Why The Call of the Wild is One of the Most Popular American Novels in the World
Jack London's The Call of the Wild, one of the most widely-read American novels in the world, seems a strange choice for this distinction. The setting is the wilderness of the Klondike region, the protagonist is a dog, and the theme of the novel is devolution of the protagonist. Yet these are the same elements that garnered fame for the novel when it was first published in 1903; and these same elements continue to attract readers almost a century later.
In the late 1800s the Klondike region was swept by a gold rush. Gold had been found in California in 1848, and later in British Columbia, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. Yet this rush was in Alaska, purchased from Russia thirty years earlier in 1867, and Canada's Yukon Territory, and rivaled all previous gold rushes. It had formidable challenges, though; not only the forbidding cold, but also the uncharted geography made it a treacherous choice for the unprepared prospector. Still, many answered the call of quick money, including the young Jack London.
Although London staked a claim which he later abandoned, he was awed by the natural beauty he found in the ice-locked rivers and snow-encrusted mountains, in the spring thaw and sudden summer blooms, in the abundance of animal life from King salmon in the streams, to caribou and bear on the plains, to sheep and goats in the highlands. Before a year was up, London returned to his California home with debilitating scurvy. Yet he had found gold: his visions of the Klondike, the tales from the sourdoughs or old-timers, and his own intense experiences gave him enough material to write brilliant stories including his most masterful of all, The Call of the Wild.
Most early readers of the novel were content to curl up in a warm corner and read about the inhospitable climate and terrain of America's last frontier. Today, although Alaska attracts tourists, its environment and weather conditions will never attract as many permanent residents as, for example, the Sun Belt states do. The exotic land skirting the Arctic Circle is still forbidding—and if the environmentalists maintain their influence in the region, its pristine and primitive beauty will be preserved for future generations and future readers.
A beautiful, dangerous setting alone does not guarantee a great novel. Character is often paramount. In The Call of the Wild, however, the main character is assumed to be enslaved by man and by its own instinct. Both of these considerations would make Buck, the Saint Bernard-Scotch shepherd mix, a poor candidate for a riveting, dynamic character. Yet, by following his instincts, Buck takes his readers to the deepest reaches of the mind; and the readers, following their instincts, immediately translate Buck's canine qualities into human ones. Buck, therefore, becomes a mythic hero, and here lies the real power of the novel.
In the first chapter, "Into the Primitive," Buck meets all the criteria necessary for becoming a mythic hero, according to Joseph Campbell's outline in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The hero must first answer "the call to adventure"— although Buck is kidnapped instead of called. But since a domesticated dog would rather die than desert his master, only a violent act could wrench the loyal Buck away from the Judge and his happy life in a California valley.
The next step, the "refusal of the call," is fruitless. Buck's attempt to escape from the rope around his neck only tightens the rope and makes him more enraged. Afterthis, "supernatural aid" is offered in the form of the saloon keeper removing the rope and checking in on Buck throughout the night. Although "supernatural" is stretching a point, the saloon keeper frees Buck from a dangerous device and allows the dog to suffer alone, foreshadowing the self-reliance he'll need in the hostile environment to come.
"Crossing of the first threshold" comes when Buck meets the man in the red sweater, the dog breaker, who teaches Buck to obey by beating him with a club. Some dogs...
(The entire section is 4,425 words.)