Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Yukon River basin
*Yukon River basin. Region of mountains, glaciers, forests, and rivers. This place was well known to Jack London, an eager participant in the Klondike gold rush of 1897. Buck, stolen from Judge Miller’s place in California, is taken north where he is pressed into service as a sled dog, repeatedly making the grueling round trip between Dyea, on the coast, and Dawson, the rough-hewn territorial capital more than four hundred miles inland. In winter, this trip encompasses 95 miles of ice-packed lakes and 350 miles of frozen river. The lakes (Marsh, Tagish, Bennett, and Laberge), the differing stretches of the river (Thirty Mile, Five Fingers, and Hootalinqua), and the intersections of other rivers (Big Salmon, Little Salmon, and Pelly) become the weary round in which Buck’s transformation to wildness evolves. He becomes increasingly aware of the world beyond the sphere of man. Buck senses in the cold and the silence of the vast wilderness surrounding him a primitive call to run free. Eventually the weary dog is sold to Charles, Mercedes, and Hal, hopelessly inept and ill-prepared prospectors. They mistreat their dogs, finally starving them and beating them unmercifully. Buck is saved from death at their hands by John Thornton, a prospector encamped for the winter where the White River flows into the Yukon.
Thornton’s river camp
Thornton’s river camp. Temporary winter camp at the mouth of the...
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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...
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The story begins in 1897, at the start of the Klondike gold rush. The discovery of gold in the Klondike—a region in northwestern Canada's Yukon Territory— prompted thousands of goldseekers to head for the far north, all of them desperately in need of dogs to pull sleds across the harsh arctic trails. Buck, a large dog who has enjoyed a leisurely life on a California ranch, is stolen and shipped to the Yukon. Buck learns to survive in this cruel environment; he begins to discover the primitive instincts of his ancestors, and in time he responds to the call of the wild.
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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.
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London, who claimed to have learned style from Herbert Spencer's "Philosophy of Style" and praised the plain style of Rudyard Kipling, always maintained that matter should take precedence over form. In his least successful works this desire to write novels of ideas results in fragmented narration and static prose, but in The Call of the Wild London tells his story through action and character, avoiding the impulse to preach.
London believed wholeheartedly in the dictates of realism, maintaining that "A thing must be true, or it is not beautiful"; yet the particular power of The Call of the Wild comes from London's careful progression from the prosaic to the visionary, a stylistic transformation that parallels his protagonist's. Buck's experiences in the Southland of Judge Miller's ranch are described in subdued, matter-of-fact language; his initiation to the merciless violence of the Yukon is portrayed through terse, active statements; and his transformation into the mythical Ghost Dog of the North is described in passages that have been called tone poems. Thus, in The Call of the Wild London's manner skillfully complements and completes the matter.
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The Call of the Wild exemplifies the features of a turn-of-the-century movement known as literary naturalism: the story is presented realistically and directly, and dramatizes the force of environment in shaping character. The Call of the Wild is widely acclaimed as London's best work of fiction. The author's firm control of the plot and focused point of view give the story its remarkable coherence. London's diction is unusually rich, full of complex and mellifluous words. His style is lean and vigorous, and grows increasingly resonant with mystical overtones near the end of the book.
An often-cited literary precedent to The Call of the Wild is Frank Norris's 1899 novel McTeague. Norris's work traces the downfall of a San Francisco dentist who inevitably destroys himself and those around him when his alcoholism and violent tendencies erupt. Like Norris, London explores the hidden character traits, triggered by interaction with one's environment, that determine an individual's fate.
Many readers have found allegories for human experience in Buck's struggles. Some see The Call of the Wild as a fable of sorts, for, like Aesop's fables, the novel tells the story of an animal who triumphs through strength and cunning. Other readers, like critic Earle Labor, describe Buck as a mythic hero who sets out on a perilous adventure, journeys to a mysterious, faraway place, and is thoroughly transformed.
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When Jack London and his brother-in-law headed for the Yukon in 1897, the news of the gold strike had only been known for eleven days. Like thousands of other adventurers, the pair responded immediately to the opportunity to relive the spirit of the frontier, to test their manhood against a hostile environment, and to win the prize of great wealth. Similarly, the atavism of The Call of the Wild answered the nation's desire for an escape from the growing complexity of the modern world.
London's own experience of poverty, grinding factory work, life on the road, and imprisonment had shown him that, for many, life was a brutal struggle for survival. A social Darwinist, influenced by the writings of Herbert Spencer, London was convinced that many of the beaten and degraded people that populated the lower strata of society were there because of hereditary and environmental circumstances effectively beyond their individual control; yet, The Call of the Wild also dramatizes London's belief that the same competitive pressures that brutally eradicate the weak and unlucky can develop the rare, special individual, the Nietzschean superman. Thus, The Call of the Wild encompasses London's contradictory attractions to strength and love, Nietzsche and Marx, individualism and cooperative action, materialism and romanticism.
To audiences who have been entertained by Rambo-style killings, the violence in The...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
1. Compare Buck's life on the ranch with his life in the wild and discuss which is better for him.
2. What qualities does Buck have that make him superior to the other dogs and which make him an effective leader?
3. What is the "law of club and fang?" How does it operate? Is it effective? Just?
4. Why are Hal, Charles, and Mercedes unable to survive on the trail?
5. Buck begins to dream of a ragged, hairy man crouching before a fire. Where do these dreams come from? What do they mean?
6. Trace the stages in Buck's retrogression, noting the chief factors responsible for his change.
7. How does Buck's attitude toward human beings progressively change as a result of his experiences?
8. Explain how Buck eventually becomes part of the Yeehat legend.
9. William Golding's novel The Lord of the Flies (1954) is another story about retrogression in the wild. Compare the two for their views of humans in nature and their themes of survival.
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Compare and 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.
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...
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Topics for Discussion
1. Compare Buck's life on the ranch with his life in the wild. Which is better for Buck? Why?
2. What qualities does Buck have that make him superior to the other dogs? What qualities make him an effective leader?
3. What is "the law of club and fang," and how does it operate?
4. Why are Hal, Charles, and Mercedes unable to survive on the trail? Explain several different causes for their failure.
5. Buck begins to dream of a ragged, hairy man crouching before a fire. Where do these dreams come from? What do they mean?
6. Trace the stages in Buck's retrogression, noting the chief factors responsible for his change.
7. Jack London uses such words as "primordial," "inexorable," "carnivorous," and "wraith" to describe Buck. What do these words mean, and how effectively do they characterize Buck?
8. How does Buck's attitude toward human beings progressively change as a result of his experiences?
9. Explain how Buck eventually becomes part of Yeehat legend.
10. What can you learn about the skill of dog-sledding from reading The Call of the Wild? What skills are necessary for survival on the trail?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. London's book White Fang tells the story of a wild dog who becomes tamed. Compare White Fang to The Call of the Wild. Which book do you prefer? Why?
2. Write a report on the Klondike gold rush of 1897. Explain how this gold rush differed from the California gold rush of 1849.
3. Robert Service was a very popular poet who wrote ballads about the Yukon at the same time Jack London was writing essays and fiction. Read some of Service's poems, and compare the attitudes of the two writers toward the arctic wilderness.
4. For centuries, Eskimos in Alaska and the Yukon have learned to adapt to their environment. How has their environment and their way of life been threatened by modern civilization? Consult magazines and newspapers for current articles.
5. William Golding's novel The Lord of the Flies (1954) is another story about retrogression in a wild environment. Read Golding's novel. Do you find it more pessimistic than The Call of the Wild, or more optimistic? Why?
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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.
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The philosophy behind The Call of the Wild was shaped by London's reading of Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, Karl Marx, Immanuel Kant, Benjamin Kidd, Friedrich Nietzsche, and others. Buck, the novella's canine protagonist, is both a product of natural selection and an example of Nietzsche's heroic morality.
But the archetypal nature of The Call of the Wild links it with the tradition of great American symbolists: Poe, Hawthorne, Melville. London's connection with Melville is most interesting, for both authors explore the limits of knowledge and utilize powerful animal symbols in hostile environments. Buck's response to the mystical call of the wild and his transformation into a mythical figure are reminiscent of Melville's symbolic use of the white whale in Moby Dick (1851).
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The Call of the Wild has been adapted to film several times. A 1923 version directed by Hal Roach starred Jack Mulhall. In 1935, William Wellman directed Clark Gable and Loretta Young in a Hollywood-style romance about a young widow and a Yukon prospector. A popular success, this version of the film took various liberties with London's plot. In 1972, Charlton Heston and Michele Mercier, directed by Ken Annakin, starred in a film that was more faithful to the original story; filmed in Finland, the movie features impressive scenery. In 1976, James Dickey wrote the script for a made-for-television adaptation of The Call of the Wild.
London intended his novel White Fang to serve as a sequel and "companion book" to The Call of the Wild. An optimistic book, it reverses the direction of Buck's development: White Fang is born in the wild and becomes domesticated. Some readers find it a more satisfying book than The Call of the Wild.
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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.
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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),...
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For Further Reference
Hamilton, David Mike. "Jack London." In Research Guide to Biography and Criticism, edited by Walton Beacham. Washington, DC: Beacham Publishing, 1985. Provides an overview of the major biographies and studies of Jack London.
Labor, Earle. Jack London. New York: Twayne, 1974. This introduction to the life and work of Jack London is probably the best place to begin. It is authoritative and clearly written.
London, Jack. Jack London: American Rebel. Edited by Philip S. Foner. New York: Citadel Press, 1947. This collection of London's autobiographical and social writings includes such articles as "How I Became a Socialist" and "What Life Means to Me."
London, Joan. Jack London and His Times: An Unconventional Biography. 1939. Reprint. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1968. This book by London's daughter focuses upon the development of Jack London's socialist perspective.
Walker, Franklin. Jack London and the Klondike. San Marino: Henry E. Huntington Library, 1966. This scholarly book examines Jack London's experience in the Klondike and its influence upon his writing.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
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 Cas-suto 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.
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
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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