The Call of the Wild was originally published in 1903, when the Alaskan gold rush would have been fresh in readers’ minds. Based on Jack London’s direct experience in the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897, the novella was considered by critics to be vivid and powerful . It was serialized in The Saturday Evening Post and read by the public in installments. Now it is bonafide classic literature, considered by The Guardian to be one of the 100 best novels.
London’s experience in this “last great American gold rush” gave him the vantage-point to write of the “breathtaking beauty” and yet “heartbreaking difficulty” of the Klondike landscape ” (Dryer xvi). London left for Alaska just a week after news of the gold discovery hit the papers. As a gold miner, he had little luck, finding himself crowded out by other gold-seekers, and even developing scurvy for lack of fruits and vegetables.
With such a harrowing physical ordeal as grist for his literature, London established himself as a “man of action.” He was a forerunner to Hemingway, who channeled his harrowing WWI experience to create his own enduring works of literature, such as A Farewell to Arms. The Call of the Wild was hailed by critics as “the best thing the public has had so far from the pen of a young author” (Dyer xix). The struggling writer was about to ascend to the status of literary legend, and he could thank his unique experience in the frozen Northland for his inspiration.
The Setting and POV
The novel tells of this experience from the perspective (third-person limited) of a dog, Buck, a mixed St Bernard and Scottish Collie. In 1897, Buck is stolen from his owner, Judge Miller, by an unscrupulous gardener. Buck’s captivity and transport is brutal and harrowing. Shipping off from Seattle, where he is broken in by a cruel man with a club (whom Buck recognizes by his “red sweater”), Buck reaches the frozen Northland. Buck is then forced into the rough and freezing subarctic to work as a sled dog for mail courriers. It’s the toughest job a poor dog could have. But in the process, Buck himself becomes tough and connects with his wild ancestors.
The home which Buck left behind in California is described as idyllic:
“It stood back from the road, half hidden among the trees, through which glimpses could be caught of the wide cool veranda that ran around its four sides. The house was approached by gravelled driveways which wound about through wide-spreading lawns and under the interlacing boughs of tall poplars” (3).
Compared to this, Buck enters a punishing environment where temperatures are known to fall 50 below. Food portions are low and the rough ice takes a toll on his paws. Yet this hardship is what Buck needs (and by metaphor we need) in order to actualize his true self, buried beneath the “sated country gentleman.”
Gold prospectors head towards the Klondike region, 1897-1898
His new owners are Perrault and Francois, Canadian mail couriers entrusted to deliver mail for the Canadian government. Their task is delivering mail to gold prospectors along the Yukon river. Perrault is described as “swarthy”; whereas Francois is referred to with the anachronistic term “half-breed,” who is “twice as swarthy” as Perrault (10). In an adaptation of the novel by Longman Classics, Perrault and Francois are referred to as “dark-skinned” and “twice as dark-skinned” respectively. According to Daniel Dyer’s annotations of The Call of the Wild, Half-breed is a “derogatory term for someone of mixed parentage, usually American Indian and Caucasian” (86).
Expect some politically incorrect terminology in The Call of the Wild, above and beyond this particular term. As it turns out, gold miners in the 19th century did not share our sensitivities as readers in 2022. London merely recorded their slang and vernacular with fidelity.
Indeed, the novella would be considered racist by today’s standards, given instances of what would now be considered offensive terms. The book was sanitized for the Longman Classics edition, though the reader might wonder about the backgrounds of these particular men who are referred to merely as “dark-skinned.” Another character which appears later in the novel is referred to as a “Scotch half-breed.”
At any rate, Francois, though he is a “half-breed,” is portrayed sympathetically. The Canadian speaks broken English, with what seems to be a Caribbean accent, in a cleverly written dialogue by London which shows his dialect. He cheers Buck in his fight with Spitz:
“Gif it to heem, by Gar! Gif it to heem, the dirty t’eef!” (20).
(Dyer’s annotations explain that “by gar” is an “an Anglo-French corruption of “by god” (90)).
Perrault, meanwhile, speaks English with a French accent.
Otherwise Francois is not depicted with any type of negative racial stereotype. Francois even saves Buck’s life at one point, bringing an axe down on the head of a mad-dog, Dave, who had been ravenously pursuing Buck. That said, Francois is not an especially benevolent force in Buck’s life either. Rather, he looks on Buck as a mischievous and ambitious dog. A “red-eyed devil” is the term he repeatedly uses to refer to Buck, with a mix of respect and irritation. Francois does not hold the place in Buck’s imagination as other humans, such as Judge Miller, his original owner, or later, John Thornton.
Survival of the Fittest
There is a constant harkening back in The Call of the Wild to time immemorial, to a primitive mode of life. This resonates with us, the readers, who likewise might like to reconnect with our pre-civilization, pre-modern roots. Yet that also means a life without the niceties to which we’ve become accustomed.
Among the dogs it is a question of survival, survival of the fittest. It was now “the law of club and fang” (17) rather than any vain moral code Buck might have believed in back when he lived with Judge Miller. There is the ancient call and a wildness. But there is also a certain ethics. Stealing is ok, but the lead sled-dog Spritz’s tactics are so underhanded that they cross a line. It is to the point that they make him unworthy of leadership (which Buck will see to later).
By communing with nature, Buck gets in touch with his true self.
The touching scene when Dave is dying and insists on his old place in the sled-team shows a soulfulness that dogs do indeed possess. Humans around them are to some extent willing to grant them their dignity and individuality–up to a point. Yet Dave was ultimately shot to be put out of his misery. Sadly, the dogs hear the gunshot and know what it indicates.
The Dogs’ Psychological Sophistication
The dogs have a psychological sophistication which makes them as real and dynamic as any human character. This depth of psychology is plausible to anyone with experience with dogs. At one point, Pike the malingerer feigns injury (Some dogs were in fact known to hide at harnessing time in the Klondike Gold Rush. Can you blame them?). Another example of this psychological complexity is when Buck contemplates the concept of death. It seems plausible to extend a basic awareness of death to dogs.
The team of dogs’ delicate group dynamics is thrown off balance when Buck begins to subtly undermine the leader Spitz’s authority. This rivalry simmers until their fight unto the death:
“To Buck it was nothing new or strange, this scene of old time. It was as though it had always been, the wonted way of things” (28).
London uses characterization for the dogs as an author would for any other human character; such that we get a sense of each dog’s individual personality; their quirks and even their virtues, such as they are in the Darwinian conditions of the subarctic.
As there are little subterfuges and tricks amongst the dogs, there is also honor, as seen in the moving seen in which Dave is taken out of the pack pulling the sled. This is perhaps the most touching seen of the novel. It is a point of pride that Dave should continue doing his job on the team pulling the sled. Yet Dave’s broken and sick body will not allow him:
“Morning found him to weak to travel. At harness-up time he tried to crawl to his driver. By convulsive efforts he got on his feet, staggered, and fell. Then he wormed his way forward slowly toward where the harnesses were being put on his mates [...] His strength left him, and the last his mates saw of him he lay gasping in the snow and yearning toward them” (36).
Francouis and Perroult can appreciate the heroic efforts of Dave to maintain his spot; yet ultimately, when the dog can no longer go on, they have no qualms about putting him out of his misery.
Charles and Hal
Charles and Hal, who purchase Buck from Francois and Perroult, represent the worst aspects of civilization. They are certainly not equipped to survive in Alaska, nor have they the moral fiber such that they would even deserve to be successful. Their poetic justice arrives when they proceed against the wise counsel of John Thornton onto dangerously thin ice (“rotten ice” was the term to describe ice that became slushy and melting).
Buck even has a premonition that the team of dogs will succumb to thin ice and fall through: “He had a vague feeling of impending doom” (47). It isn’t so outlandish that a dog would have such intuition; intuition being such a mysterious phenomenon anyway. When the dogs and men disappear in the distance down a small hole, and when Hal, who had do notoriously abused his dogs including Buck, is gone, Buck can begin yet again with a more humane master.
After pulling the sled for 3,000 miles in the “Northland,” Buck receives a much needed break with his new human guardian, John Thornton. Buck now has a chance to recuperate and lick his wounds (one of his new companion dogs literally licks his wounds, playing the doctor as it were). He lets himself become a “civilized” dog again, though he still feels deeply the call of the wild.
The interaction between John Thornton and Buck is a touching literary example of the beautiful relationship between man and dog. Their bond is such that Buck risks his own life to tug John out of a river with dangerous currents, Hans and Pete having tied a rope to Buck’s neck and shoulders. Not only is Buck devoted to John, but their is a reciprocity in their spiritual friendship. By this point Buck had become jaded with regards to humans. He’s been beaten with a club and worked practically to death. From his idyllic domestic beginnings, he had seen a cruel life along the Yukon river in Alaska. Under John Thornton’s care, he reconnects to his heart. Thornton is a civilizing influence on him, what would be his last human relationship and connection:
“And often such was the communion in which they lived, the strength of Buck’s gaze would draw John Thornton’s head around, and he would return the gaze, without speech, his heart shining out of his eyes as Buck’s heart shone out.” (51)
The Mournful Howl
The dogs’ howl in Alaska, where they feel connected to their wolf forebears, is a motif in The Call of the Wild. Described as a “mournful howl,” this is the call of the wild. Perhaps it speaks to the pain inherent in existence. Later we hear wolves make this same mournful howl.
In a moving scene, Buck has an encounter with his “wild brother,” a wolf, and he feels a connection which echoes back in the millenia. After all his human connections have been severed, Buck engages in a fight to the death with several wolves. Once he has thus established himself, Buck joins their pack, and seems gratified to return to his roots.
A Return to Nature
This yearning for our roots is a metaphor for humans’ own need to do so; to be something other than we are as civilized modern man, living in a technological society. It is a call that many have heard, from Henry David Thoreau, to Chris McCandless. Indeed, many have made a connection between Buck and London himself, with similar geographical locations and reference points; which is another level of metaphor and representation in The Call of the Wild.
What is the message then of The Call of the Wild? By communing with nature, Buck gets in touch with his true self. Likewise humans should do so. And short of that, reading a novel gives us that escape from modern existence, to be transported to Alaska during the gold rush, as the next best thing.
Surely The Call of the Wild is meant as a metaphor for the human experience; the novel can be thought of as a poetic, extended metaphor. It has been described by critics as “lyrical.” That said, aside from theme and metaphor, it is also a book about dogs. The sensitivity of these creatures merits their own consideration in literature.
The Difficulty of the Prose
At the time of publication, The Call of the Wild was considered to be a children’s book. Nowadays, I dare say children would struggle to comprehend the 19th century prose. Looking at the genre of young adult literature today, which has frankly been dumbed-down to the lowest common denominator, The Call of the Wild might be more simply classified as a classic. Though it does meet some of the definition of young adult literature, or children’s literature, one imagines that at this point, given the level of literacy of the general public, The Call of the Wild is better suited only for readers at the highest lexile level (unless it is an adapted version, such as the Longman Classics version, which would be highly recommended for students as an entry point).
Criticism and Closing
Where The Call of the Wild fails is its tendency to repeat on the theme of Buck’s transformation to his roots as a wolf-like creature. Because this theme is repeated so often, particularly towards the end of the novel, it risks coming off as sentimental and even schmaltzy. Other episodes, such as the sled pulling contest in which Buck manages to haul 1,000 pounds 100 yards, seem over the top. That a dog would grow a legendary status seems unrealistic (do people often gossip about dogs?). In this regard, the narrative force loses some steam in the closing chapters.
Despite that, the novel does close on a rather exciting climactic episode when Buck returns to find his team of dogs and human owners massacred by an Indian tribe, the Yeehats (a fictitious tribe invented by London). Buck exacts fierce revenge on the warriors and then joins his own wolf-pack, growing a considerable reputation in the area amongst the Yeehats as a fierce and mysterious wolf, who sires his own lineage of half-wolves.
Dyer, Daniel. “Preface.” The Call of the Wild: Annotated and Illustrated. OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997.
London, Jack. The Call of the Wild: Annotated and Illustrated. OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997.
London, Jack. The Call of the Wild. Essex, England: Longman Group UK, 1991.
McCrum, Robert. “The 100 best novels: No 35 – The Call of the Wild by Jack London (1903).” The Guardian, 2014. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/may/19/100-best-novels-call-of-the-wild-jack-london