Previews for the movie The Call of the Wild got me curious about the book The Call of the Wild (1903). Curiosity led to two discoveries. First of all, the book is short—in my edition, 72 pages. Above all, it is from a dog’s point of view—and what a dog!
The dog is named Buck, and he starts off as a domesticated animal, at Judge Miller’s house in the Santa Clara Valley, near San Francisco. So—a charmed life, which ends when he is sold into service as a sled dog, during the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s. Buck adapts especially successfully to the harsh conditions of his service (the club, for starters). Nevertheless, he has no control over changes in his owners, and he is saved from violent and fool-hardy owners by an experienced outdoorsman named John Thornton (who, by the way, is played by ever-rugged Harrison Ford in the upcoming movie). Buck loves John Thornton, but, in the end, he answers “the call” of the wild and joins a wolf pack—never to return to Judge Miller’s house in sunny Santa Clara Valley.
Absolutely the main surprise of The Call of the Wild is that the narrative is from a dog’s point of view, and that surprised me for two reasons. One, I—and presumably everyone else—had always read narratives from a human point of view only. I was accustomed to that. But—from the very first sentence, which starts “Buck did not read the newspapers,” Jack London establishes that this narrative will be radically different. Two, I think of dogs in particular (as opposed to cats) as having very limited intelligence—no doubt Man’s Best Friend, but not, say, Man’s Smartest Friend. The dog Buck, however, bucks this belief. His ability, throughout, to understand, to adapt, and to change is beyond noteworthy.
Actually, I did wonder—and I’m not the only one—is Buck Jack London’s alter ego? Not that the answer to this would matter. The narrative has major impact. Buck’s swift adaptation to “the law of club and fang” is stunning, immediately reminiscent of the Darwinian laws of natural selection—aka, the survival of the fittest—which didn’t long precede this story. (Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published in 1859; although Darwin did not coin the phrase “the survival of the fittest,” in his theory of evolution, he did approve it.) Buck learns fast. After his initial indignation, which is woefully ineffective, he wises up and buckles down to the work of a draft animal. He creates a space for himself to sleep; he steals food. Perhaps above all (ending the third chapter), Buck uses strategy to fight another sled dog, Spitz:
He rushed, as though attempting the old shoulder trick, but at the last instant swept low to the snow and in. His teeth closed on Spitz’s left foreleg…and the white dog faced him on three legs…
Buck kills Spitz, thereby becoming, in Jack London’s repeated phrase, “the dominant primordial beast”—and this is just one example of the survival skills that Buck acquires. Definitely OMG!
Meantime, London doesn’t shy away from repetition. Like leitmotifs in opera, there are several recurring phrases in The Call of the Wild—not only “dominant primordial beast” but also “the law of club and fang,” “the pride of trace and trail” and, of course, “the call.” London also repeats words that are directly related to those phrases, like “primitive,” “leadership,” and, when characterizing the call of the wild, “cadences,” which London uses three times in the same short sentence. At this time, London once again refers to Manuel, the gardener’s helper, who has sold Buck into service; at various points, he refers to “the man in the red sweater” who first clubs Buck into submission. There is something fearlessly poetic about all this repetition, which is not typical of novelists today or (in my memory) novelists at all.
Overall, London’s language is striking. Just what is “the reign of primitive law”? How will “the struggle for mastery” end? Where will the “revival of instincts long dead” lead? And so on and so forth. Then again, this relentless focus on Nature, red in tooth and claw could get monotonous. Wisely, London varies this general theme with specific stories that capture a reader’s interest, like Dolly’s sudden madness or Buck’s fight with Spitz. Still, the focus on survival does mean that the theme of love is subordinate. It’s very much there, but it’s subordinate. Unquestionably, Buck loves John Thornton; in three memorable episodes, Buck saves John Thornton. But Thornton is killed, effectively releasing Buck to run with the wolves. The call of the wild is primary.
Ambivalence aside (and it isn’t far aside), I want to be Buck. After all, he is strong, and he does survive. Indeed, he more than survives, “running at the head of the pack…leaping gigantic above his fellows, his great throat a-bellow as he sings a song of the younger world, which is the song of the pack.” (from the last sentence of the book). Definitely OMG!
Thomas Gagnon has published essays and reviews in Wilderness House Literary Review and alternative literary blog, The Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene. He has published articles about art exhibits in South End News and poetry in cross-disability literary journal Breath and Shadow.