The Call of the Wild Themes
The main themes in The Call of the Wild are civilization vs. the wild and ancestral memory.
- Civilization vs. the wild: The novel explores the tension between civilization and the wild in Buck's gradual transformation from a domestic dog to an animal equipped to endure the harshest conditions.
- Ancestral memory: The novel suggests that Buck draws from his ancestral memory, reviving long-dormant but latent abilities that help him to survive.
Last Updated August 17, 2022.
Civilization vs. the Wild
The main conflict in The Call of the Wild is the struggle between civilization and the wild. The novel traces Buck's gradual transformation from a domesticated dog to a wild one.
Buck has to learn to adapt to an entirely new way of life and code of conduct in order to survive. He must give up his life of leisure and his trusting nature. He learns "the law of the club and fang," meaning that those who have the greatest physical strength are the rulers. The chain of command is comprised of men with clubs; the lead dogs, who have achieved mastery by wounding or killing dogs that challenge them; and the other dogs, who do most of the work.
Buck starts out on the bottom of this hierarchy, but soon adapts to his new life. He begins to steal food, losing his moral nature. Most of all, Buck is fit, and his superior strength, conditioned by his experiences, allows him to be more aggressive. He challenges the lead dog and wins the coveted top position. His survival instinct leads him to refuse to lead the team any farther when they travel on thin ice.
At this point in the narrative, Buck's consistent "development (or retrogression)," as London calls it, from civilization to the wild is halted. When Thornton becomes his master, he discovers a stronger bond—love—than any he has ever experienced. He risks his life for his master, in direct contradiction to the new ethos he has learned on the trail. With Thornton, Buck lives a domesticated life, but he continues to hear the "call of the wild." Although he is torn between the two, he remains with Thornton, unable to break the bond between them. When Thornton is killed, he is released, finally able to fulfill his true nature and join the wolf pack. Only then is his transformation from domesticated dog to wolflike wild one complete.
As Buck metamorphoses into a wild creature, he discovers within himself instincts that have been dormant for generations. In The Call of the Wild, London glorifies the almost metaphysical element of Buck's nature that allows him to survive in conditions that are completely foreign to him. He does more than learn to adapt, London argues, he draws on his ancestral memory to show him how to behave.
It is this metaphysical aspect of Buck's nature that has led critics to detect a supernaturalist or spiritualist slant to this novel. Even though Buck's experiences determine that he will become wild, leaving civilization behind, after he meets Thornton he is lured back into the domesticated life. Thornton will protect and feed him, treating him more like a beloved member of the family than a mere dog or work animal. Throughout his relationship with Thornton, it is his growing awareness of his ancestral memory that lures him into the wild. The "call of the wild," therefore, refers to the mystical natural forces at work within Buck, making the story more supernatural.
The Call of the Wild is a mythic romance, a beast fable, in which the transformation of Buck, the canine protagonist, offers readers a vicarious return to life lived immediately, a life which transcends civilized restraints and regulations. The book's central theme traces the development of a hero through rites of passage that lead to self-knowledge, and the story follows the archetypal pattern of departure, initiation, growth, and apotheosis. Buck's decivilization is a quest for the essence of life, a journey which begins in the sheltered world of Judge Miller's California ranch, proceeds through brutal...
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confrontations with the natural world of the Yukon, and then leaps beyond to the realm of myth where Buck glories in the unanalyzed "tidal wave of being" that paradoxically brings "the complete forgetfulness that one is alive."
The novella also expresses London's belief that environment and heredity largely control existence, for Buck's transformation is conditioned by experience, the brutal lessons that teach him the "law of club and fang," as well as the hereditary memories of "the eternity behind him," a precivilized time that "throbbed through him in a mighty rhythm." But despite the importance of environment and genetic memory, the key to Buck's greatness is his "imagination," an adaptability that enables him to survive and finally triumph.
The Call of the Wild displays the harshness of the unrelenting struggle for survival with naturalistic clarity, but the book also shows that it is possible for canine and human characters to attain dignity and even nobility in the face of a terrifyingly indifferent world. They salvage honor from the merciless equation of death, and through their actions point toward the potential for greatness at the heart of life. Although The Call of the Wild is based on many of the same deterministic assumptions as Frank Norris's McTeague (1899), London's novella is not a story of mean, petty greed, but a story in which suffering reveals physical and moral strength.