Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Buck is the undisputed leader of all the dogs on Judge Miller’s estate in California. A crossbreed of St. Bernard and Scottish shepherd, he inherited the size of the first and the intelligence of the latter. Buck cannot know that the lust for gold hit the human beings of the country and that dogs of his breed are much in demand as sled dogs in the frozen North. Consequently, he is not suspicious when a workman on the estate takes him for a walk one night. The man takes Buck to the railroad station, where the dog hears the exchange of money. Then a rope is placed around his neck. When he struggles to get loose, the rope draws so tight that it shuts off his breath, and he loses consciousness.
He recovers in a baggage car. When the train reaches Seattle, Washington, Buck tries to break out of his cage while he is being unloaded. A man in a red shirt hits him with a club until he is senseless. After that, Buck knows that he can never win a fight against a club. He retains that knowledge for future use.
Buck is put in a pen with other dogs of his type. Each day, some of the dogs go away with strange men who come with money. One day, Buck is sold. Two French Canadians buy him and some other dogs and take them on board a ship sailing for Alaska. The men are fair, though harsh, masters, and Buck respects them. Life on the ship is not particularly enjoyable, but it is a paradise compared to what awaits Buck when the ship reaches Alaska. There he finds men and dogs to be little more than savages, with no law but the law of force. The dogs fight like wolves, and when one is downed, the pack moves in for the kill. Buck watches one of his shipmates being torn to pieces after he loses a fight, and he never forgets the way one dog in particular, Spitz, watches sly-eyed as the loser is slashed to ribbons. Spitz is Buck’s enemy from that time on.
Buck and the other dogs are harnessed to sleds on which the two French Canadians carry mail to prospectors in remote regions. It is a new kind of life to Buck but not an unpleasant one. The men treat the dogs well, and Buck is intelligent enough to learn quickly those things that make him a good sled dog. He learns to dig under the snow for a warm place to sleep and to keep the traces clear and thus make pulling easier. When he is hungry, he steals food. The instincts of his ancestors come to life in him as the sled goes farther and farther north. In some vague manner, he senses the great cunning of the wolves who have been his ancestors in the wilderness.
Buck’s muscles grow firm and taut and his strength greater than ever. Yet his feet become sore, and he has to have moccasins. Occasionally, one of the dogs dies or is killed in a fight, and one female goes mad. The dogs no longer work as a team, and the two men are on guard constantly to prevent fights. One day Buck sees his chance; he attacks Spitz, the lead dog on the sled, and...
(The entire section is 1190 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
The Call of the Wild was London’s first success, and it represented an imaginative recasting of strands of thought from Darwinism and literary naturalism. The general concept of the book is a clever play on themes generated by attacks on the theory of evolution. Religious writers ridiculed the evolutionists’ idea that humans were the descendants of prehistoric apes and poured scorn on the concept that a being with a godlike soul shared traits with other members of the animal kingdom. Thinkers of this ilk lambasted writers such as Frank Norris, who in McTeague showed animal traits appearing in his characters when they were under stress.
London found a creative way to sidestep such objections, while maintaining central evolutionary tenets. Rather than showing a person descending to animalistic behavior, he describes a dog making such a descent. Certainly a dog is already an animal, but in The Call of the Wild, through a series of misadventures, a pampered domestic dog is transformed into an Arctic wolf.
A central motor of this transformation is the influence of the environment. The dog protagonist, Buck, has adapted to life as a doted-on member of the family, but his life is imperiled by the Alaskan gold rush. Sled dogs are at a premium, and dognappers are scouring the country for hardy brutes. Buck is stolen and sold north to a government courier, Perrault, and learns to adapt to the hard life of pulling a dogsled through the snowy wastes.
Buck’s adaptation is eased by the revival of ancestral traits. As London notes, “not only did he learn by experience, but instincts long dead became alive. . . . [h]e remembered back to . . . the time the wild-dogs ranged in packs through the primeval forest.” Such a note was often struck in Darwinian novels that described human behavior. In the already noted McTeague, the hero’s wife, Trina, becomes increasingly miserly as characteristics of her German peasant forebears come to life. More startlingly, the hero, McTeague, when pursued by the police, resurrects lost animal behaviors,...
(The entire section is 858 words.)