Illustration of Buck in the snow with mountains in the background

The Call of the Wild

by Jack London

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Characters Discussed

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Buck, the hero of the story, a dog that is part German Shepherd and part Saint Bernard. Buck is abducted from his home in San Francisco to serve as a sled dog. He is abused cruelly by his first masters, but he adjusts admirably to the elemental life of the Yukon. He has to fight several dogs to maintain his place in the pack, and he is called on to perform several extraordinary feats of endurance and courage. He serves his human masters faithfully, but when his final master dies, Buck answers the call of the wild, forsaking civilization and joining a wolf pack, returning to an instinctual mode of life that always has been an incipient factor in his strength and indomitability.


Spitz, the malevolent head of the pack. He attacks Buck repeatedly, sensing Buck’s fitness to supplant him as the dogs’ leader. Spitz is valued by his masters for his ferocity and intelligence, but the masters concede Buck’s superiority when Buck challenges Spitz to a fight to the death and wins.


Perault, Buck’s first Yukon master, a hard but fair man who acknowledges Buck’s supremacy among the dogs. Perault and Buck drive themselves equally hard, and Perault makes the dogs an extension of his own will.


Francois, Perault’s French-Canadian partner, who predicts that Buck will become a great sled dog, perhaps the finest in the Yukon. He treats Buck with enormous respect and knows how to get the best out of the dog.


Hal, Buck’s next master, a crude man who ignores the advice of experienced Yukon travelers, whipping his dogs into a state of exhaustion. As the dogs weaken, he shoots them. He nearly kills the prostrate Buck when he refuses to respond to the whip, and only the intervention of John Thornton saves the dog. The reckless Hal perishes when his overloaded sled breaks through thin ice.


Mercedes, Hal’s sister. She accompanies Hal and their brother Charles on the foolhardy Yukon trip. She takes too many unnecessary things that weigh down the sled, and she interferes with the dogs, feeding them too much. Her passiveness and insistence on her helplessness contribute to dooming the journey.


Charles, Mercedes and Hal’s brother. He constantly quarrels with Hal as the two men fritter away their food supply and cruelly drive the dogs even when it is apparent that the team is sapped of all energy and of any will to continue.

John Thornton

John Thornton, Buck’s last master and his benefactor. Of all Buck’s masters, Thornton most obviously recognizes Buck’s greatness. He develops an intimate love for the dog that makes Buck perform incredible feats, including breaking out a half-ton sled, frozen in its tracks, and pulling it one hundred yards. Buck repays his master’s pride and confidence in him not only through his prodigious work but also through a fierce watchfulness. Only when Thornton is overwhelmed and murdered by a band of Indians does Buck feel released to the wild.

Themes and Characters

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Because The Call of the Wild focuses upon Buck's experience, the human characters are of secondary importance. Buck is a magnificent dog, part shepherd and part St. Bernard. His superior strength enables him to adapt readily to the northern climate and the harsh demands of his labors. But he possesses one additional qualityimagination. Buck fights with his head as well as his brawn.

Adaptability is a dominant theme in The Call of the Wild. In order to survive in the Yukon, Buck must learn "the law of club and fang." Buck is first taught this law by the club-wielding sled drivers Francois and Perrault, who show him that the strongest individuals are the ones who rule. Buck also learns this primitive law from the other team dogs, such as Dave, Sol-leks, and the vicious team leader, Spitz. From them, Buck learns that he must either bite or be bitten, master or be mastered.

The theme of adaptability, or "survival of the fittest," is a popular Darwinian concept that appears in many of London's stories, applying to humans as well as to animals. In contrast to Francois and Perrault, who know how to survive in the harsh arctic environment, the incompetent miners Charles, Hal, and Mercedes are unable to adapt to their surroundings. The trio lacks discipline, skill, imagination, andself-controll. They attempt to use fourteen dogs instead of nine, not considering that their sled cannot carry food for so many dogs. They also insist upon unnecessary luxuries, which only serve to burden them further and lead to their inevitable doom.

The leaders lifted the yelp of the pack and sprang away into the woods. The wolves swung behind, yelping in chorus.
When John Thornton befriends Buck and saves his life, London introduces another theme that is popular in animal stories---the love and loyalty between human and beast. In The Call of the Wild, the bond between Buck and John Thornton is especially important, because their mutual survival depends upon it. When Thornton is murdered by the Yeehats, a group of Native Americans, Buck avenges the death by killing Thornton's murderers. In doing so, he discovers just how vulnerable humans are.

Buck's retrogression, which culminates in his transformation into the leader of a wolf-pack, is probably the most provocative theme of the book. It reflects London's belief that environment determines character. Away from the ease of civilized life, Buck must rely increasingly upon his survival instincts. Under the harsh conditions of trail life, he develops certain primal traits: he becomes more cunning, deliberate, and calculating. He learns how to kill mercilessly and to show no sign of weakness.

As Buck adapts to life in the wild, he begins to experience primordial visions, to imagine life in some earlier, more primitive age. He dreams of savage beasts and a hairy man crouching beside a fire. He hears the howl of the wolves and instinctively responds; he becomes increasingly restless and begins to wander into the forest. After the death of John Thornton, Buck answers The Call of the Wild and takes up the life of his ancestors.


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The protagonist of this beast fable is Buck, a sheepdog who is stolen from Judge Miller's California ranch to work in the Yukon. Because the novella is told from Buck's perspective, the reader vicariously experiences an atavistic return to his primitive heritage. Buck's inherent strength and courage are honed by the harsh necessities of the Yukon. From his fellow sled-dogs he learns to forget the moral restrictions which controlled his behavior in California and to fight for dominance. Learning to revel in the exhilaration of battle and the physical exertion of work prepare Buck for his apotheosis, his triumphant hearkening to the "call of the wild." Fully reintegrated into the primitive state, Buck is last pictured running at the head of a pack of wolves, "leaping gigantic above his fellows, his great throat a-bellow as he sings a song of the younger world."

The human characters primarily serve to exemplify the various environmental influences that shape Buck. Buck's first owner Judge Miller is kind but their relationship is a restrained friendship, completely unlike the passionate love Buck feels for his final owner John Thornton. Between Miller and Thornton, Buck passes through a series of masters who are harsh and even brutal, but in most cases their violence is portrayed as a necessary part of Buck's initiation into the realities of survival. The exception is the trio of incompetent and cruel miners from whom Buck is rescued by John Thornton, for Hal, Charles, and Mercedes represent the worst qualities of civilized humanity. With strength dissipated by comfort and judgment blinded by sentiment and pride, they destroy themselves and their dogs.

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