Jack London’s adventure stories made him one of the most popular writers of his day. In works such as The Call of the Wild, White Fang (1906), and Jerry of the Islands (1917) London makes animals into compelling leading characters, as engaging and sympathetic as any human protagonists. London’s animal stories do not anthropomorphize animals simply to play on the heartstrings of his audience. Some of his contemporaries criticized him for writing maudlin beast fables suitable only for children, but these critics misrepresented London’s books and misunderstood his literary aims. London resisted the sentimental beast fables of his day, which personified animals to manipulate the reader’s emotions. London’s stories, instead, reflect more substantial scientific and philosophical issues. His goal is not to make animals appear human, but to emphasize the hereditary connection that humans have with animals.
London was heavily influenced by the works of Charles Darwin (On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, 1859, and The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, 1871). In The Call of the Wild, Buck’s experience follows Darwinian principles. He is molded by the changes in his environment, thriving because he possesses the necessary genetic gifts of strength and intelligence to adapt to his mutable circumstances. He is an example of a popular understanding of Darwin’s theories: survival of the fittest. Although raised in the domestic ease of Judge Miller’s estate, Buck learns quickly what it takes to endure the brutal world of dog-sledding—the “law of club and fang.” When Buck first learns to steal food from one of his French Canadian masters, readers are told that this “theft marked Buck as fit to survive in the hostile Northland environment. It marked his adaptability, his capacity to adjust himself to changing conditions.” The Call of the Wild also reflects London’s admiration for the works of nineteenth century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. In the North, might makes right, and Buck proves to be the animal equivalent of Nietzsche’s superman, possessing physical and mental abilities superior to those of the other dogs.
Buck, however, does not experience only raw nature. With John Thornton he returns to a more civilized existence. London’s dog stories shuttle between the poles of the domesticated and the wild, of the civilized and the natural. The Call of the Wild begins in a domesticated environment and ends in the wild. (Conversely, White Fang begins in nature and ends in civilization.) Thornton’s compassionate influence helps temper the savage ferocity Buck develops to survive in a crueler world. The wild instinct still remains. Buck’s love for Thornton compels Buck to be obedient, loyal, and altruistic, but his wild half keeps calling to him. Buck’s romp in the woods with the wolf that seems like a brother to him anticipates his complete surrender to nature when Thornton dies. In the end, Buck obeys the call of the wild.
The Call of the Wild suggests that the reader draw a corollary between the divided nature of Buck and that of every human being. Inspired by Darwin, London believed in the evolutionary continuity between animals and human beings. If human beings evolved from animals, then what exists on a lower level in animals must hold true on a higher level for human beings. London does not give Buck human qualities but suggests that animals and humans share common traits and experiences because of their evolutionary connection. Buck’s vision of the short-legged, hairy man sleeping restlessly near the fire symbolizes the primitive beast lurking within all civilized beings. Being an animal, Buck can completely surrender to his primitive half. London seems to celebrate the primordial throughout the book, lauding the “surge of life” Buck experiences when he hunts down prey, the “ecstasy” of tasting living meat and warm blood. For human beings the rift between nature and civilization is much more complicated. People cannot and should not revert completely to their animalistic ancestry. In White Fang, for example, human beings dominated by their primitive halves are degenerates and criminals. London deals more directly with this human struggle in The Sea-Wolf (1904), suggesting that for humans a balance between the brutish and the civilized is best.
Readers can also see how The Call of the Wild reflects London’s socialism. No single philosophical system satisfied London, so he accepted bits and pieces of many different, even contradictory ideas. When the ideas of Darwin or Nietzsche fell short in his estimation, those of Karl Marx seemed attractive. From a Marxist perspective, Buck can be interpreted as a representative of the oppressed, subject to the whims of cruel masters and their corrupt use of power. Under these brutal conditions Buck must do what he has to do to survive. He becomes a brute and a thief himself, struggling individually to fend for himself. Thornton’s benevolent, more equitable treatment encourages socialistic values in Buck. He cooperates with the other dogs, becoming productive and working for the good of the group. Without Thornton’s guidance Buck once again is left with his instinct for survival. Under corrupt power the Darwinian and Nietzschean principles of “survival of the fittest” and “might makes right” apply. Under such conditions, the primitive brute, the evolutionary residue of millions of generations, takes control out of necessity. With a less oppressive system, cooperation can flourish; the civilized half is nurtured and is able to contain the brute. Whether read as a demonstration of Darwinian ideas, an homage to Marxist socialism, or an engaging adventure, The Call of the Wild is considered by many critics to be the best of London’s dog tales. The story of Buck is the most popular of London’s many books.
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Indispensable Struggle for Mastery
The Call of the Wild is a story of transformation in which the old Buck—the civilized, moral Buck—must adjust to the harsher realities of life in the frosty North, where survival is the only imperative. Kill or be killed is the only morality among the dogs of the Klondike, as Buck realizes from the moment he steps off the boat and watches the violent death of his friend Curly. The wilderness is a cruel, uncaring world, where only the strong prosper. It is, one might say, a perfect Darwinian world, and London’s depiction of it owes much to Charles Darwin, who proposed the theory of evolution to explain the development of life on Earth and envisioned a natural world defined by fierce competition for scarce resources. The term often used to describe Darwin’s theory, although he did not coin it, is “the survival of the fittest,” a phrase that describes Buck’s experience perfectly. In the old, warmer world, he might have sacrificed his life out of moral considerations; now, however, he abandons any such considerations in order to survive.
But London is not content to make the struggle for survival the central theme of his novel; instead, his protagonist struggles toward a higher end, namely mastery. We see this struggle particularly in Buck’s conflict with Spitz, in his determination to become the lead dog on Francois and Perrault’s team, and, at the end of the novel, in the way that he battles his way to the leadership of the wolf pack. Buck does not merely want to survive; he wants to dominate—as do his rivals, dogs like Spitz. In this quest for domination, which is celebrated by London’s narrative, we can observe the influence of Friedrich Nietzsche, a German philosopher of the late nineteenth century. Nietzsche’s worldview held that the world was composed of masters, those who possessed what he called “the will to power,” and slaves, those who did not possess this will. Nietzsche delighted in using animal metaphors, comparing masters to “birds of prey” and “blonde beasts” and comparing slaves to sheep and other herd animals. London’s Buck, with his indomitable strength and fierce desire for mastery, is a canine version of Nietzsche’s masterful men, his Napoleon Bonapartes and Julius Caesars. Buck is a savage creature, in a sense, and hardly a moral one, but London, like Nietzsche, expects us to applaud this ferocity. His novel suggests that there is no higher destiny for man or beast than to struggle, and win, in the battle for mastery.
The Power of Ancestral Memory and Primitive Instincts
When Buck enters the wild, he must learn countless lessons in order to survive, and he learns them well. But the novel suggests that his success in the frozen North is not merely a matter of learning the ways of the wild; rather, Buck gradually recovers primitive instincts and memories that his wild ancestors possessed, which have been buried as dogs have become civilized creatures. The technical term for what happens to Buck is atavism—the reappearance in a modern creature of traits that defined its remote forebears. London returns to this theme again and again, constantly reminding us that Buck is “retrogressing,” as the novel puts it, into a wilder way of life that all dogs once shared. “He was older than the days he had seen and the breaths he had drawn,” we are told. “He linked the past with the present, and the eternity behind him throbbed through him in a mighty rhythm to which he swayed as the tides and seasons swayed.” Buck even has occasional visions of this older world, when humans wore animal skins and lived in caves, and when wild dogs hunted their prey in the primeval forests. His connection to his ancestral identity is thus more than instinctual; it is mystical. The civilized world, which seems so strong, turns out to be nothing more than a thin veneer, which is quickly worn away to reveal the ancient instincts lying dormant underneath. Buck hears the call of the wild, and London implies that, in the right circumstances, we might hear it too.
The Laws of Civilization and of Wilderness
While the two lives that Buck leads stand in stark contrast to each other, this contrast does not go unchallenged throughout the novel. His life with Judge Miller is leisurely, calm, and unchallenging, while his transition to the wilderness shows him a life that is savage, frenetic, and demanding. While it would be tempting to assume that these two lives are polar opposites, events later in the novel show some ways in which both the wild and civilization have underlying social codes, hierarchies, and even laws. For example, the pack that Buck joins is not anarchic; the position of lead dog is coveted and given to the most powerful dog. The lead dog takes responsibility for group decisions and has a distinctive style of leadership; the main factor in the rivalry between Buck and Spitz is that Buck sides with the less popular, marginal dogs instead of the stronger ones. Buck, then, advocates the rights of a minority in the pack—a position that is strikingly similar to that of his original owner, the judge, who is the novel’s most prominent example of civilization.
The rules of the civilized and uncivilized worlds are, of course, extremely different—in the wild, many conflicts are resolved through bloody fights rather than through reasoned mediation. But the novel suggests that what is important in both worlds is to understand and abide by the rules which that world has set up, and it is only when those rules are broken that we see true savagery and disrespect for life. Mercedes, Hal, and Charles enter the wild with little understanding of the rules one must follow to become integrated and survive. Their inability to ration food correctly, their reliance upon their largely useless knife and gun, and their disregard for the dogs’ suffering all attest to laws of the wilderness that they misunderstand or choose to ignore. As a result, the wilderness institutes a natural consequence for their actions. Precisely because they do not heed the warnings that the wild provides via one of its residents, John Thornton, they force the team over unstable ice and fall through to their deaths. The novel seems to say that the wild does not allow chaos or wanton behavior but instead institutes a strict social and natural order different from, but not inferior to, that of the civilized world.
The Membership of the Individual in the Group
When Buck arrives in the wild, his primordial instincts do not awaken immediately, and he requires a great deal of external help before he is suited to life there. Help arrives in realizations about the very different rules that govern the world outside of civilization, but also in the support of the pack of which he becomes a part. Two dogs in particular, Dave and Sol-leks, after having established their seniority, instruct Buck in the intricacies of sled pulling. Furthermore, the group members take pride in their work, even though they are serving men. When they make trips in good time, they congratulate themselves—they all participate in a common enterprise.
More main ideas from The Call of the Wild