Jack London, The Call of the Wild
Study Guides on Works and Writers
(New York: Macmillan, 1903)
Jack London (1876-1916) was a man of great contradictions: a worshiper of literature who wrote commercially, a dedicated socialist who saw himself as a Nietzschean superman, and a Spencerian uncertain of his own heritage. Born to Flora Wellman, London’s childhood was never what one would call structured. His father, almost certainly astrologer William Chaney, was never present in his life. Instead, Flora’s new husband, John London, filled this patriarchal vacancy. After completing grade school London worked various hard-labor jobs, spent time as an oyster pirate, sailed on a sealing ship, and then tramped around the country as a hobo before returning to finish high school at age nineteen. Impatient with the educational system, London briefly attended Berkeley, although he never claimed to be an “educated man.” Rather, his strength flowed from the books he read and his ability to capture the proletarian spirit. Following his brief stint of education, London traveled to the Yukon where he gained the background for many of his fifty-one volumes of stories, novels, and political essays.
The Call of the Wild is still London’s most popular young-adult story. However, it is this very popularity with the general public and the ease with which the novel can be read that has led to some its harshest criticism. Some critics question the novel’s status as a classic, as even its author appeared not to recognize its true significance. “I plead guilty,” London reportedly said when others discovered the allegory in his work, “I was unconscious of it at the time.” Others point to an apparent lack of artistry in London’s work; it seems clear from his easy capitulations to editors and slightly flippant attitude toward his own works (he referred to The Call of the Wild as simply a “dog story”) that what drove London most was monetary desire and a fear of the social abyss of poverty. London was certainly not the first to view writing as a profession rather than an art, but he was uncommonly skilled at it, making use of the controversy surrounding his socialist exploits to thrust himself into the spotlight. However, this skill also led to the commercial nature of some of his works, which London’s harshest critics cite in labeling The Call of the Wild as at most a fable or a ridiculous adventure tale. And yet, others find in this “dog story” a deeper meaning. In his combination of Nietzschean and Spencerian ideas, London has created an allegory for the human condition; the struggle against hostile forces and the possibility of escape to an older world.
The Call of the Wild revolves around Buck, a magnificent specimen of the Nietzschean “superman,” or in this case “superdog,” who believes himself to be a lord of civilization at the novel’s beginning. His reign over Judge Miller’s California home comes to a sudden end, however, when he is stolen by a gardener in need of money. Despite his inability to comprehend his kidnapping (London takes care to emphasize Buck’s animal status in an attempt to garner the objectivity due in a Naturalist work), Buck’s destiny becomes apparent to the reader as Buck is thrown into a new world, that of the wild. Born with a natural right to rule, Buck must find a new dominion. Displaying his natural superiority, a result of London’s own beliefs in certain racial supremacies, Buck quickly adapts to laws of the wild and life as a sled dog in the North, which allows London plenty of opportunities to make use of his own Yukon travels. Through the still-novel idea of atavism, London has Buck’s harsh environment bring out in him his long-repressed instincts. At first Buck struggles simply to survive, but soon his natural right to sovereignty manifests and he attempts to take control of the team. Buck eventually becomes the lead dog through his defeat of Spitz, the treacherous husky, but soon becomes tired of this monotonous life, as he still remains a servant to his human masters. He is eventually freed from the life of “trace and trail” through the ineptitude of new owners, Hal, Mercedes, and Charles, and through the goodness of wilderness man John Thornton, but he remains tied to civilization. Only after Thornton’s brutal murder by Yeehat Indians and Buck’s revenge is he finally free to answer the call. By murdering those who killed his beloved and tasting of the noblest game, man, Buck becomes the leader of the local wolf pack, assuming the legendary status of the Ghost Dog and gaining a more noble lordship over the wilderness.
For a look at the historical and social settings surrounding the novel, students should refer to Daniel Dyer’s reader’s companion (1997) to the novel, which includes maps, photographs, and detailed annotations. For an introductory sample of the criticisms surrounding the novel, however, students may turn to the casebook edited by Earl J. Wilcox and Elizabeth H. Wilcox (2004). As Jo Ann Middleton notes in American Literary Scholarship 1992, London studies have dramatically changed direction over the last twenty years, from the often replayed examination of London in light of his alleged misogyny and racism to new exploration of his works. Highly recommended are Jonathan Auerbach’s Male Call: Becoming Jack London (1996), Jacqueline Tavernier-Courbin’s The Call of the Wild: A Naturalistic Romance (1994), and Andrew Flink’s “The Call of the Wild: Parental Metaphor” (1974).
Unfortunately, no comprehensive biography is yet available, as London’s own habit of embellishment, his inclusion of elements of his own life in his fiction, and certain media myths have persisted in clouding the truth. For a sample of London’s personal letters, photographs, and conversations, see The Book of Jack London, by his wife, Charmian London, but be advised that there are omissions.
TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION AND RESEARCH
- 1. For many Naturalist writers, the main goal of their works was to understand the fundamental laws that govern the universe and society. In what ways does London use Buck’s situation to this end? Consider in particular the two worlds in which Buck must survive. Are these worlds opposing, or do they simply have a different set of values?
- 2. Whether London intended it or not, the two systems that Buck must work under, those of civilization and the wild, also seem to apply to the human characters within the book, making The Call of the Wild an allegory of the human condition. London makes it clear that the wild and civilization are not opposing forces; rather, they are complementary, two parts of the world with different sets of values. When Buck served under Judge Miller in the civilized world, he “would have died for a moral consideration, say the defense of Judge Miller’s riding-whip.” Once in the wild and forced to accept the “law of club and fang,” however, Buck can only worry about his own survival. In fact, Buck’s development is often shown through his successful moral degradation, as when he steals food for the first time. In a human character such moral lapses would be deplored. Why do we not condemn Buck for these moral lapses?
- 3. How do the lessons Buck learns about survival in these two worlds reflect on the human characters within the story? John Thornton, who is the closest thing to an equal that Buck finds among mankind, also seems to live in the world of the wild, although he is still limited to some degree by his civility. Despite London’s apparent support of his pioneer spirit, Thornton still meets his demise when he turns away from the spirit of the wild and begins the idle process of collecting gold, sacrificing his balance with nature. Similarly, Buck’s temporary masters Charles, Hal, and Mercedes are unable to make the transition away from the laws of civilization, and they too pay with their lives when the ice opens beneath them. It seems clear that, for London, the laws of the wild cannot be transcended, and that one must have the ability to operate under these laws in order to survive.
- 4. Why is it that human characters fail so dismally, while Buck succeeds—not only surviving but also becoming a lord of the wild? What might the appearance of primordial man in Buck’s visions by the fire suggest? While few of the human characters within the story are able to make this transition flawlessly, Buck succeeds due to his genetic predisposition to greatness and the powerful influence of nature. The harsh conditions of the North serve to bring out Buck’s long-repressed instincts, both in the physical form, as his body adapts to the environment, as well as in a more psychological form, as Buck recalls the racial memories of his ancestors. By tying Buck’s memories of the primordial man with Buck’s reversion throughout the novel, London narrows the gap between civilization and the wild, suggesting that, just as Buck’s instincts quickly surface, perhaps mankind too is closer to his instinctual and wilder self than was previously thought.
- 5. The Call of the Wild may also be considered a story about gold fever. While London may not have been successful in his Yukon travels, he did manage to gain enough material to represent this part of American culture vividly and accurately. How does the novel reflect London’s own history in the Yukon? Students will find Jack London and the Klondike particularly helpful in researching this topic.
- 6. Students should also take care to observe the continuing battle for supremacy throughout the novel. If Buck is destined to lead, is his path to mastery an easy one? Students should note that each step in Buck’s linear atavistic growth is complemented by his rise in importance, first in the pseudo-wild of the sled team, then in the cultural lore of the miners, and finally in the true wild of the wolf pack.
Joan R. Sherman, Jack London: A Reference Guide (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1977).
An annotated bibliography for London research up to 1975, including historical details and extensive annotations.
Roy Tennant and Clarice Stasz, The Jack London Online Collection, Sonoma State University <http://london.sonoma.edu> [accessed 28 August 2009].
An invaluable source for any student beginning London research; includes a bibliography of works on London and primary sources such as letters and other documents.
Charmian London, The Book of Jack London (New York: Century, 1921).
A personal look at the life of Jack London, by his wife. There are some omissions of the more basic details of London’s life, but the work is still surprisingly candid in reference to his personality.
Joan London, Jack London and His Times (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1968).
A well-researched guide to the historical and sociological context of London’s life, by his daughter. The work is especially informative in reference to London’s socialism, although it may be tainted by his daughter’s bias.
Irving Stone, Sailor on Horseback: The Biography of Jack London (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1938).
The most popular biography, based on Huntington Library resources and with help from London’s family and friends. What could have been a comprehensive biography with exclusive insight from primary sources is, however, marred by Stone’s preoccupation with London’s “inherited traits” and his use of London’s fictions as a basis for statements of fact.
Franklin Walker, Jack London and the Klondike (San Marino, Cal.: Huntington Library, 1966).
A scholarly biography that avoids many of the assumptions made by earlier biographers. This work provides a comprehensive look at London’s Klondike travels and their influence on his works.
Jonathan Auerbach, Male Call: Becoming Jack London (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1996).
Analyzes London’s work in relation to his burgeoning growth as a professional author.
Daniel Dyer, The Call of the Wild: Annotated and Illustrated (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997).
The definitive reader’s companion with a scholarly introduction, maps, and photos.
Andrew Flink, “The Call of the Wild: Parental Metaphor,” Jack London Newsletter, 7 (1974): 58-61.
A discussion of the ways in which London’s work parallels his life.
Earle Labor, “Jack London’s Mondo Cane: The Call of the Wild and White Fang,” Jack London Newsletter, 1 (1967): 2-13.
Views London’s dog stories as “beast fables” and attempts to explain the popularity of The Call of the Wild.
Jacqueline Tavernier-Courbin, The Call of the Wild: A Naturalistic Romance (New York: Twayne, 1994).
Examines London’s work as a mythic and romantic novel.