupt.” (p. 70)
It is here, and in two scenes at the very end of the novel, where the bonds of affection are shown to be both the last tie to civilization and the first bond to savage, pristine communion with the wild. Here is the antidote to Buck’s first harsh treatment at the hands of the man in the red sweater, there is the rejection of absolute authority as seen in the futile attempts of Hal to drive Buck into mortal danger. By building up Buck’s voluntary bond to Thornton, London provides a deeper answer to Buck’s series of internal conflicts: the shedding of civilized values does not mean a rejection of communal ties but instead a truer reaffirmation of them. This in turn makes the final scene in The Call of the Wild one of the most powerful moments in American literature and the novella one of the most moving works of American literature.