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The Call of the Wild

John Griffith London, the illegitimate son of Professor of Astrology father and an emotionally distant mother, was born January 12, 1876, in San Francisco, California. Jack spent much of his childhood working odd jobs to help support his family. After living abroad on a seal-hunting ship and traping across much of the United States, Jack briefly attended the University of California at Berkeley. When news of the gold rush in the Yukon reached him, he packed his bags and left California with thousands of other prospectors to test his luck in the frozen north.

After spending the winter and the spring of 1898 in the Yukon, London had not found an ounce of gold and was suffering from scurvy, a disease brought about by lack of good foods. Realizing he was beaten, London returned to California without gold, but with a wealth of experiences and impressions from the Klondike that would soon be portraid in the stories and novels for which he became famous. The most successful of these Klondike tales is The Call of the Wild, a novel that propelled London to the forefront of American fiction.

Buck’s struggles in The Call of the Wild mirror London’s own difficulties in finding a compromise between his drastically contrasting belief systems. The gold rush created a need for a reliable, weatherproof transportation system in the Klondike, a need that could be met by only one available resource: dogs. As a result, dogs became a nesesaty with winter transportation between 1897 and 1900, and proved useful in the summer too. Dogs hauled equipment, delivered mail, and labored in the mines themselves.

During the summers, the dogs were used as pack animals; during the winters they pulled sleds. By 1899 there were approximately four thousand dogs in the mining town of Dawson. Most of the animals were privately owned, but transportation companies owned some as well. During the summer months gold was brought into Dawson from the mines by dog trains consisting of fifteen to twenty dogs, each carrying a thirty-pound pack. A fifteen-dog train could haul $122,400 worth of gold. During the summer, the dog trains operated twenty-four hours a day, six days a week.

During the winter, dog punchers, as the drivers of the dog teams were called, worked eight hours a day, averaging twenty miles with a load of twelve hundred pounds. Various breeds of dog were used for freighting in the Yukon. The most sought-after were the native breeds the husky, the malamute, and the Siwash, or Indian dog. Though they were often bad-tempered, giving rise to vicious dog fights, these native dogs were well suited to the task and to the environment, being strong in the back and legs as well as having thick outer and inner coats of hair, and paws that were well furred between the pads and toes.

Native dogs also showed an incredible talent for scavenging, a skill that was crucial for survival in the frozen Yukon. During the gold rush, however, the importing of non-native dogs for sale became a brisk business. In fact, the number of outside dogs far exceeded the number of native breeds in use at this time. These outside dogs did not have the strength and adaptability of the native dogs, but some, like the St. Bernard and the mastiff, were unsurpassed at short-distance hauling. On the trail, dogs were fed dried salmon, each dog receiving two pounds of fish each day.

They were fed once a day, and always at night. This was done to encourage them to make better time on the trail, as dogs tended to become lazy after feeding. Under optimum conditions, a team of five native dogs could pull a sled with a 1,000-pound load a distance of fifteen to twenty-five miles in a single day. Generally, the sled was loaded at the ratio of 160 pounds to each dog. With their heavy fur, over-sweating was a constant problem when dogs pulled heavy loads. To remedy this condition, the driver stopped frequently and let the dogs cool off by rolling in the snow.

Another problem the dogs faced was injury from ice crystals forming between the pads of their feet. When a driver saw a dog limping, he would stop and thaw the pads by putting them in his mouth and drying them with a cloth. In The Call of the Wild, when Buck’s feet are injured by the cold and roughness of the ice, he is given small moccasins to keep his feet warm. Buck, a massive dog, half Saint Bernard, half Scotch shepherd, leads a life of luxury on Judge Miller’s ranch in the Santa Clara Valley in California. Because of the current gold rush in the Yukon territory, strong dogs have become a premium commodity.

Manuel, the gardener’s helper, kidnaps Buck and sells him to dog traders. Along his journey, Buck adapts quickly to the law of club and fang, realizing that his animal strength is no match for the brutality of his human trainers. Two French-Canadian government couriers, Perrault and Franois, eventually buy Buck and take him into the Yukon as a sled dog. Buck learns that to survive the harsh conditions and the savagery of the dog-pack, he must be cunning and ruthless. His civilized morals disappear, as survival becomes the driving force of his existence.

Buck comes into conflict with Spitz, another dog on the team. When the two dogs fight to the death, Buck triumphs, leaving the mortally wounded Spitz to be devoured by the raging dog pack. In the wild conditions, Buck begins to dream of an ancient past and senses the primal call of the wild, urging him to throw off all vestiges of civilization and revel in pure animal savagery. Buck is traded to another team, this one pulling a mail sled for the postal service. After several exhausting months of this, he is sold to an inexperienced trio of prospectors, Hal, Charles, and Mercedes.

First they feed the dogs too much, and then as the food runs out on their long journey, they feed them too little. Mercedes adds to the exhaustion of the dogs by riding on the sleigh. When the dogs stop pulling because of complete fatigue, Hal whips them mercilessly. John Thornton, a prospector camped nearby, stops Hal and takes Buck away from the inept threesome. Hal, Charles, and Mercedes move on, only to be killed when the ice gives way behind them, pulling humans, dogs, and sled into a yawning hole. For the first time, Buck has in Thornton a master he can love.

Buck proves this love on several occasions. In two circumstances he saves Thornton’s life, once by attacking Black Burton during a barroom brawl, and another time by pulling Thornton out of a series of dangerous rapids. In another act of devotion, Buck wins Thornton a $1,600 bet by single-handedly pulling a thousand pounds on a sled. Thornton and his two partners, Hans and Pete, use the money to support an expedition to find a lost mine. They finally find it and begin mining. Buck runs free through the forests as the men dig for gold, continually testing himself against the harsh environment.

When Buck returns to camp and discovers that Yeehat Indians have surprised and killed his owner and the two other men, he loses his last connection to mankind and civilization and turns back to his wild nature. In a fury, he kills several of the Indians and becomes legendary among the Indians as a Ghost Dog and an evil spirit. Buck fights against and then joins a wolf pack and creates a superior strain of animal by mating with a wolf. The novel ends as Buck becomes totally absorbed into the natural world. Buck fights his way to the top of the pack, becoming the leader of the sled-dog team after he conquers Spitz in a brutal fight.

Despite his aggressively individualistic tendencies, Buck also realizes that the sled team can only function if all of the dogs work together. The main character is Buck, and the central theme of the novel is his evolution from a life of domesticated ease to survival in the harsh northern wild. For London, Buck represents the idea that within every human is a more primitive version of the individual that can emerge in life-threatening situations or periods of extreme stress. Buck symbolizes the Darwinian idea of survival of the fittestonly the strongest and most adaptable will survive.

This symbolism is carried further by Buck’s exhibiting many human traits, including loyalty, love, and revenge. From his first cruel master, the Man in the Red Sweater, he learns that a single dog is no match for a human with a club. It is a harsh and painful lesson, but it serves him well. Buck knows instinctively that the inept adventurers, Charles, Mercedes, and Hal, will meet with disaster: The wilderness will not forgive their mistakes. It is for this reason, among others, that he refuses to go with them after they reach Thornton’s camp just before the trio drowns under the ice. From Thornton, Buck learns loyalty and love.

In return for rescuing him from Hal, Buck twice saves Thornton’s life and exerts himself to pull a heavy sled. Yet however close man and dog become, Buck continues to be driven by the primitive urges the wilderness has awakened in him. The dog often longs to go free, but his bond to Thornton always brings him back. But when Thornton is killed and Buck has avenged his friend’s death, he leaves his ties to humanity behind. He joins a wolf pack and becomes its leader, a civilized animal that has answered the call of the wild. There are two people in the story who are the kindest to Buck.

At the novel’s beginning, Buck’s master is gentle, kindly Judge Miller, who symbolizes the civilized world, where people live according to law and custom. After being stolen from the Miller home and suffering many abuses and hardships, Buck finally encounters John Thornton, an adventurer who also symbolizes the survival of the fittest. He shows great compassion for the dogs that work hard pulling sleds, but none for the stupidity of the three people who venture into the harsh north country with neither the necessary knowledge nor the patience to learn about the wilderness.

Thornton shows Buck loyalty and admiration, which he demonstrates when Thornton is offered a thousand dollars for Buck but he refuses. The men and women who neglect and abuse Buck are many. Black Burton is an evil-tempered, bully. When Thornton tries to stop him from tormenting a newcomer to the territory, Burton attacks him and Buck tears the man’s throat open. All agree that the dog had sufficient cause to protect his master’s life. In contrast to Thornton, the Man in the Red Sweater is also a cruel figure, but his crulty teaches Buck an important lesson: a man with a club must be obeyed.

This sadistic master never breaks Buck, but he learns how to survive under his domination. Less sadistic are the Frenchmen Perrault and Francois, who may be harsh, but Buck recognizes that they administer justice impartially and fairly, traits he can understand and respect. Likewise, Buck does not resent the Scotch Half-Breed. He may overwork the dogs, but he does so because of the many demands that are made on him. Newcomers to the North Country are Charles, Mercedes, and Hal, who represent those least adapted for survival. They die because they fail to understand how to live in the wild.

Unprepared to deal with the harsh conditions of the North Country, they deal with it by fighting with each other and lashing out at the animals. For instance, before they stumble upon Thornton’s camp, they discover that they do not have enough food for the dogs. Lack of food causes the animals to grow weak, but instead of recognizing this and trying to help it, Mercedes insists on riding in the sled, increasing the dogs’ burden. In the end, their incompetence leads them to travel over ice too thin to support their weight, causing them to drown in the freezing waters.

Dogs and men are fundamentally alike in the Klondike world of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild: There was an important need to be always alert; this was because these dogs and men were not town dogs and men. They were savages, all of them, the only lawthey knew was the law of club and fang. Dogs and men answer the call of their savage natures and their terrifying environment in a violent, bloody, and savage struggle for survival. The primitive fears and desires, which surface in, Buck the amazing dog, which the story revolves around.

The Call of the Wild remains, curiously, a dog story made humanly understandable. It is a story of the changes that a dog undergoes in the development of a new lifestyle. London sets up the relationships between dogs and humans with importance, and the reader picks up on that easly. His empahsis on this can help to account for the fascination the book has had for readers in the seventy-odd years since its begining in July, 1903. It can also explain the reason why the book, one of London’s best, is worthy of continued attention.

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