Illustration of Buck in the snow with mountains in the background

The Call of the Wild

by Jack London

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London and the Appeal of The Call of the Wild

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1432

In the Soviet Union, Jack London is regarded as one of the greatest of American writers, chiefly because of such sentiments as are found in now-obscure works of his such as "A Night with the Philomaths." There he has a firebrand orating about a revolution of the proletariat.

Twenty-five millions make rulers and ruling classes pause and consider. The cry of this army is: No quarter! We want all that you possess. We want in our hands the reins of power and the destiny of mankind....We are going to take your governments, your palaces, and all your purpled ease away from you, and in that day you shall work for your bread even as the peasant in the field or the starved and runty clerk in your metropolises You have failed in your management of society, and your management is to be taken away from you. This is the revolution, my masters. Stop it if you can.

However, the early poverty and struggle that drew London to Marx and to communist or socialist ideology as he read books in the Klondike winter, were followed by success and belief, according to Charles Child Walcutt, in himself as "an epitome of the Darwinian Struggle for Existence, his success an example of the [Herbert] Spencerian Survival of the Fittest." He had also read Nietzsche, and he came to people his prolific output of fiction with supermen, heroes who could succeed without, or in spite of, either communism or democracy, heroes that were not so much self-sacrificing socialists as rapacious capitalists of the spirit. They conquered by force of will and indomitable courage rather than by cleverness. In the great American tradition, they "hung in there," and when the going got tough, they got tougher. London liked to think of himself as one of these semi-divine heroes. A newspaper reporter once noticed that his Korean houseboy called London, "Mr. God." The reporter added, "Jack liked it."

In London's most popular novel, The Call of the Wild, the hero is a dog—the story is told entirely from the dog, Buck's, point of view—and even when ill treatment causes him to revert to the "dominant primordial beast" he is a symbol of what man can do to overcome obstacles and become the leader of his fellows. A mongrel, a cross between a German Shepherd and a St. Bernard, Buck is uprooted, stolen from his comfortable California home, and sold for work as a sled dog in the Gold Rush of 1897. Then he becomes the companion and eventually the savior of a young prospector. Finally he becomes the leader of a wild pack, and the book ends with these triumphant and famous words:

When the long winter nights come on and the wolves follow their meat into the lower valleys, he may be seen running at the head of the pack through the pale moonlight or glimmering borealis, leaping gigantic above his fellows, his great throat a-bellow as he sings a song of the younger world, which is the song of the pack.

In some sense Buck is a representation of the author as he would like to see himself. An illegitimate child of a spiritualist (who later married John London, not his father), London quit school at 14, worked in a cannery, became a pirate on the ship Razzle Dazzle in San Francisco Bay at 16 and a sailor to Siberia and Japan at 17, tramped around, and went to the Klondike in 1897. There he found more adventure, opportunity for the will to power, risk and challenge and self-fulfillment, freedom from civilization's restraints—the life suited to a man who once said, "Morality is only an evidence of low blood pressure."

London returned from the Klondike without gold, but with a rich vein of wilderness experiences which he industriously mined thereafter. The Call of the Wild is but one of his tales of heroism and violence in circumstances of danger. Where Bret Harte told the story of "A Yellow Dog" that became a snob in the gold fields, and Eric Knight was to sentimentalize canine faithfulness in Lassie Come-Home, London told the tale of a dog who went from snob to superdog. London's was a rousing tale that had a message as well as a love for mankind.

London, who always had more drive than deftness in writing, was extremely clever to focus on Buck rather than on the human world around him. Judge Miller, by whose Santa Clara, California, fireside the young Buck lay in innocence and peace before he was "dognapped," has more of a function than a character in the book. John Thornton, the strong, silent, noble type to whom Buck becomes attached in the Yukon, is a stereotype: we provide his qualities from other reading rather than discover them in the novel. "Black" Burton and other bad guys are also stock characters. So are the greenhorns and the French-Canadians and the other humans. The animals, however, are sufficiently humanized, and if they, too, are stereotypes we are more impressed with the personalities they are given than with their lack of depth. Pike (the thief), Dub (the clumsy one), Dave and Sol-leks (the sled dogs who are dedicated "professionals"), Curly (the amiable Newfoundland dog) who "made advances to a husky dog the size of a full-grown wolf" and was "ripped open from eye to jaw" in an instant—these animals each have their place in the story and can be said to be characters in the fiction in a sense in which the humans are not. Among the dogs are the "bully" personalities so beloved of the Teddy Roosevelt period of American history. Among them is clearly shown "the law of club and fang": "So that was the way. No fair play. Once down, that was the end of you." Among them, also, there are treachery and nobility, faithfulness unto death, and a conviction that moral nature is "a vain thing and a handicap in the ruthless struggle for existence." They learn that "kill or be killed, eat or be eaten, was the law." Towering above all is Buck. "When he was made, the mould was broke," says Pete. And in awkward dialect Hans affirms: "Py jingo! I t'ink so mineself."

That a good deal of the book is given to describing the feelings of the animals is an advantage in the light of London's clumsiness with cliche ("Every animal was motionless as though turned to stone") and dialogue ("Plumb tuckered out, that's what's the matter"). The action moves swiftly; we are seldom aware of the "stoppages" of the sleds or that characters are "lessoned," of the awkward prolepsis or the literary infelicities, as the melodramatic tale unfolds of how Buck "put his name many notches higher on the totem pole of Alaskan fame." We discover that sentiment can exist without a love story; Mercedes, the only woman in the book, is a shadow. Popular writers discover that a riveting story, as of the "kidnapped king" tried in the furnace and emerging pure gold (or "a yellow metal," as London would say), is enough.

Those who want more can see London as a racist, fascist, Social Darwinist; as a predecessor of Jack Kerouac and other "on the road" writers; as a tough-guy writer in the tradition developed by John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, and Norman Mailer, though perhaps best exemplified in Dashiell Hammett and other writers of crime fiction; as a writer about animals (such as Buck and the wolf-dog that seeks civilization in White Fang) foreshadowing George Orwell's Animal Farm in using them as metaphors of humanity; as a giant in his time—in 1913 the most popular and best-paid writer in the world—who was denigrated in later times as (to note Andrew Sinclair's argument) a path-finder in areas as different as the boxing novel and sociobiology of the school of Lorenz, Ardrey, and Desmond Morris.

In the biography Jack (1977), Sinclair makes a gallant effort to rescue London from too close identification with the message that "a man with a club was a law-giver, a master to be obeyed" and the view of "nature red in tooth and claw." Sinclair does much to bring him to serious consideration as much more than a once-popular author, an author of juvenile literature, the master of the dog story. Nonetheless, London's place in literary history depends now, and always will depend, on the appeal of The Call of the Wild.

Source: Leonard R. N. Ashley, "The Call of the Wild," in Reference Guide to American Literature, third edition, edited by Jim Kamp, St. James Press, 1994.

The Theme of the Double in The Call of the Wild

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1598

Dogs and men are fundamentally alike in the Klondike world of Jack London's The Call of the Wild: There was imperative need to be constantly alert; for these dogs and men were not town dogs and men. They were savages, all of them, who knew no law but the law of club and fang. Dogs and men answer the call of their savage natures and their terrifying environment in a violent, bloody, and continual struggle for survival. The primitive fears and desires which surface in Buck—the splendid animal on whom the story centers—also control his human masters. London describes the dog's development—his regression to instinct—in terms of human personality and action, so that by the end of the tale Buck emerges as a fully-realized character whose motivation can be thoroughly understood. The Call of the Wild remains, curiously, a dog story made humanly understandable: it is a story of the transformations that a dog undergoes in the development of a new identity.

London patterns the relationships between dogs and humans with special care, and they strike the reader with clarity and richness. In part this justifies one's discovery in the story of a controlling metaphor, a theme, usually applied to a peculiar facet of human character. The theme of the double in fact illuminates The Call of the Wild in several important ways, offering focus for revelations about Buck and his human masters alike. The double as theme, as idea, as complex symbology provides a radiant metaphorical center for the whole landscape of Buck's tale. It encompasses character—the presentations of Buck, men and other dogs, and their necessary relations—but it also touches the action, the points-of-view involved in the telling of the story, and its atmosphere and setting in significant ways. Doubles and doubling themselves become controlling, almost obsessive preoccupations in London's narrative. Accordingly, a consideration of the double can help to account for the fascination the book has had for readers in the seventy-odd years since its publication in July, 1903. It can also suggest ways in which the book, surely one of London's best, is worthy of continued serious critical attention.

If the theme of the double usually depicts men as deeply divided within themselves, at war with their own natures and with their surroundings, then its first manifestation in The Call of the Wild is in the opposing values, the polar attractions, of civilized and uncivilized worlds at work on the consciousness of a dog. The story develops through the impact of Buck's new Klondike environment upon his habits and expectations, conditioned as they are by his four-year sojourn in the civilized Santa Clara Valley of California. The logic of Buck's experience is to drive him increasingly, dramatically into the wild, so that even the interruption of this process by the civilizing love of John Thornton is not enough to return him to men and civilization.

London called the process the devolution or decivilization of a dog. Buck's first theft of food from the government courier, Perrault, early in the book, marks the decay or going to pieces of his moral nature, a vain thing and a handicap in the ruthless struggle for existence. Stealing food helps Buck stay alive, and the narrator remarks that the completeness of his decivilization was now evidenced by his ability to flee from the defence of a moral consideration and so save his hide. The remainder of the story parallels the outer conflict between Buck and his new Klondike environment, with the inner conflict between the savage character of his buried nature and the patterns of conduct imposed on that nature by civilized society. Like the chief character in O'Neill's Emperor Jones, Buck faces experiences that force instincts long-dead [to become] alive again. The domesticated generations fell from him.

London dramatizes this split between civilization and savagery in several interesting ways, each involving a kind of double in turn. Though he once commented that God abhors a mongrel, he carefully states that Buck is of mixed breed—half St. Bernard and half Scotch shepherd. This racial split in Buck's physical nature shrewdly underscores the inner conflict between civilized values and their opposites.

More important in defining the antithetical parts of Buck's nature is London's constant use of images of war throughout the book. Civilization and savagery fight a war inside Buck; much of Chapter Three chronicles the secret growth of the dominant primordial beast within him. Marks of war are everywhere in the plot of The Call of the Wild: in the huskies' savage killing of the Newfoundland, Curly; in the fight of Buck's team with a pack of starving huskies; in the constant fighting among the dogs on the team; in the murder of John Thornton and his partner by marauding Yeehat Indians; in Buck's battle with the wolf pack at the end of the book. Buck fights a literal war with his rival Spitz, first as a rebellious underling deposing the leader of the dog team, and later in a significant affirmation of his savage inheritance:

In a flash Buck knew it. The time had come. It was to the death. As they circled about, snarling, ears laid back, keenly watchful for the advantage, the scene came to Buck with a sense of familiarity. He seemed to remember it all, the white woods, and earth, and moonlight, and the thrill of battle. Over the whiteness and silence brooded a ghostly calm. To Buck it was nothing new or strange, this scene of old time. It was as though it had always been, the wonted way of things.

The war between Buck and Spitz provides London with one of his clearest metaphors for Darwinian struggle and survival. The taste of Spitz's blood remains with Buck, drawn back and waiting for the other dogs to finish off the wounded rival: Buck stood and looked on, the successful champion, the dominant primordial beast who had made his kill and found it good.

Francois, the team driver, notices the change in Buck the next day in a significant phrase: "Eh? Wot I say? I spik true w'en I say day Buck two devils!" As if in confirmation of that statement, London further dramatizes the theme of the double in an explicit set of controlling oppositions. Each of these projects Buck's inner and outer conflicts in things of opposite value. The original opposition between civilization and the wild encompasses all the others. The civilized world of the Southland, described continually in the book as warm, soft and easy, is opposed to the wild Northland, a terrifying arena of cold, hard brutality and sudden, violent death which yet—in London's most intriguing paradox—is finally seen as life-giving for the transformed Buck. The human world of ethical impulse and civilizing sanctions against violence is placed against the savage world of animals and savage men. More civilized dogs like Newfoundlands and even huskies find primitive counterparts in the wolves whose howl at the end of the story is the very sound of the wild.

Less obviously, London doubles the story into opposing worlds. Buck begins in the waking world of reality and ends in a silent, white wasteland which is also the world of dream, shadow, and racial memory. Buck survives to embrace life at the end of a book, informed by death as the horrifying, rhythmic reflex of an entire order of things. Life in The Call of the Wild is a survival built on the death of other living creatures.

Between these opposing worlds and these opposing values Buck hovers continually in the action of the tale. Even the call of the wild itself, to which Buck responds with growing intensity throughout, receives double focus, twin definition: it is both lure and trap. In the second chapter, when Buck learns The Law of Club and Fang, he builds his first warm sleeping nest in the snow, to discover the next morning:

It had snowed during the night and he was completely buried. The snow walls pressed him on every side, and a great surge of fear swept through him—the fear of the wild thing for the trap. It was a token that he was harking back through his own life to the lives of his forbears; for he was a civilized dog, an unduly civilized dog, and of his own experience knew no trap and so could not of himself fear it. The muscles of his whole body contracted spasmodically and instinctively, the hair on his neck and shoulders stood on end, and with a ferocious snarl he bounded straight up into the blinding day, the snow flying about him in a flashing cloud.

The alluring world of snow and silence remains no less a tomb at the end of the book; though Buck is able to respond to it and still survive, John Thornton cannot.

It is impossible to view such doubled worlds and values, such connected oppositions, for very long without returning to London's pairing of dogs and humans with a renewed sense of its interest and complexity. Both Maxwell Geismar and Charles Child Walcutt have pointed to London's skill in keeping the story within an animal point-of-view while retaining for balance and proportion a wise degree of human perspective. In fact, The Call of the Wild does retain a double point-of-view throughout, and London's cunning alternation of dog and human perspectives becomes the essential mark of his craft in the story.

Source: John S. Mann, "The Theme of the Double in The Call of the Wild," in Markham Review, Vol. 8, Fall, 1978, pp. 1-5.


Critical Overview