The Call of the Wild Summary

The Call of the Wild summary

In The Call of the Wild, Buck becomes the best sled dog in Alaska during the Gold Rush. When Buck can't run anymore, Thornton saves him from being beaten to death. After Thornton is killed by natives, Buck answers the call of the wild and joins the wolves.

  • Originally from California, Buck is surreptitiously sold to traders, who in turn sell him to French Canadians searching for gold in Alaska.

  • Buck quickly becomes the best sled dog in the entire territory, but his masters overwork him and beat him half to death. He's saved by Thornton, whom he befriends.

  • Thornton and his other dogs are killed by natives. After finding Thornton's body, Buck joins a pack of wolves in the wild, returning once a year to the site of Thornton's death in order to mourn his fallen friend.


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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 kills him. After that, Buck refuses to be harnessed until he is given the lead position. He proves his worth by whipping the rebellious dogs into shape, and he becomes the best lead dog that the men have ever seen. The sled makes record runs, and Buck is soon famous.

When they reach Skaguay, the two French Canadians have official orders to turn the team over to a Scottish half-breed. The sled is heavier and the weather bad on the trip back to Dawson. At night, Buck lies by the fire and dreams of his wild ancestors. He seems to hear a faraway call like a wolf’s cry. After two days’ rest in Dawson, the team starts back over the long trail to Skaguay. The dogs are almost exhausted. Some die and have to be replaced. When the team arrives again in Skaguay, the dogs expect to rest, but three days later, they are sold to two men and a woman who know nothing about dogs or sledding conditions in the northern wilderness. Buck and the other dogs start out again, so weary that it is an effort to move. Again and again, the gallant dogs stumble and fall and lie still until the sting of a whip brings them to their feet for a few miles. At last, even Buck gives up. The sled stops at the cabin of John Thornton, and when the men and the woman are ready to leave, Buck refuses to get up. One of the men beats Buck with a club and would have killed him, but Thornton intervenes, knocking the man down and ordering him and his companions to leave. They leave Buck with Thornton.

As Thornton nurses Buck back to health, a feeling of love and respect grows between them. When Thornton’s partners return to the cabin, they understand this affection and do not attempt to use Buck for any of their heavy work. Twice, Buck saves Thornton’s life and is glad that he can repay his friend. In Dawson, Buck wins more than a thousand dollars for Thornton on a wager, when the dog breaks loose a sled carrying a thousand-pound load from the ice. With the money won on the wager, Thornton and his partners go on a gold-hunting expedition. They travel far into eastern Alaska, where they find a stream yellow with gold. In his primitive mind, Buck begins to see a hairy man who hunts with a club. He hears the howling of the wolves. Sometimes he wanders off for three or four days at a time, but he always goes back to Thornton. At one time, he makes friends with a wolf that seems like a brother to Buck.

Once Buck chases and kills a great bull moose. On his way back to the camp, he senses that something is wrong. He finds several dogs lying dead along the trail. When he reaches the camp, he sees Indians dancing around the bodies of the dogs and Thornton’s two partners. He follows Thornton’s trail to the river, where he finds the body of his friend full of arrows. Buck is filled with such a rage that he attacks the band of Indians, killing some and scattering the others.

His last tie with humanity broken, he joins his brothers in the wild wolf packs. The Indians think him a ghost dog, for they seldom see more than his shadow, so quickly does he move. Had the Indians watched carefully, however, they could see him closely. Once each year, Buck returns to the river where Thornton died. There the dog stands on the bank and howls, one long, piercing cry that is the tribute of a savage beast to his human friend.

The Call of the Wild Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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, such as wonderfully keen hearing. The ethnic note is also sounded. Where writers describing humans noted the part that racial qualities played in the individual personality, London sees the same type of qualities accounting for Buck’s growing superiority over the other dogs in the team: “His cunning was wolf cunning . . . his intelligence, shepherd intelligence and St. Bernard intelligence.”

The novel is more than a vigorous endorsement of such biological themes; it is also a Bildungsroman, that is, a novel concerned with the education of the protagonist to the ways of the world. Bought by Perrault, Buck’s main teachers are the seasoned sled dogs. He learns from them, for example, that he must not only “wolf” down his food ration to avoid having it stolen by other canines but must try to rob others’ portions to increase his prestige. Buck caps this stage of his education by killing the top dog and assuming his post.

These examples may suggest that a dog’s life is all violence and competition, but, in fact, primitivism has two faces. London’s unusual subject allows him to see virtues in a return to an aboriginal state that could not be found if humans were his subjects. To continue using Norris’s novel as a counterpoint, when McTeague becomes as wily as a hunted animal, there is little but degradation in his reversion to earlier animal patterns. When Buck recalls his ancestors’ activities, however, there is the feeling that he is returning to a truer world. Life is hard there but authentic. The pampered house dog could never experience the joy of the hunt. Buck is “ranging at the head of the pack . . . [in] an ecstasy that marks the summit of life.”

The shift in perspective allows London to stand the typical ending of the Darwinian novel on its head. In Zola’s Le Bête humaine (1890; The Human Beast, 1891), for example, the complete emergence of the protagonist’s hereditary tendency to alcoholism leads to villainous actions. In London’s novel, in sharp contrast, when Buck is at his most savage he is also most completely fulfilling his potential—utilizing his brain, muscles, and heart to the utmost.

After running a gamut of human masters, Buck is obtained by the kindly John Thornton, who allows him to wander in the woods, where he learns to hunt. One day Buck returns from an expedition to find Thornton killed by Indians; his last ties to humanity have been cut, so he gives in to the call of the wild. He ends the novel at the head of a wolf pack, a legend to the Indians.

Such an upbeat ending was out of keeping with the general tenor of fiction that dealt with such themes, but it was appropriate for a work that had shifted the terrain of such writing from human to canine society. The optimistic but logically consistent presentation of how the law of the jungle could turn the protagonist from a civilized pet into a legend of the wilderness won readers who could not stomach the representation of similar themes in a human milieu.

The Call of the Wild Overview

A gripping, fast-paced tale of adventure, The Call of the Wild focuses on Buck, a pampered sheepdog stolen from a California ranch and...

(The entire section is 133 words.)

The Call of the Wild Summary

Chapter 1: Into the Primitive
Buck is a dog living with Judge Miller at a sprawling ranch in Santa Clara Valley, California. He...

(The entire section is 1109 words.)