Charles Harries

| Books

The Call of the Wild

by Jack London

Published 1903 102 pages

All stories are exactly the same: Call of the Wild, like Red Rising, is a story about a preternaturally talented individual torn out of his quotidian existence, rising to fame among peers of a different class, undergoing a fall from grace and facing death, before being reborn into power and throwing off those who seek to control him and moving from fame into sheer legend. I guess that's just the monomyth.

The hero of The Call of the Wild is Buck, a St. Bernard-Scottish shepherd mix from California, kidnapped and sold into the North, where he leads teams of sled dogs and gets back in touch with his wild side. It's told over the course of seven chapters, each of which could stand as a short story on its own (which they were—The Call of the WIld was originally published serially The Saturday Evening Post) and which outline, step by step, his metamorphosis from a comfortable if somewhat detached dog into a force of nature dominated by primitive instincts.

Inasmuch as it's a story about a dog, it's also a story about man's relationship with dogs—or, more accurately, dog's relationship with man—and how they can learn to treat with each other, maybe not as equals, but with mutual love and respect. Buck's learning journey starts with a man who beats and starves him into submission; there, his autonomy is completely stripped but he learns valuable lessons about strength and will. Buck then proceeds through a series of owners who recognise his potential and encourage him to rise to it, building his personal (dog-gone-al?) autonomy first as a member of a sled team and then as the leader (after killing the previous leader). Then, Buck is sold to a trio of southerners who can't manage him, where he actually refuses to obey orders (much to the trio's eventual chagrin). Later, he's adopted by John Thornton, who respects and loves him, and who Buck comes to love as well. His final master only appears to him in ancestral memories: a primitive man deep in our evolutionary past that Buck increasingly glimpses as he returns to his wild roots and joins a pack of timber wolves.

The main lesson that Buck learns through this succession of owners is that only the fittest survive; one of the books that London brought with him to the Yukon was Darwin's On the Origin of Species, so this tracks. Buck's first lesson is that disobedience is met with the violent imposition of will, whether by humans or by other dogs ("the law of club and fang"), but later recognises that by exercising his own strength, he can bring wealth to his owners (the French-Canadians completing the Yukon Trail in record time; John Thornton winning the bet against the wealthy prospector). Near the end of the book he completely abandons obedience to humans, killing a number of indigenous warriors in a rage; later he reflects that

"They had died so easily. It was harder to kill a husky dog than them. They were no match at all, were it not for their arrows and spears and clubs."

Themes of strength in the book are closely tied up in notions of civilisation as embodied by Buck's previous life on Judge Miller's property and the trio of southerners come up to the Yukon with little experience and even less sense. Civilisation is portrayed as weak and easily abandoned in the face of adversity: the southerners quickly turn on each other and exercise violence on the starving dogs when rations run low and plans go awry. The north, in contrast, is lawless and uncivilised, and the strong only survive on their ability to thrive in the untamed wilderness.

I enjoyed it, but I don't know if it resonated with me particularly. I think there's a certain type of person who grew up around animals and who has a deep kinship with adventure and the outdoors and the quote-unquote Simple Life for whom Jack London is the pinnacle of literature in English. And I think there's another class of people who quote Theodore Roosevelt and read Ernest Hemingway and wear leather footwear and think of themselves as men leading the Strenuous Life, and I think that those folks probably like Jack London as well. I think that when The Call of the Wild first came out in 1903, it would have been a revelation—London's spare, naturalistic style came 23 years before Hemingway published The Sun Also Rises. I don't think I'm going to go back and read White Fang, the companion novel, but if you've got any interest in the outdoors or in dogs, you owe it to yourself to sit down for a couple of hours and knock out The Call of the Wild.