Illustration of Buck in the snow with mountains in the background

The Call of the Wild

by Jack London

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Places Discussed

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*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 White River. After John Thornton saves his life, Buck begins to heal in body and spirit as the spring thaw weakens the iron grasp of winter on the landscape. John Thornton, unable to accompany his partners earlier because of frostbitten feet, has also healed in this place, and he and Buck form a bond unlike any Buck has ever experienced. As the days lengthen and the air grows warmer, Buck begins to venture more often deep into the forest of spruce and birch, feeling more strongly the call to the life of his ancient ancestors, but always the love he bears Thornton calls him back to John’s campfire each evening. Later, John’s partners return for him and the prospectors continue their year-round search for gold along the Yukon River, ranging as far away as Circle, more than five hundred miles downstream. During these travels, Buck becomes ever more at home in the wild and remains attached to the world of man only because of his tie to Thornton.

Thornton’s valley camp

Thornton’s valley camp. Lodge in a mountain valley. In their endless search for gold, John and his partners sled up the Yukon River from Dawson. They continue along the Stewart River until it loses itself in the uncharted reaches of the Mackenzie Mountains. High along this backbone of the continent, they wander from valley to valley until in the spring they find a stream rich in gold deposits. Here they stay, working tirelessly, piling up sacks of gold beside the lodge. Buck is free to roam the wild country at will for days at a time, and deeply buried primordial instincts become ever stronger as he encounters free-ranging wolves. Finally, when he returns to camp and discovers John and his partners have been murdered by raiding Yeehats, Buck’s last bond with civilization is severed.

Buck kills two of the Indians as they flee the camp and shortly thereafter establishes his dominance over the wolf pack. Among the Yeehats, Buck becomes a legend, a Ghost Dog who runs at the head of the wolves through the high mountain valleys.

Historical Context

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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.

Social Darwinism
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 natural selection, they argued that life was a struggle for survival and that the "fittest" would come out on top. It was inevitable that only a few individuals would prosper; the rest would suffer in poverty. According to Social Darwinists, these conditions were not only inevitable, but a positive process of weeding out those who were unfit, or inferior.

This theory of social evolution seemed to complement the competitive strain of capitalism that was shaping America in the 1890s and 1900s. Wealth was concentrated in the hands of a very few, like Andrew Carnegie, whose book The Gospel of Wealth (1900) used Social Darwinist ideas to justify his position in society. The prevailing view was that by extending charity to the needy, one would not only prolong the survival of people who were not fit to live, but jeopardize the survival of society as a whole. Nonetheless, Carnegie felt he had a responsibility to use his millions to benefit others, so rather than simply give his money away, he set up trusts for the establishment of universities, art galleries, and public libraries.

For many Americans, among them Protestants and social Progressives, the philosophies of Spencer and Sumner were ruthlessly barbaric and amoral. They accused Social Darwinists of degeneracy and nihilism. Instead of merely accepting that those on the lowest rung of the ladder would simply be weeded out of society, they attempted to level the playing field for all Americans by enacting legislation and providing social services. They rejected the ideas of "rugged individualism" and "survival of the fittest" and promoted the idea of social cooperation.

Some, like the philosopher Lester Frank Ward, maintained that people possessed the capacity to change the world around them. Ward believed that a greater society would result from people's active protection of the weak, rather than the laissez-faire doctrine of letting competition take its course.

Arts in the 1900s
Greatly influenced by Social Darwinism, the growth of poverty in urban areas, and labor unrest, writers and artists of the 1900s perceived the world as bleak. These younger writers and artists wanted to remove literature and art from the drawing rooms of genteel society and depict life in the street, in the factory, and the deteriorating farm in all its gritty detail. These writers believed that a kind of natural selection was taking place in society, but they did not share Spencer's and Sumner's optimism about the outcome. Instead, they focused on how the individual (the primary subject of literature) was affected by the unrestrained capitalist forces that drove this new society.

Naturalist writers, such as Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris, Stephen Crane, and Jack London, created memorable characters who had to learn to survive in an uncaring and amoral society. The title character in Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie (1900) is lured to Chicago by dreams of big-city sophistication and material prosperity, only to find herself trapped in a low-paying, stifling factory job. She escapes by becoming the mistress of a well-off man, whose demise corresponds to Carrie's rise as an actress. While she adapts to the new economy, he is destroyed by it.

In the visual arts, a new group of artists—called the Ash Can School—depicted the realities of everyday urban existence. They rejected the credo of earlier artists, who believed that beauty was the only true subject of art. Centered in New York City, this movement eschewed traditional views of technique and training in favor of painting from the gut in an impressionistic style. Their art featured an abundance of brown and gray landscapes crowded with buildings and bridges. But often the work of Ash Can artists celebrated the life of immigrants and the urban working class, finding aesthetic value in these groups neglected by earlier artists.

Setting

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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.

Literary Style

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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
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.

Allegory
Many critics perceive that The Call of the Wild was more than the story of a dog. Many believe that it is an allegory about human society. An allegory tells two stories at once: the surface narrative, which in this case would be Buck's transformation; and the "real" story that is suggested by the literal narrative. As such, then, this novel also tells the story of the savagery of man, who is transported into a hostile world against his will, must confront his inability to determine his own fate, must learn to survive by any means necessary, and who must choose between the bond of love with other humans and his own desire to live outside of human connections.

Earle Labor deems The Call of the Wild a "beast fable," because it "provoke[s] our interest— unconsciously if not consciously—in the human situation, not in the plight of the lower animals." Charles N. Watson, Jr. provides another assessment of this aspect of the novel: "This is not a matter of observing, as some critics have done, that the dog story involves a human 'allegory,' a term implying that Buck is merely a human being disguised as a dog. Rather, the intuition at the heart of the novel is that the process of individuation in a dog, wolf, or a human child are not fundamentally different."

Naturalism
Although there has been much debate about how much The Call of the Wild conforms to naturalism, some of the novel's basic ideas are perfect illustrations of the theory. As an outgrowth of realism, naturalism dawned in the 1890s, when writers like Stephen Crane and Frank Norris produced fiction that examined life with scientific objectivity, concluding that biology and socioeconomic factors ruled behavior. While local color and sentimental fiction dominated the literary marketplace at that time, these writers promoted a literature that was "real" and "true" in its depiction of the underside of America's burgeoning cities. Influenced by Darwinist theories of biological determinism, they applied such ideas to society, where the struggle for existence was often brutal and dehumanizing.

Buck's fate is in the hands of men. He is unable to decide his own course of action. London underscores this when he writes that Buck found himself where he was "because men had found a yellow metal in the North, and because Manuel was a gardener's helper whose wages did not lap over the needs of his wife and divers small copies of himself." In other words, circumstances well beyond Buck's control are guiding his life. The Call of the Wild perfectly illustrates the doctrines of naturalism because Buck "is a product of biological, environmental, and hereditary forces."

Romanticism
Despite the naturalist elements of The Call of the Wild, some scholars also perceive romantic tendencies. Although romanticism as a movement peaked in the mid-nineteenth century in America, its central tenets have always been popular in American fiction. In this style, strict adherence to reality is not important. Rather, setting or characters take on mythic or symbolic proportions. As Buck begins to heed the "call of the wild" he hears through his ancestors, the story becomes less realistic and more mythic.

As Earle Labor and Jeanne Campbell Reesman have argued, the novel is a "mythic romance" because "the call to adventure, departure, initiation, the perilous journey to the mysterious life-center, transformation, and apotheosis: these are...all present in Buck's progress from the civilized world through the natural and beyond to the supernatural world." Although he starts out as a real character, Buck is transformed into the mythical "Ghost Dog" of Yeehat legend. Likewise, the setting of the Northland begins as a real region and ends up a dreamlike, mythical realm.

Literary Techniques

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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.

Literary Qualities

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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.

Social Concerns

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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.

Additional Commentary

To audiences who have been entertained by Rambo-style killings, the violence in The Call of the Wild will seem mild. Nevertheless, the ferocity of the dogs is described vividly and powerfully, as London shows "the law of club and fang" in brutal operation.

Because John Thornton is portrayed as such a kindly and fair man, his unexplained murder by the Yeehats comes as a shock. The murder, however, is part of London's social message—human beings, as well as animals, can be awfully savage. Buck's bloodthirsty revenge upon the Yeehats may strike some readers as extreme, but it should inspire discussion about the nature of justice and retribution, and about the values of civilization.

London's belief in environmental determinism permeates this story. While his Darwinian assumptions may not be shared by all readers, his dramatization of these concepts in The Call of the Wild should provoke thoughtful discussion about the extent to which environment determines character.

Compare and Contrast

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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 wildlife sanctuary. Alaska possesses the largest area of unspoiled wilderness in the United States and continues to try to balance its economic and environmental interests.

1900s: In 1901 Theodore Roosevelt became President of the United States. A member of the "Rough Riders," a volunteer cavalry regiment, Roosevelt was a war hero in the Spanish-American War in 1898. He was also an avid sportsman, hunter, and adventurer, and he embodied the robust manliness that set a new standard for American manhood.

Today: President William Jefferson Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives in 1998 for lying under oath about an affair he had with a White House intern. Many Americans believe Clinton's affairs and lying to cover them up are a disgrace to America's values and a sign of the deterioration of the presidency.

Literary Precedents

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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).

Media Adaptations

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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.

For Further Reference

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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.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
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.

Earl J. Wilcox, "Jack London's Naturalism: The Example of The Call of the Wild, " in Jack London Newsletter, Vol. 2, No. 3, September-December, 1969, pp. 91-101.

For Further Study
Raymond Benoit, "Jack London's The Call of the Wild,” in American Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 2, Summer, 1968, pp. 246-48.
Benoit contends that The Call of the Wild is part of the tradition of "pastoral protest" literature in America and that it embodies the "American dream of escaping from the entangling complexity of modern living."

Jacqueline Tavernier-Courbin, The Call of the Wild: A Naturalistic Romance, Twayne, 1994.
Offers a detailed analysis of the novel's competing ideologies.

Jacqueline Tavernier-Courbin, editor, Critical Essays on Jack London, G.K. Hall, 1983.
This collection contains important early assessments of London's works as well as contemporary critical essays.

Charles Child Walcutt, "Jack London: Blond Beasts and Superman," in American Literary Naturalism, A Divided Stream, University of Minnesota Press, 1956, p. 87-113.
In the chapter on London in his classic study of American naturalism, Walcutt discusses the nature of morality in The Call of the Wild.

Earl J. Wilcox, editor, The Call of the Wild by Jack London: A Casebook with Text, Background Sources, Reviews, Critical Essays, and Bibliography, Nelson Hall, 1980.
In addition to the text of the novel, this book contains reviews, helpful essays on the novel, the story "Batard," and nine letters by London pertaining to the novel.

Bibliography

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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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