This is a novel of “devolution” which traces the process of releasing Buck’s savage, atavistic nature beneath its civilized veneer. Through the brutality of various human masters and the cunning of the other dogs he meets, Buck learns not only to adapt and survive his ordeal but also to prevail over the hostile wilderness; by the novel’s end Buck is leading a pack of wolves in the Yukon. At only one point in the story does Buck experience gentle treatment and that is when he is nursed back to health by John Thornton, but when Thornton is killed by hostile Indians, Buck is forever free of men and their civilization.
This story may be read on several levels. As an adventure tale it is a rollicking good yarn about life in Alaska. As a historical romance it can be read as a somewhat faithful depiction of the perils of seeking gold in the Yukon during the Klondike gold rush, in the 1890’s. Finally the novel can also be read as a philosophical work reflecting London’s interest in social Darwinism and notions of racial survival.
In spite of the obvious absurdities of Buck’s reflections on his Nietzschean racial fulfillment as a super being, the novel is surprisingly successful as a work of early twentieth century symbolism. Certainly London’s most famous, and perhaps best, work of fiction, it incorporates the graphic world of violent action which captures the vitality and metaphysical vision that he discovered in the “white silence” of the uncompromising environment of the North and which came to represent the indifferent triumph of the amoral universe over man’s fate.
Labor, Earle, and Jeanne Campell Reesman. Jack London. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1994. Analyzes the elements that went into the stories that London wrote. Recognizes London’s use of mood and atmosphere. Discusses The Call of the Wild chapter by chapter.
O’Conner, Richard. Jack London: A Biography. Boston: Little, Brown, 1964. Delves into London’s childhood and formative experiences. Chapter 7 covers the writing and success of The Call of the Wild.
Perry, John. Jack London: An American Myth. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1981. Discusses the validity of London’s works, including London’s misleading depiction of wolves. Covers the issue of the accusations of plagiarism that haunted London.
Roden, Donald. Jack London’s “The Call of the Wild” and “White Fang.” New York: Simon & Schuster, 1965. Begins with a brief overview of Jack London’s life. Then follows with an in-depth discussion of The Call of the Wild.
Walcutt, Charles Child. Jack London. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1966. Gives a well-rounded overview of the life and works of Jack London. Covers the effect of Darwinism and the other philosophies that London studied on his works. Discusses the use of the dog’s point of view in the story.
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1. How is Buck different at the end of the novel than he was at the beginning?
The short answer is that at the end of the novel Buck is a wild animal, whereas at the beginning he was a tame pet. But as a pet, Buck had considerable status on Judge Miller's ranch. He occupied a privileged position. The ranch was almost like a paradise for him, and he had the run of the entire estate. He was born there and he ruled over the other dogs. He is described as an aristocrat and compared to a country gentleman, so comfortable was his life. Even more than that, he was a "king over all creeping, crawling, flying things of Judge Miller's place, humans included" (chapter 1).
At the end of the novel, Buck is also a king of sorts. He runs at the head of the pack, and he has achieved a mythic status amongst the Indians. But the difference is that he has now earned his status. Before, at Judge Miller's ranch, he was born to the life he lived. It was an inherited position; he did not have to do anything to win it or to preserve it. But after he was tossed headlong into the harsh world of the north, where the "law of club and fang" prevailed, he had to fight to establish himself. First he had to learn how to survive, and then how to establish mastery. His battle with Spitz was a major turning point, since it established his right to be the lead-dog. Then, as the call of the wild grew stronger in him, he had to learn how to survive as a wild animal, hunting for his food and using all his strength and cunning. Finally, he had to make contact with the wolf pack and establish mastery over them, which he first did by killing one of the wolves, injuring others and then fighting off the entire pack until they acknowledged his status. By the end of the novel, Buck is a king, just as he was in his former life in California, but this time he has earned his crown. He is a king not by privilege but by right.
2. What is atavism, and why is the term relevant for the novel?
Atavism is defined in Webster's dictionary as "resemblance to a remote ancestor in some characteristic which nearer ancestors to not have." It also means to revert to a primitive type. Atavism is the key to Buck's transformation from pet to leader of the wolf pack.
Some of the things Buck learns when he goes north are by observation and experience, such as when he realizes he has to submit to the man with the red sweater because he is no match for a man with a club. Likewise, he learns some survival strategies by observation, such as when he discovers that Billee has dug a hole in the snow for warmth. But the more primitive, savage qualities Buck displays result from atavism. He could not learn all that he does if he did not have the qualities of his wild ancestors latent within him. These qualities are gradually called awake by circumstances and environment. This is such a key point that London emphasizes it again and again. Buck is able to tap into the collective memory and instincts of his ancestral breed. He does not have to learn everything for himself. He just activates the knowledge that is deep inside him. He first experiences this in chapter 3, when he runs at the head of the dog-pack that hunts the rabbit: "He was sounding the deeps of his nature, and of the parts of his nature that were deeper than he, going back into the womb of Time." In the deadly battle with Spitz, that comes shortly after, Buck finds himself on familiar ground. He does not have to learn how to fight. In the moments before the battle begins, to Buck "it is nothing new or strange, this scene of old time. It was as though it had always been, the wonted way of things." Again, in chapter 6, as Buck sits by John Thornton, he is connected to the past that stretches back far beyond his own individual life:
"He was older than the days he had seen and the breaths he had drawn. He linked the past with the present, and the eternity behind him throbbed through him in a mighty rhythm to which he swayed as the tides and seasons swayed."
Since the novel is also a human allegory, this suggests that for humans also, civilization is a veneer that hides the latent primitive qualities that may emerge when circumstances demand it.
3. Discuss the role played by Charles, Hal and Mercedes.
Charles, Hal and Mercedes are Americans who have recently traveled north in search of gold. They appear only in chapter 5, when they buy Buck and his mates at Skagway. The trio are introduced as a contrast to Buck's previous owners, Perrault and Francois, who were rugged, practical, hardened but fair men. In contrast, Charles, Hal and Mercedes are examples of people from the so-called civilized world who fail to adapt to the harsh realities of the north. When they try to get their trip underway, it turns out that they do not know what they are doing. Hal may have opinions about art and drama, but these do not help anyone when what is needed are a few sticks to make a fire. When the trio stupidly overload the sled because they want to take all the creature comforts they have been used to, the dogs are unable to move it. Hal does not understand the situation and thinks the dogs are lazy. He tries to whip them into action. Then the out-of-their-depth southerners make a crucial mistake by simply adding more dogs to pull, failing to realize that one sled cannot carry enough food for fourteen dogs. They have all their calculations neatly worked out on pencil and paper, but they lack the necessary experience to make it work in practice. When they make a complete mess of things, and the dogs starve, they are so busy quarreling amongst themselves and complaining about their own misery, that they are callous to the sufferings of the dogs.
London's story is historically accurate in this respect. During the gold rush of 1897, there was great cruelty to animals, both dogs and horses. A passage from a book by Arthur Treadwell Walden, who joined the gold rush in that year, can be applied to the characters Hal, Charles and Mercedes:
"The cruelty to animals was something terrible, and strange to say it was not practiced on by the so-called rougher element who knew something about handling animals. The worst men were those who in former life were supposed to be of the better class. These men lost their heads completely." (A Dog-Puncher on the Yukon, 1928, excerpted in Understanding The Call of the Wild: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents, edited by Claudia Durst Johnson, Greenwood Press, 2000, p. 204.)
In including these three pitiful characters in the story, London suggests that in some respects the civilized world, which appears to breed vanity and stupidity, is less to be respected than the primitive world. The fact that Mercedes is simply a nuisance throughout, behaving childishly when she is told she cannot take all her belongings with her, may be London's way of saying that women were not suited to travel in these regions, under these harsh conditions.
The dire end that Charles, Hal and Mercedes meet is a warning to others that the north is no place for the unprepared.
4. How does the novel deal with the theme of slavery and freedom?
The novel suggests that the values of Western civilization ensure that men are enslaved either by their own materialism, or because of their exploitation by others. It also suggests that freedom can be found by reverting to nature, in contrast to civilization.
In the beginning, the assistant gardener Manuel betrays Buck because he needs money to support his gambling habit. He is enslaved to the love of, and the need for, money. This in a sense can be seen as the primal "sin" that thrusts Buck out of his paradise on Judge Miller's ranch. And it is the lust for money that sends hordes of men to the Klondike seeking gold. In the very first paragraph of the novel, London suggests the absurdity of this quest for wealth which arose simply "because men had found a yellow metal."
As a result of the materialism of men, Buck spends much of his life in slavery. Although he develops as much independence as he can, his welfare depends entirely on the whims of his human masters. The symbols of his slavery are the harness and the traces that bind him to the sled. He can never be his own master as long as such conditions endure. A significant moment comes at the end of chapter 5, when Buck first encounters John Thornton. After Thornton beats Hal in a fight, he takes his knife and "with two strokes cut Buck's traces." (The traces are the straps that connect the harness to the sled.) This symbolizes Buck's transition to a new state of freedom. He stays with Thornton out of love, even though he is free to go. They are more like friends and equals than master and slave. Eventually, when Buck finally departs for the wild, it is an act of freedom on his part. When Thornton is dead, there is nothing to hold Buck back. He is free to act entirely according to his own nature.
London was a socialist who opposed private ownership of land and property. Perhaps part of his intention in writing the novel was to demonstrate that materialism, the desire for wealth, is incompatible with freedom. Western civilization, in this view, depends on one group, the strong, exploiting another group, the weak. Buck is only free when he steps back from civilization and becomes part of nature, in a community of wolves that moves together as a pack.
5. What did psychologist Carl Jung mean by the terms "persona," "shadow," and "self," and why are they relevant for The Call of the Wild?
In Jungian psychology, the persona is the face that people present to the world, the socially acceptable aspect of the personality. The term literally means "mask," which suggests that something quite different may lie behind it. This is the shadow, which is the more primitive, instinctual side of the psyche. Jung described it as "the uncivilized desires and emotions that are incompatible with social standards or our ideal personality, all that we are ashamed of, all that we do not want to know about ourselves" (Frieda Fordham, An Introduction to Jung's Psychology, Penguin, 1970, p. 50). The self is the sum of all the qualities of the psyche, working together in an integrated fashion. It can be thought of as psychic wholeness.
The Call of the Wild can be understood in these Jungian terms, if we remember that although Buck is a dog he has human qualities and can be allegorically understood as a human. At first, Buck is not psychically whole. He is not aware of it, but he is living out only the persona side of his psyche. He is a "good dog" who behaves in a way that a pet is supposed to behave. He fulfills the social role that is allotted to him. But when he is kidnapped, he enters a new realm of the psyche, the shadow. He behaves in a more instinctual, primitive and brutal fashion. This should not be understood in a negative fashion. Buck is simply accessing another, deeper aspect of his being, which is also part of the collective unconscious of his breed. As a "civilized" dog, he was only half-alive. He needed to get in touch with the other side of his being and to integrate it with his conscious persona. Had he failed to do this, he would not have survived in a world in which the "law of club and fang" ruled. In the Arctic, Buck's persona is expressed through his social role as leader of the dog-team, but this is a role that demands also the expression of the shadow. Finally, when Buck breaks free of all restraints on him, he becomes the embodiment of the self, the fully integrated psyche. Perfectly in tune with all the impulses of his own nature, he is free to be absolutely himself and nothing else, and this is why he is held in awe by the Indians and is the undisputed leader of the wolf pack.