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Themes in The Call of the Wild
Comfort of Civilization vs. The Wild’s Rewards: Throughout the novel, Buck morphs from a strong-yet-pampered pet to a vicious, domineering, wolfish pack leader. The life of civilization is easy but not without rules, such as to never attack a human being. Likewise, though the wild offers its own, often bloody, challenges, there is a natural order to its punishments and rewards—first exemplified in Buck’s painfully learning the way of “club and fang,” which is so unlike the civilized world in which he’s grown up. There, the strongest set the rules, rather than the moral. Buck eventually understands the rules of the wild and justly thrives. Because he becomes both the physically strongest and strategically makes allies against Spitz, he is rewarded with the position of lead dog. Those who, unlike Buck, don’t understand the wild’s rules—such as Mercedes, Hal, and Charles, with their too-heavy sled—are accordingly punished. Though Buck retains some connection to civilization at the end of the novel when he returns each year to visit Thorton’s grave—a man who understood the rules of both civilization and the wild—he trades the security of the human world for one where he can dominate, a master of the wilderness. Ultimately, the wild’s pull on him is greater than that of civility.
The Pulls of Ancestral Memory: Buck’s ancestral memory affects him in two ways: his recent ancestors’ cushy, civilized lives make Buck’s transition back to the wild more difficult, but Buck’s even further, wolfish ancestors compel him to return to their primitive way of life. Initially, Buck is horrified by Curly’s death, uncomprehending the savagery of the spectacle because his life with Judge Miller didn’t involve violence. Compared to other sled dogs, who have been bred for the harsh climate of the Yukon, Buck is unprepared for its challenges. For example, Buck initially requires boots for his paws, as they are not as tough as the other dogs’. However, after abandoning the old morals of civilization, Buck kills a number of humans, wolves, and dogs, though not without purpose. He rediscovers, instinctively, what his ancestors once knew.
Mastery and Servitude as Innate Traits: Throughout the novel, it is clear that some beings are more competent than others. This competence is not only learned through experience but also achieved through natural ability. London seems to subscribe to the Nietzschean idea that some are born leaders, with the ability to thrive even in the roughest of conditions, whereas others are born servants, unable to rise above their limitations. Buck, the protagonist, is born a leader and is able to subject lesser beings to his will. This can be seen, for example, in Buck’s triumph over Spitz. Others, like Mercedes, Hal, and Charles, are not naturally gifted, and pay for their weakness with their lives.
Themes Examples in The Call of the Wild:
"he endured it without protest..." See in text (Chapter I)
Buck’s behavior here follows along various themes that draw from London’s readings. In particular, this combines socialist descriptions of the oppressed with the common person that Friedrich Nietzsche would contrast with his idea of the vigorous super-figure (Übermensch).
"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.
"But the saloon-keeper let him alone, and in the morning four men entered and picked up the crate...." See in text (Chapter I)
All of the men mentioned in this paragraph remain anonymous; at most, we know their occupation. This also fits into the themes of indifference and social anonymity.
"No one saw him and Buck go off..." See in text (Chapter I)
Notice throughout the text instances like this one where the environment is indifferent to moral wrongs. The idea that the larger world does not care about the fate of individuals connects to other themes about agency.
"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.
"Because men, groping in the Arctic darkness, had found a yellow metal, and because steamship and transportation companies were booming the find, thousands of men were rushing into the Northland...." See in text (Chapter I)
“Because… because...”: Although two instances are generally not enough by themselves to constitute anaphora, the repetition of “because” at the start of these two dependent clauses suggests the story’s themes of determinism. Their use suggests that the effect (“thousands of men… rushing”) follows so logically from the two causes as to be inevitable. It seems neither men nor dogs have choices.
"BUCK DID NOT READ the newspapers..." See in text (Chapter I)
Since this is the first sentence of the novel, readers are unlikely to know (though they might catch on by the sentence’s end) that Buck is not human. Thus, this first sentence is an example of irony. The situation is not simply that Buck the dog “did not read”; the problem is that he could not read. This lack of control or even ability to know or affect the larger forces “brewing” around him thus begins themes of agency in the novel.
"Thus, as token of what a puppet thing life is, the ancient song surged through him and he came into his own again..." See in text (Chapter II)
This “ancient song” refers to Buck’s atavistic development (or deterioration) in response to the right environment, or what we know as the call of the wild. London again asserts that our primitive nature persists beneath the facade of civilization.
"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.
"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.
"He wanted it because it was his nature, because he had been gripped tight by that nameless, incomprehensible pride of the trail and trace..." See in text (Chapter III)
London’s vocabulary is influenced by 17th-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who believed that beings were either natural masters or servants. Buck shows himself to possess the qualities that a master requires—pride, resilience, strength—in most situations, because he is by “nature” a leader. Notice also the allure of the natural world in this passage; it cannot be rationally understood, only felt and desired.
"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.
"But the hunger-madness made them terrifying, irresistible...." See in text (Chapter III)
Notice the two adjectives chosen to describe the wild pack of dogs. Buck understandably finds them frightening, as he has never encountered such greedy and single-minded dogs. “Irresistible” is a more interesting word choice, as it suggests that their hunger will not be stopped by any interference, showcasing a rabid intensity in their will to survive. Another reading suggests that perhaps their wildness, too, is attractive—or at least fascinating—to Buck, reminding him of his ancestral roots.
"Buck was no less eager, and no less cautious, as he likewise circled back and forth for the advantage...." See in text (Chapter III)
Though the conflict simmers with potential violence, notice that both Buck and Spitz are strategic, showing a coordination between rationality and instinct. Each dog is skilled and has the potential to win the confrontation, which is why they are the two struggling for power because it’s not immediately clear which one is stronger than the other—and which deserves to lead the group.
"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.
"striving constantly to start the fight which could end only in the death of one or the other...." See in text (Chapter III)
Notice that Spitz’s aggression and Buck’s unwillingness to back down from a potential fight has only one outcome: death. There are no peaceful resolutions or ways for both Spitz and Buck to exist in the same pack. This showcases the idea that the strongest must win out over the weaker, and that the weaker cannot survive the encounter.
"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.
"it seemed that the flames were of another fire, and that as he crouched by this other fire he saw another and different man from the half-breed cook before him..." See in text (Chapter IV)
Buck seems to have visions of the past brought on by his strengthening connections with his ancestors’ instincts. The humans he sees are ragged and terrified of the dark, but they do have dogs to protect them. It is likely that these are some of the first domesticated dogs; Buck is seeing how universal—and unchanging—his current situation is. The connection between dogs and humans, including how they assist and protect one another, is an important theme throughout the novel.
"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.
"The ghostly winter silence had given way to the great spring murmur of awakening life. ..." See in text (Chapter V)
The vibrant setting and sounds of spring—a time of birth and new beginnings—harshly contrast with Buck’s current physical and mental state. As Buck nears death, the world moves on with its natural cycle, indifferent to Buck’s pain. If he cannot survive, he does not deserve to do so.
"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.
"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.
"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.
"He had done this thing before, somewhere in that other and dimly remembered world, and he was doing it again, now, running free in the open, the unpacked earth underfoot, the wide sky overhead...." See in text (Chapter VII)
This passage mirrors Buck’s earlier memories when he was laying by the fire and seeing visions of past men and dogs. Though those memories were dominated by fear of what lay outside the reach of the fire’s light, this memory is colored by wild-yet-pleasant images. Back in his ancestors’ environment, Buck is finally where he was meant to be all along.
"a long-drawn howl, like, yet unlike, any noise made by husky dog...." See in text (Chapter VII)
This is the first time that Buck’s been able to figure out exactly what makes up the mysterious call he’s been hearing. It is the sound of his wild ancestor, the wolf—which is both “like” and “unlike” the sounds dogs make. This reminds Buck, again, of the two pathways he can choose: he can remain civilized, or he can return to his ancestral home and rejoin the wolfpack.