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,...
(The entire section is 858 words.)