Character Analysis in The Call of the Wild
Buck: Buck, the novel’s protagonist, is a large half-sheepdog, half–St. Bernard. At the beginning of the novel, he lives a comfortable life in California as a pet; by the end, he is head of a Yukon wolfpack. Buck is primarily defined by his natural aptitude for survival and mastery over others; however, he must unlock his inner abilities in stages rather than all at once. In order to become his best, he first must have his carefree life ripped away from him, and then he must learn how to survival and become the strongest. Throughout the novel Buck proves himself to be the strongest of all predators in the Yukon, gradually shedding layers of civilization until prompted, in an act of vengeance, to kill humans, which is a far cry from the lounging Buck we encounter at the beginning of the novel. His struggle to the top of the food chain—above even humanity—is Buck’s driving motivation. He achieves this through both strength and cunning. Though readers will admire Buck’s strength, his loyalty is another defining trait; though Buck’s beloved final master, John Thorton, is murdered, Buck still returns to his gravesite each year.
Character Analysis Examples in The Call of the Wild:
"His eyes turned blood-shot, and he was metamorphosed into a raging fiend..." See in text (Chapter I)
Notice how quickly Buck transformed (“metamorphosed”) from a noble house dog to a “raging fiend.”
"He was glad for one thing: the rope was off his neck. That had given them an unfair advantage; but now that it was off, he would show them. They would never get another rope around his neck...." See in text (Chapter I)
At least for now, Buck remains hopeful about restoring a fair playing field. Notice already that several characters have been affected by fair/unfair odds: Buck, Manuel the gardener who gambles, and the abductor who gets less pay than he thinks he deserves.
"There he lay for the remainder of the weary night, nursing his wrath and wounded pride...." See in text (Chapter I)
Notice that Buck can sense injustice before he can understand it. His upbringing allows him to know he is being treated badly, but the same upbringing (as well as being a dog who is unaware of the wider historical events around him) prevents him from understanding what these developments mean.
"There could not but be other dogs on so vast a place, but they did not count. They came and went, resided in the populous kennels, or lived obscurely in the recesses of the house after the fashion of Toots, the Japanese pug, or Ysabel, the Mexican hairless—strange creatures that rarely put nose out of doors or set foot to ground...." See in text (Chapter I)
In this passage, London’s political themes are beginning to emerge. Distinctions between the strong and the weak (drawn partly from Friedrich Nietzsche) combine with a sense of social power to produce a kind of thinking called Social Darwinism, which actually distorts principles of Charles Darwin despite its name. Social Darwinism is a set of ideas used to justify individual and even societal or national winners and losers on the basis of “natural” or “inherent” qualities. It involves taking a phrase such as Herbert Spencer’s “survival of the fittest” out of context to argue that anyone who does not succeed is not fit to succeed. The following few paragraphs continue developing Buck’s internalized sense of superiority.
"Not that Buck reasoned it out...." See in text (Chapter II)
London brings attention to the way Buck has no room to contemplate the state of his character in his new environment; he simply does or does not do something. He has become a creature governed by instinct that follows momentary urges. This passage juxtaposes Buck’s character before and after his journey to the Northland.
"pieces of his moral nature, a vain thing and a handicap in the ruthless struggle for existence..." See in text (Chapter II)
London may be suggesting that in order to survive in a more primitive and harsh environment, Buck must surrender his morals and give into his primal instincts. Buck adapts quickly, and survives because of it, and London draws attention to the fact that under the guise of civilization, there lies something more savage in all animals (including humans,) ready to answer the call of the wild.
"It was a token that he was harking back through his own life to the lives of his forebears; for he was a civilized dog, an unduly civilized dog, and of his own experience knew no trap and so could not of himself fear it...." See in text (Chapter II)
Notice that Buck has not known this instinct until this moment, but it manifests as a fear that has been passed down from his wild forebears. This passage contributes to the presence of atavism in the novel, or the recovery by an animal of behaviors that belonged to its ancestors.
"No fair play...." See in text (Chapter II)
The term “fair play” refers to a respect for rules and equal treatment of all concerned. Notice that Buck makes the observation that fairness and equality are not present in his savage new world. When Curly goes down, she’s not allowed to get back up and is ripped to pieces by the other dogs, completely shredding the idea of a fair fight. Curly’s death is an important moment for Buck because he witnesses exactly what could become of him if he doesn’t learn to adapt to his surroundings.
" They were savages, all of them, who knew no law but the law of club and fang...." See in text (Chapter II)
Notice that this passage marks the final destination of Buck’s journey North and the environment he will now have to adapt to. He’s made it to Alaska, and from this point on, he belongs to a world where the law of club and fang introduced to him in Seattle will become the new standard. Here he observes that the men and dogs bear no resemblance to his past life of ease in California.
"Buck stood and looked on, the successful champion, the dominant primordial beast who had made his kill and found it good...." See in text (Chapter III)
Notice how this line echoes the first line of the chapter and marks a turning point for Buck. Before confronting Spitz, Buck was ultimately subservient to Spitz’s rank as leader. Following the battle with Spitz, he climbs to the head of all the dogs. Unlike Curly’s death, which was traumatic for Buck, this kill represents an achievement representing Buck’s mastery over the others and his aptitude for leadership. Violence has shifted from something unknown and harmful to necessary for Buck’s return to his ancestral roots.
"It was as though it had always been, the wonted way of things...." See in text (Chapter III)
To younger Buck, this situation would have been unthinkable. To new Buck, who has experienced the law of the wilderness and the struggle to survive, it’s much more recognizable. In the grand scheme of dogs and their wolf ancestors, this scene has gone on—and will be repeated—throughout history. The adjective “wonted,” meaning “habitual,” suggests that this is the default manner in which wild dogs live, a way of life which Buck now understands well.
"And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive...." See in text (Chapter III)
When leading the pack in chasing the rabbit, Buck reaches the height of his animal purpose. London suggests that reaching one’s purpose is a kind of paradox. A paradox is a statement that may seem to be contradictory; Buck is most alive when he doesn’t even realize he exists. Buck is instead driven by the need for success in some form, no matter the cost. This success is achieved instinctively, as though it is the only purpose for which its pursuer exists.
"And that he should be stirred by it marked the completeness with which he harked back through the ages of fire and roof to the raw beginnings of life in the howling ages...." See in text (Chapter III)
In this passage Buck joins in on a group howl, moved by emotion not only for the living dogs’ difficulties but also for his ancestors’. Notice the contrast between the civilized world—”the ages of roof and fire”—to the wild community. Though roofs and other human advancements bring comfort and ease, reliance on them cuts Buck off from other animals; now he has a connection with his ancestral roots through similar experiences. Though he does not fully understand why the song affects him so deeply, he is beginning to hear the titular call of the wild.
"nothing less than primitive..." See in text (Chapter III)
Though the word “primitive” can have a negative connotation, in this passage it is clear that it it something to strive for—a state that makes power more attainable. Notice also that Buck’s desire for mastery is not driven solely by instinct but also by deviousness. Violence—the mention of Buck’s beatings by club—is not inherently evil, as it has allowed Buck to become a more capable leader.
"His had softened during the many generations since the day his last wild ancestor was tamed by a cave-dweller or river man...." See in text (Chapter III)
Though Buck is a capable sled dog, limitations stemming from his recent ancestors’ tameness prevent him from immediately being the strongest dog among the more wilderness-ready huskies. Because Buck has to overcome challenges like these, his mental and physical endurance are both tested. Notice also how human companionship and civilized lifestyle is responsible for Buck’s shortcomings in the wild—in order to become the pack’s leader, he must give up the comforts he once knew.
"The warm taste of it in his mouth goaded him to greater fierceness...." See in text (Chapter III)
Notice that the taste of blood—a wild, destructive image—removes some of Buck’s agency, and he becomes even more aggressive. It is not necessarily Buck’s conscious choice to strike more fiercely as he sheds more layers of his civilized upbringing when exposed to the ways of his untamed ancestors.
"The beast in him roared..." See in text (Chapter III)
If it’s Buck’s conscious choice to attack Spitz, this is not entirely clear. At least some of the responsibility for the attack belongs to the “beast” inside Buck, referencing his hereditarily wolfish nature, which has not left him despite his civilized upbringing and is being strengthened by the wilderness. It suggests that, even without the harsh environment, there would still be an instinctive, violent part of Buck able to overtake rationality.
"For the pride of trace and trail was his, and, sick unto death, he could not bear that another dog should do his work..." See in text (Chapter IV)
Though Dave has never been the strongest of the pack, he has the same prideful, hardworking ambition as the rest of them and does not want to be left behind or pampered. His devotion to his work mirrors Buck’s: Dave would rather die than be removed from the team.
"the instincts (which were but the memories of his ancestors become habits) which had lapsed in later days, and still later, in him, quickened and become alive again...." See in text (Chapter IV)
Though Buck has only recently begun to experience situations similar to those of his ancestors, such instincts have been within him all along. They were unused at Judge Miller’s house, but they never disappeared. That they come to life inside Buck so quickly suggests that his current state—fighting for survival in the harsh wilderness—is the one for which he is most suited. Notice also that Buck’s ancestral memories create a sense of familiarity in him for conditions that he had not previously experienced.
"The Sunland was very dim and distant, and such memories had no power over him...." See in text (Chapter IV)
Notice that although Buck remembers the easy comforts of his civilized life as a pet, he does not dwell on those memories for long. The memories are like the sun that warmed them: in the cold, snowy Yukon, the sun is distant and without much measurable influence on the climate—or on Buck. Likewise, the memories Buck considers more influential are those that are furthest from the comforts of human invention and violent in nature, just like the Yukon wilderness itself.
"he showed himself the superior even of Spitz,..." See in text (Chapter IV)
Though Spitz had more sled-dog experience than Buck, Buck proves that he is Spitz’s superior and justifiably deserves the lead position. His natural abilities to analyze situations and react instinctively to them are better than any dog Francois—an experienced traveler—has ever seen. Again, Buck’s natural aptitude toward leadership proves that he was born to lead.
"It was his by right. He had earned it, and he would not be content with less...." See in text (Chapter IV)
Though Buck has asserted himself among his fellow dogs, he doesn’t have automatic authority over his human masters, who still ultimately decide the fate of the team. Thus, Buck is required to “revolt” against his owners, disobeying them until they grant him the lead position. Again we see Buck’s natural inclination toward leadership and striving toward the best he can achieve—and refusing to be content with anything less than what he’s earned.
"“You poor devil,” said John Thornton, and Buck licked his hand...." See in text (Chapter V)
Notice how very soon after meeting Thorton, Buck performs his first affectionate and pet-like action in a long time. This is the beginning of Buck and Thorton’s companionship, and it already appears as though it will be the best human relationship Buck will have.
"It was idle, he knew, to get between a fool and his folly; while two or three fools more or less would not alter the scheme of things...." See in text (Chapter V)
Thorton shows his wisdom here by knowing when a situation is not worth further effort. The saying he cites—it was idle to get between a fool and his folly—justifies his avoidance of interfering with Hal, Charles, and Mercedes’s disastrous choice to cross the frozen-over river. A lesser-known definition of the adjective “idle” is “pointless or without effect,” and the noun “folly” means “foolishness” or “an act lacking common sense.” Thorton knows that the prospectors will not take his advice despite his experience with the area; he humorously continues that their being three fools instead of one does not change their fate. Instead, he leaves them for the wilderness to deal with according to its laws.
"It was heartbreaking, only Buck's heart was unbreakable...." See in text (Chapter V)
Though the conditions would be traumatic to a lesser being, Buck shows himself to be hardier than everyone else—man or dog—on the expedition. This speaks to the idea that Buck is the most naturally gifted of all the dogs, which allows him to be the leader and the only surviving member of the expedition.
"They did not know how to do anything, and as the days went by it became apparent that they could not learn...." See in text (Chapter V)
What dooms Hal, Charles, and Mercedes is not entirely that they are unprepared; it is that they cannot even recognize that they are ill-equipped and think of a different way to approach their problems. Compare this inability to adapt to Buck, who has been able to handle—and even thrive—in every changing situation he finds himself in, despite various challenges.
"repugnance..." See in text (Chapter V)
The noun “repugnance” means “an intense disgust.” Though Mercedes’s care for the dogs may make her seem sympathetic, she does not understand the laws of the wilderness, which say that pain and violence are sometimes necessary for survival.
"The tent was rolled into an awkward bundle three times as large as it should have been. The tin dishes were packed away unwashed...." See in text (Chapter V)
Notice through these small details how Buck can tell that this new expedition party is not ready for the rigors of the wilderness. An unwashed dish may not seem like much of a misstep on its own, but in conjunction with other sloppy habits, it contributes to a sense of impending disaster.
"This belt was the most salient thing about him. It advertised his callowness..." See in text (Chapter V)
The adjective “salient” means to stand out significantly. In this case, Hal’s belt and his overabundance of ammo show the depth of his callowness, a noun which means “immature” or “lacking sophistication.” What keeps prospectors alive in the Yukon is not over-preparation, as overloading one’s sled is dangerous, but thoughtful planning for necessities only. This lack of appropriate preparation foreshadows the tragedy that will befall Buck’s new owners and the rest of the sled team.
"Kill or be killed, eat or be eaten, was the law; and this mandate, down out of the depths of Time, he obeyed...." See in text (Chapter VI)
Notice Buck’s hardened outlook on what it takes to survive. The concept of mercy is born out of civilization and tameness, two things that Buck no longer values as highly as he once did. Now, Buck’s highest goal is simply survival—the same goal for which his ancestors strove, showing that Buck has come even closer to his roots.
"He was a thing of the wild, come in from the wild to sit by John Thornton's fire, rather than a dog of the soft Southland stamped with the marks of generations of civilization...." See in text (Chapter VI)
Buck is pulled by both civilization and the wilderness here. He maintains traits of both a tame dog and an understanding of the wild that surrounds them. Notice that Buck considers himself a wild creature who has chosen to be with Thorton rather than a tamed animal who could not survive on his own.
"he was the ideal master..." See in text (Chapter VI)
What makes John Thorton unique is his genuine care for the wellbeing of his dogs. Notice how Thorton’s care of the dogs is something he “could not help”; this implies that the traits that make Buck respect him are innate rather than learned.
"Love, genuine passionate love, was his for the first time...." See in text (Chapter VI)
Before John Thorton, the closest Buck came to love for a human was with Judge Miller. Buck views that relationship as one of mutual respect rather than genuine love. Now, Thorton is the ideal human partner for Buck, and it is novel for him to experience how much he cherishes Thorton’s company.
"He had killed man, the noblest game of all..." See in text (Chapter VII)
Contrast the pride Buck takes in killing the Yeehats with Buck from earlier in the novel. As a pet, Buck would never have dreamed of killing a human; now that his last connection to humanity is dead, he is free to become the top predator he was born to be. Even against the Yeehats’ weapons, Buck is able to triumph, showing that he has proved himself to be the most formidable being in the Yukon.
"a live hurricane of fury, hurling himself upon them in a frenzy to destroy...." See in text (Chapter VII)
Now that Buck’s ties to civilization are dead, he is described as a force beyond quieting or pacification. Like a hurricane, he emerges from the wilds without warning and destroys all in his path with unrivaled anger and viciousness. He is no longer recognizable as a dog; instead he is simply a force of nature imposing vengeance on those who have wronged him.
"He was a killer, a thing that preyed, living on the things that lived, unaided, alone, by virtue of his own strength and prowess, surviving triumphantly in a hostile environment where only the strong survived...." See in text (Chapter VII)
Buck again shows his increased mastery of the environment and his aptitude for survival. Because Buck is naturally gifted, he is able to thrive in the harsh Yukon—and able to best all the opponents that dare to oppose him. Notice that Buck is now assuredly at the top of the food chain; he is “a thing that preys” upon other animals rather than being at risk of harm himself.