The Call of the Wild

1. Poet and his life

Jack London was born on Jan. 12, 1876 in San Francisco, California, USA. Jack London was only a pseudonym, adopting the surname of his stepfather, London for it. His real name was John Griffith Chaney.

Because of his parent’s lack of money, London had to drop out of school after the eighth grade in the age of 15. He shortly worked in a fish cannery. Being sixteen he became an "oyster pirate" in San Francisco Bay and later changed to the other side of law, joining the fish patrol. In 1893, in the age of 17, he set off on a seven - month voyage on a sealing ship to Japan. This experience led to his first story, and later influenced one of his best known novels, The Sea - Wolf (1904). Returning to the USA, he became a hobo travelling trough America. He experienced economic depression, unemployment and poverty. After being jailed for vagrancy near Niagara Falls, he realised the need of an education. He finished High School and studied at Berkley University. Before that he had educated himself at public libraries with the writings of Charles Darwin, Marx and Nietzsche and developed an own blended philosophy of socialism and white superiority. After a year at Berkley, London left University to seek a fortune in the Klondike gold rush of 1897. What he did find was scurvy and London got back to California after a year and a two - thousand - mile voyage down the Yukon River.

Returning, still poor and unable to find work, he decided to earn a living as a writer. As he had educated himself about biology, sociology and philosophy before his travels, he now taught himself writing. Some harsh years followed during which he unceasingly wrote and steadily raised his output. This time is best conveyed in his autobiographical novel Martin Eden (1909). Soon people began to be interested in his Klondike adventure stories. His first book, Son of the Wolf (1900) gained a wide audience. The God of His Fathers (1901) and Children of the Frost (1902) completed the first collection of publications, making him famous throughout the USA. Then in 1903 he wrote his masterpiece The Call of the Wild, a short novel that gave him international recognition. The reverse novel or also the companion piece, White Fang (1906) turned out to be his greatest success after Sea Wolf. Maybe a most original contribution of his ideas is conveyed in The Iron Heel (1908), a chilling prophecy of a Fascist period to come.

In 1900 he married Elizabeth Maddern, who bore him two daughters. But the marriage only lasted for two years, and in 1905 after his divorce London married Charmian Kittredge. During the remainder of his life he produced steadily, completing 50 books of fiction and non - fiction, partly autobiographical in 17 years. Although he became the highest - paid writer in the United States, his earnings never matched his expenditures, and he was never freed of the urgency of writing for money. He sailed a ketch to the South Pacific on his self - made ship, telling of his adventures in The Cruise of the Snark (1911). In 1910 he settled on a ranch near Glen Ellen, California, where he built his grandiose Wolf House. During his trip in the South Pacific London ruined his health and received a damaging arsenic treatment in Australia. It was the first public defeat of a man who had created the image of a superman and now was trapped within. He continued to travel but never recovered. His health state was even steadily weakened and while the quality of his work deteriorated with his health, his style and professionalism kept him popular and respected. His wife miscarried a male child, a wish that always had been elementary to him. As another misfortune, Wolf House burnt down and London started drinking.

Jack London died in 1916 at the age of only forty from an overdose of the drugs he took for his kidney and bladder problems. A legend in his own life time, London represented the archetypal American hero who tried to live the life he wrote about.

2. Summary

"The Call of the Wild" is one of Jack London’s most famous novels. Some even call it his masterpiece, representing all of London’s ideals and values. The novel tells the story of Buck, a domesticated dog, who feels the invitation of his savage roots as he approaches wilderness. This emotion is at first peculiar to him because he always lived save and satisfied at the home of his patron Judge Miller in the sunny Santa Clara Valley. But as time goes by, he quickly learns to survive and at last follows the Call of the Wild.

Buck is part St. Bernard and part Scotch shepherd dog, which makes him a big, strong dog with quiet long and warm hair. In that days, gold is found in the Klondike area, Alaska. The largest gold rush ever starts. To carry their belongings in the snowy regions, the men used dog sleds. Several dogs were needed to pull a sledge and while the most frequently used dogs were Huskies, Buck was also well qualified, by his dispositions. Buck lives like a regent on the farm of his master. He is ruling over the other animals and is always treated well by the people. One night, Buck is sold by a gardener’s helper, who needs money to equal his gambling dept. Buck follows at first voluntarily because he trusts the men. But as he realises that they are bringing him away, he fights fiercely. He is being locked into a cage and is determined to attack everyone who dares open his prison. But when he is freed from imprisonment his attacks to the man are answered brutally by battings of a club. He learns the first part of the essential lesson of the wild: the law of club and fang. He realises that his life is going to change and he is willing to face the new challenges with all his braveness and intelligence.

He stays in that place for several weeks and watches dogs come and all breaking under the man with the club. He also watches men arriving and leaving with dogs. One day a small man with a strange accent, which is French, chooses him and his journey continues on a steamship north. On that ship Buck gets to know new mates, dogs of varying characters. Now he is the belonging of Perrault a French - Canadian and Francois also a French - Canadian but half - breed. These two serve the Canadian government as couriers. At their arrival in Dyea Beach Buck sees snow for the first time in his life and he is strongly puzzled about this uncommon stuff.

But the much more affecting impression on him is done by the inhabitants of the town. The men and the dogs there are no town wesen and different to any he had seen before. They are savages, dogs as well as men and they follow no law except the law of club and fang. It was there where he learns the second chapter of the law. He watches two dogs fight and it is in a way he had never seen before: it is the way wolves fight. But not only the style of the fight is wolfish but also the reaction of the other dogs. They surround the combatants in an intent and silent circle. At the point one of the dogs tumbles of his feet, the crowd closes in and almost literally tear him to pieces. He would never forget these lessons: a man with a club in his hand is major; never loose a fight. To Buck it is like being suddenly ripped from the heart of civilisation and flung into the heart of things primordial. There is the imperative need to be constantly alert.

What also follows out of this experience is that the dog, whose name is Spitz, that caused and won the battle from then on is his personal enemy. The unfair way Spitz attacked that other, good - natured dog wakened pure hatred in Buck. But before he is able to recover from this shock, again uncommon things await him: Francois takes him and the other dogs to the forest collecting wood. Though his dignity is hurt, Buck is too wise to rebel. Francois expects and receives instant obedience with the support of his wipe. Buck learns fast and when the day is over he knows well how to behave on the trail.

The first night out it is too cold for Buck to sleep. But soon he understands the trick of digging oneself into the snow. His two masters are fascinated how fast he learns and how adaptable he turns out to be.

On their trail north, Buck has to find out a lot, but masters all challenges extraordinarily well. He even acquires the art of stealing, what would never had come to his mind in his former life. This development shows his adaptability to adjust to changing conditions whose lack would have meant certain death. It marks further the decay or going to pieces of his moral nature, a handicap or useless ballast in this ruthless life. His development is rapid. His muscles become hard as iron, he can eat anything and he becomes callous to ordinary pain.
And not only does he learn by experience, but instincts long dead become alive again. The characteristics of his ancestors become his.

During their trail while the primordial beast in Buck grows stronger, the hatred between him and Spitz increases steadily because Spitz has recognised a possible rival to his leadership in him. Their conflict can only be finished by the death of one combatant. There are several incidents when their final fight almost starts but it is always stopped by the outside. At last the moment has come to end rivalry. Buck and Spitz fight desperately, and while Spitz uses all his experience of uncounted struggles, Buck gains out of his intelligence and imagination. He kills Spitz and takes over the leadership of the pack. Buck even turns out to be a better leader than Spitz and his two masters are glad that the trouble under the dogs has come to an end. When they reach their destination they have made, thank Buck, a record run.
Then his leaders change and he has to carry ordinary mail which means heavier toil and slower run. This passage is boredom and monotony. As they have to run fast, the dogs are all dead tired in the end.

The dogs need and expect a long stay to recover but what happens is they are sold to two men, Charles and Hal. These two, together with Mercedes the wife of Charles, want to make a fortune, like so many others in the Klondike. They are unskilled, totally inexperienced and badly prepared concerning facing the life in the north, and guiding a dog sled. As the dogs are all tired of the long trail behind them and the carriage being too heavy, they advance very slowly while the weariness of the dogs increases more and more. The men treat them very bad: At first they increase the dog’s food rations to cope with their tiredness which could only be cured by a long rest. Later they have not enough dog food left and the dogs have to starve. Combined with heavy load and brutal treatment this leads to the deaths of more and more dogs. The situation is too much for the people from the south and they react wrongly. The journey is a nightmare to Buck who stumbles at the head of the team.

When they arrive at a lone house where John Thornton lives, only five out of formerly twelve dogs are alive. As spring approaches, the ice of the river on which they travel gets thinner and thinner every day. At that very moment maybe because of exhaustion or because he sensed the danger of the thin ice, Buck does consciously not stand up again after the break at John Thornton’s house. Hal hits him increasingly hard but before he can kill Buck, John Thornton interferes violently and saves Buck. The trio continues his journey but breaks into the ice right after the stay.

A new chapter in Buck’s life begins. Thornton cares about him, heals his wounds and helps him recover. In Buck awakes an extraordinarily strong love to that man. It is not the simple admiration or submission but equal, shared love to each other. During the first time Buck never leaves Thornton out of his sight. Buck even achieves to save the life of the man, who saved his life, twice. Once when Thornton is foolish enough to take a bet that Buck could tear 1000 pounds, he wins his master 1000 dollars in gold and achieves a sensational record, which enlarges his fame so that he is well - known throughout the north.

The men enriched by Buck’s deed, start on a trail west in search of a famous, secret gold - mine. They travel many months still do not find the mine but discover a gold field. They stay there and collect a huge amount of nuggets and gold - dust.

During that period, there is nothing to do for Buck. The call inside him which had been silenced by the love to John Thornton, reawakens and tears him into the forest. It fills him with a great unrest and strange desires. He does not know what the call exactly is, but follows him more and more. He sneaks through the wood and lives from what he kills. Buck is at the top of his condition. Never before has he been in such a good state and like John says sometimes there has probably never before been such a dog. One day he hears a certain note of the call which is familiar to him and as he follows it, he encounters a timber wolf howling on an open place. When he wants to get closer to the wolf it flees into the forest. Buck follows him easily and always tracks it down. Finally the wolf realises that there is no harm and sniffs nose with Buck. They run together through level country and Buck feels old memories coming upon him and that they come closer to where the call came from. But then he remembers John Thornton and is unable to proceed. He returns to the spot where he came from and stays for several days always at the side of John Thornton. It is like saying goodbye. Then he leaves again, looking for his mate the timber wolf. But he cannot find him again and faces a new challenge. Yet no animal was a real opponent to him but he discovers a pack of moose. The moose bull is a giant animal but Buck is able to prevail.

He has already during the hunt detected a new stir in the land and now returns as fast as he can to the camp. There he discovers all are dead, killed by a tribe of Yeeha Indians. The kill of his beloved master John Thornton transforms Buck into a raging Devil. He whirls through the Indians and kills most of them. This has lead under the Yeeha tribe to the tale of how the Evil Spirit came to select that valley for an abiding place and they never again set foot to it.

The kill of John Thornton marks the final decision to return to savagery. The last tie is broken. Buck stays in the valley and mourns over John Thornton. But then a large pack of wolves comes into it. They try to kill him but instead many of them are dead afterwards. Then his friend arrives and as they sniff noses he is accommodated in the wolf pack. A little later the Indians tell each other about a Ghost Dog larger than every wolf, running in front of the pack.

3. Interpretation

Through the story, Buck matures from a domesticated, content dog living peacefully at the safe home in warm Santa Clara valley to a primordial beast, that knows how to kill and to survive in wilderness. The formerly slothful dog becomes an active, blood thirsty brute that knows and obeys the laws of the wild. Buck carries all abilities inside him. They have been inherited by his ancestors, the wolves. In every domesticated creature, somewhere deep inside is the knowledge left how to behave in the wilderness. If we come close to the wild, we can feel it and profit of concealed cunnings which have only been suppressed. Buck uncovers all lost cunnings of the wolf in him and even becomes better than they are and in the end their leader.

The other theme in the book is the love between man and his dog. This love grows extraordinarily strong in the case of Buck and John Thornton. London expresses the belief that a dog is capable of real love to his master. London avoids the interesting question if the
love to his saviour or the call of the wild would finally be stronger, by introducing the Indian tribe. I assume that the decision would have been in favour of the call.

To London it is clear that if the animal had the choice (and conscience to decide) between safe life in a civilised area or the free, dangerous, primordial life of the wild it would choose the last one.

Jack London comprises in this novel most of the values and virtues he believed in. He partly used autobiographical material but also a lot of imagination or fiction. He often called his work primeval which truly meets the character of the novel quite well. Like in most of his arctic tales the figure of the wolf is pervasive in this novel too. This animal fascinated London throughout his life. London has always been pride through his life on his "animality" and chose as a totem the wolf. His friends sometimes called him wolf and his wife had to bear the title mate wolf. London called his house in the Sonoma Valley Wolf house, and created his maybe most memorable human character Wolf Larson in the The Sea Wolf. The wolf of London is a fictional figure, an animal that lives in shadowy and dangerous grounds and could be described as the ultimate wild creature, supreme in savagery, mystery and beauty. This idea was, although London had been to the north, completely wrong. Wolves are very shy, sensitive even coward especially in relation to men. It has a strong aversion to fighting and is rather playful and friendly among its fellows.

Before his travel to the Klondike, London had educated himself about the theories of Darwin. The landscape he faced in the Arctic regions, the endless, frozen and merciless northland wild was to London a kind of metaphysical arena in which natural selection and the survival of the fittest were enacted unendingly.

What made this book such a success was that he used all the important topics of that days. The people were fascinated by the idea of making a fortune in the Klondike. He referred to the strong belief of every American in the American Dream and used aspects of it like surviving in unfriendly conditions, and the exploration of unconquered lands. With his theme London hit the nerve of the time. Besides were old like young fascinated by his person, by the knowledge that he wrote about what he had experienced. With The Call of the Wild received international recognition. It was his literal breakthrough, and was the basis to his fame.

The book transports London’s primordial convictions of the ultimate characteristics of man, and that one can only find his satisfaction by returning to his roots in a primeval, wild world. Nevertheless the novel has kept it’s fascination on generations of readers, until today.

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