Summary of The Call of the Wild

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The Call of the Wild book summary

Literary Classic

  • Novel
  • Naturalism

What It’s About

The Call of the Wild turned Jack London into an overnight literary success and secured him a place among the greats of world literature. While London’s publisher was concerned that his gritty adventure story was “too true to nature” for the reading public, he was proved wrong. The first print run of 10,000 copies sold out immediately. The novel about a dog who returns to his primordial roots in the extreme, unyielding environment of the Klondike Gold Rush still draws readers young and old. Scientific debates of its time, as well as London’s political convictions, influenced The Call of the Wild heavily, leading to a wealth of possible readings and interpretations. Yet when it comes down to it, the strength and continued appeal of the book lie in its gripping adventure, which transports readers to the beautiful, unforgiving wilderness of the American North. And while many film adaptations focus on the theme of the dog as man’s faithful companion, the original is so much more than that: It is a compelling story of survival and a celebration of untamed nature.

Take-Aways

  • The Call of the Wild is one of America’s best-known novels and, alongside White Fang, one of Jack London’s most popular stories.
  • Buck is a content, family dog in California until a farmhand steals him and sells him off to work in the Klondike wilderness as a sled dog. There, he regresses to a primordial state, and only his love for the adventurer John Thornton keeps him in the world of men, before he finally joins a pack of wolves.
  • The novel is set at the turn of the 19th century, when the Klondike Gold Rush drew thousands of prospectors hoping to get rich.
  • London based the detailed descriptions of the Alaskan wilderness and life in the rough environment of the Klondike gold rush on his own experience – he went there with his brother-in-law in his early twenties.
  • The story follows the thematic pattern of the hero myth – from the call to adventure to transformation and finally apotheosis. 
  • London has an exceptional talent for poignant descriptions of people’s and animals’ behaviors and for evoking the hostile but beautiful wilderness of the North.
  • There are numerous film adaptations of The Call of the Wild, with the latest one expected at the end of 2019. 
  • London wrote the story in just one month, starting in December 1902 and finishing in January 1903. 
  • London had a fascination with Darwinist theories.
  • “Never was there such a dog.”
 

Summary

A Life of Leisure

At the beginning of the 19th century, four-year-old mongrel Buck, a mix of Scotch shepherd dog and St. Bernard, lives on the sprawling farm of the Judge in Santa Clara Valley, California. He freely roams around the farm, plays with the younger children and grandchildren, and accompanies the older ones on their hunts. He spends his evenings lying in front of the fire at the Judge’s feet. There are several other dogs on the farm, but Buck feels superior to them and mostly ignores them. He may be domesticated, but he isn’t a house dog.

Stolen in the Night

The Judge’s gardener Manuel is desperate for money to pay off his gambling debts. One evening, as the Judge is at a meeting, he puts a rope around Buck’s neck and leads him off the farm in order to sell him. Buck doesn’t suspect anything untoward at first and thinks they are just going for a stroll.

“Buck did not read the newspapers, or he would have known that trouble was brewing.”

When Manuel hands him over to a stranger, he starts growling, but the stranger just pulls the rope and chokes Buck. He continues to fight until he loses consciousness. He wakes up in a train carriage with a heavy collar and the rope around his neck, his throat and tongue hurting. Despite the pain he is in, he attacks his kidnaper again and mangles his hand. He is thrown into a crate, where he spends the rest of the journey without food or water.

Harsh Lessons

Finally, the kidnaper sells Buck, now parched and wild with fury, to a man in a red jumper. He immediately goes for him, but the man simply side-steps him and knocks him down with a club. Dazed and confused, Buck still refuses to give up and continues to attack, but the man knocks him down again and again. Eventually, bloodied and bruised, he accepts that he doesn’t stand a chance against the club.

The club “was his introduction to the reign of primitive law, and he met the introduction half-way.”

He grudgingly realizes that the man with the club is the master, and he submits to the man but promises himself that he will never try to gain favor with his oppressor – something that he sees numerous other dogs doing. The man in the red jumper is a trader and soon sells Buck and another dog, Curly, to the sled driver Perrault and his companion François to join their team of sled dogs.

Life as a Sled Dog

Buck and the other dogs travel north on a ship. One day, Perrault brings them up on deck, and Buck experiences snow for the first time. When they arrive at Dyea Beach, Buck learns his first brutal lesson of survival in the wild: A husky attacks Curly as she approaches him in a friendly manner and rips open her face. The other dogs gather around and join in the attack until François intervenes and manages to dispel them with the help of three men. However, by that time it is too late – Curly is dead.

Buck quickly learns to keep a low profile and not to trust anyone, in particular Spitz, who is the lead dog of their team and conniving and untrustworthy. Work for Buck starts straight away as François puts him in a harness with the other dogs. François’s whip and the other, more experienced dogs soon teach Buck how to pull the sled as a team. His team consists of Spitz as the lead dog, the good-natured Billee, sly Joe, Pike, Dub, Dolly, Dave and Sol Lek, who don’t seem to have any interest beyond being sled dogs. Despite the humiliation of being used as a common draught animal, Buck is a quick learner, and soon his muscles and feet harden, and instincts that he never had to use before start to emerge. During his first few days as a sled dog, he also learns other valuable lessons – for example to bury himself in the snow to keep warm during the night and to make sure to eat his ration of food quickly before another dog can steal it. More and more, he relies on the deeply buried inheritance of his forefathers to survive in the wild environment he finds himself in.

Fight for Life

There is a growing animosity between Spitz and Buck. Spitz sees Buck as a rival and takes every opportunity to harass him. Buck realizes that Spitz is just waiting for an opportunity to fight and ascertain his leadership, and he continues to keep a low profile and stays out of Spitz’s way. However, when, after a long and cold day, he finds that Spitz has taken his sleeping hole, Buck throws caution to the wind and attacks. Their fight breaks off when a pack of wild, starved huskies, drawn by the prospect of food, arrive. Half-crazed, they raid the camp and attack the sled dogs who fight for their lives. In the midst of this fight, Spitz still tries to get at Buck. Eventually, the men and dogs manage to drive off the huskies, but they have paid a high price: All of the dogs are bleeding from several wounds and half of the supplies are gone.

A Battle for Leadership

Several days after the incident with the huskies, Dolly suddenly goes mad and attacks Buck. He manages to escape but she goes after him, and François has to kill her with an ax. Seeing the panicked and exhausted Buck, Spitz senses his opportunity and bites him to the bone until François’ whip drives him off. After this, it is open war between Spitz and Buck. Buck never openly opposes Spitz, but undermines his authority subtly, backing the other dogs to defy Spitz’s leadership. The team makes it to Dawson, and nothing happens during the seven days there. However, on the way back it becomes obvious that the discipline in the team is falling apart under the constant struggle for supremacy between Spitz and Buck.

One day, Dub discovers a snowshoe rabbit and soon the sled dogs, together with a pack of around 50 dogs from a nearby camp, take chase, with Buck in the lead. Spitz takes a shortcut and kills the rabbit. Buck, taking the opportunity, goes for Spitz’s throat, and their fight for leadership starts.

“There was no hope for [Spitz]. Buck was inexorable. Mercy was a thing received for gentler climes.”

Initially, Spitz seems to have the advantage of an experienced fighter, and soon Buck is bleeding from several wounds, while Spitz remains unharmed. But then Buck resorts to subterfuge and manages to break both Spitz’s front legs. Spitz goes down and the other dogs tear him apart. Buck is the new leader.

Top Dog

After his victory over Spitz, Buck is determined to take on the leadership of the sled. However, Perrault and François put the experienced Sol Lek at the front of the team. As a result, Buck refuses to be put into harness, staying just out of reach of the two handlers. An hour passes, and eventually Perrault and François give in. Buck becomes leader, and discipline in the team is restored. Buck makes an even better leader than Spitz, and they return to Skagway in record time. At Skagway, Perrault and François sell the whole team to a Scottish half-breed, who transports mail between Skagway and Dawson. The load this time is much heavier, but the team manages under Buck’s leadership. During the journey, Buck repeatedly has visions of a primeval man, keeping watch at his fire.

Run Down and Worn Out

The heavy load takes its toll on the dogs. Worst affected is Dave, who suffers from extreme internal pain. No one knows what causes it. He grows weaker and weaker and repeatedly stumbles in the harness. The handlers finally decide to take him out so he can run behind the sled, but Dave is determined not to give up his position. The men have pity on him and allow him to continue, but one day, when he is too weak to get up, they drive off without him. Once they are out of sight, one of the men returns and shoots him. When the team arrives at Dawson, they are worn out and look forward to getting their well-earned break. However, the mail cannot wait, and a new team replaces the dogs.

Soon after, three adventurers buy Buck and his team for a knocked-down price. Hal, his sister Mercedes and her husband Charles have no idea how to deal with dogs or survive in the wild, and their inexperience soon shows. They pack their sled badly – it is far too heavy.

“Buck felt vaguely that there was no depending upon these two men and the woman. They did not know how to do anything….”

They skimp on food for the dogs and their camp is disorganized. They take too long to set up and pack up, costing valuable daylight traveling hours. They liberally use the whip and the club to get the exhausted animals to pull. Mercedes, who initially feels pity for the dogs and tries to prevent her brother and husband from whipping them, soon grows weary and insists on traveling on the sled, adding extra weight. Half-way into their trip, the food runs out. Several of the dogs starve to death.

Rescued

The exhausted team arrives at the camp of John Thornton, an experienced adventurer. Spring is on its way, and the ice on the rivers begins to melt. John advises Hal, Charles and Mercedes not to continue their journey as the danger is too great that they will fall through thin ice. They refuse to listen and want to push on. Hal starts beating the dogs, who have collapsed at the camp, to make them get back up and start pulling. All but Buck struggle to their feet. Hal starts using the club on Buck, but he doesn’t move. Eventually John can’t watch anymore. He steps between Hal and Buck and cuts the half-dead dog from the harness. The team limps on without him. Still within view, the ice on the river breaks, and the dogs and the three adventurers drown in the river.

Best Friends

John nurses Buck back to health. His other two dogs, Skeet and Nig, also make friends with Buck. Buck soon begins to dote on John – he loves him like he has never loved any other human being. John and Buck develop their own little rituals to show their affection for one another – John taking Buck’s head and shaking it back and forth while calling him names; and Buck biting his master’s hand hard enough to leave teeth marks.

“Love, genuine passionate love, was his for the first time.”

Under John’s care, Buck returns to full strength and when John’s partners Hans and Pete return to pick up John, the three of them and the dogs set off together. Buck is totally devoted to John, and one day John tests his devotion by ordering him to jump off a cliff. Buck immediately gets ready to jump, and John only manages to pull him back at the last minute.

Building a Name

Buck is back to full strength and is steadily earning a reputation as one of the best and most magnificent dogs alive. His loyalty to John becomes the stuff of legends when he goes for the throat of a man who attacks John in a pub. Another time, John falls into a raging river, and Buck jumps in after him to rescue him, almost killing himself in the effort. His strength and devotion lead John to enter into a foolish wager: that Buck will be able to break free and pull a 1,000-pound sled frozen in its tracks for 100 yards. The bet is for $2,000, which is everything that John, Hans and Pete have. Buck is put in front of the sled, and John begs him to give his all – and Buck does. He manages to break free the sled and pull it for 100 yards.

“‘Never was there such a dog,’ said John Thornton one day, as the partners watched Buck marching out of camp.”

Buck has not only cemented his reputation as an outstanding sled dog, but also won for his master all the money he needed to fulfill a long-held dream: to go north to find a mine reputed to hold unimaginable riches.

Into the Wild

John and his partners use the money to set off in search of the legendary mine. They travel for a year through the wilderness, living off what they hunt, but they fail to find the mine. However, what they do find in the end is a place at the Yukon that proves extremely lucrative for panning gold. The men set up camp and fill bag after bag with gold nuggets. The dogs meanwhile enjoy a life of leisure, and Buck again starts dreaming of the primeval man at the fire. More and more often, he feels as if something is calling him, and he begins exploring the wilderness around the camp.

“Deep in the forest a call was sounding, and as often as he heard this call, mysteriously thrilling and luring, he felt compelled to turn his back upon the fire and the beaten earth around it, and to plunge into the forest….”

Yet he always returns, pulled back to the camp by his love for John. One day he hears a strange howl, and sets off to follow the sound. He comes across an old wolf, who initially is deeply distrustful of Buck. However, after Buck has followed him for miles through the wilderness, he realizes that Buck isn’t out to harm him, and the two continue together. Buck understands that the call he has felt has led him to this wolf, but his devotion to John is still stronger, and he leaves and returns to the camp.

Learning to Hunt

Despite his attachment to John, Buck’s excursions into the wilderness become longer and longer. He starts hunting animals and sets himself greater and greater challenges. While at first he was content with hunting rabbits, fish and beavers, he now seeks greater prey. One day, he comes across a herd of elk, and Buck singles out the lead bull. With cunning, he manages to separate him from the rest of the herd and, after four days of playing cat and mouse, kills him.

Loss of a Friend

After his successful kill, Buck sets off to return to John. On his way he senses that something is not right. His fears are confirmed when he arrives at camp and finds the other dogs dead. Furious and half-crazed, Buck rushes to the clearing where he finds the perpetrators, a group of Indians. They stand no chance against his fury and speed as he attacks and kills each one of them. Only when he has killed them all, does Buck go searching for John. He discovers his body in a lake. Devastated and bereft, Buck sits and mourns his master. But at the same time, he is proud of himself: After all, he has triumphed over one of the most dangerous opponents of all – man.

A New Life

The next night, Buck again hears the howling of the wolves. A pack of them is nearby and calls to him. With nothing holding him back in the world of man, Buck follows their call. When he comes face-to-face with them, he is calm and confident. A number of them attack, but he defeats them with ease. Even when the whole pack goes for him, he holds his own. The pack submits, and when an old wolf comes forward, Buck recognizes his companion from his first foray into the wild. The old wolf welcomes him, and immediately Buck is accepted into the pack.

The Legend of Ghost Dog

Years later, there are a lot of young wolves with strange coloring, with splashes of brown on their muzzles and heads and white across their chests. The Indians in the area tell stories of an enormous Ghost Dog who runs at the head of the pack. There are stories of hunters not returning and later found dead with their throats ripped open and wolf prints around them that are bigger than any normal wolf tracks. And when they follow the elks during their hunting season, they never enter one particular valley. Yet this is the valley to which one great wolf returns every summer and sits for a time, howling mournfully.

About the Text

Structure and Style

The Call of the Wild is a short novel, split into seven chapters. The first five chapters cover Buck’s journey from California to the Alaskan wilderness until he ends up in the hands of the three adventurers; the last two chapters tell the story of his life with John Thornton and his final acceptance into a pack of wolves. Apart from a few exceptions, the story is told from Buck’s perspective; whenever the perspective changes to a human one, London clearly points this out. The novel reflects the back-to-nature genre that was so popular during London’s time and follows all the conventions of an adventure novel. Yet, more than that, one popular thematic pattern – the myth of the hero – motivates the story. It starts with the call to adventure, moves to departure, initiation through ordeal, the journey to far-away places to find oneself and finishes with transformation and the elevation of the hero to a god-like figure.

In line with the genre, the language and style of the novel are straightforward and to the point – it was London’s ambition to write in a way that would make it as easy as possible for the reader to picture the places, concepts and images that he wanted to convey. London has an exceptional talent for poignant and detailed descriptions of people’s and animals’ behaviors and for evoking the hostile but beautiful wilderness of the North.

Interpretation

  • Telling the story from Buck’s perspective allows for a different and at times critical viewpoint on human actions and ethics.
  • The novel is a back-to-nature story, contrasting instinct with learned behavior. It suggests that, in the end, instinct always wins.
  • The novel follows the thematic pattern of the hero myth, starting with a call to adventure and finishing with transformation and the elevation of the hero to a god-like figure.
  • The Call of the Wild is the counterpole to London’s other adventure novel, White Fang, in which a wolf is tamed and finally becomes domesticated.
  • Buck’s development – his regression to a state of wilderness – reflects London’s fascination with and belief in Darwin’s theory of evolution.
  • The novel’s socio-evolutionary implications follow the premise of the survival of the fittest. In this context, civilization is only a thin veneer that loses its hold when confronted with the wild.
  • Adaptability and the desire and ability to learn are vital to survival in the wild. A case in point are the three adventurers, who refuse to adapt or listen, and pay for it with their lives.
  • Some consider Buck as an expression of the Nietzschean “Übermensch,” a transcendent creature that overcomes all limitations and, in the end, takes on a mythical character.
  • In the book, opposites characterize the description of nature: the harshness of the cold versus the beauty of the spring, or its ability to take lives versus the provision of riches both in terms of food as well as gold.

Historical Background

Jack London wrote The Call of the Wild only a few years after the Klondike Gold Rush, in which the novel is set. When local miners discovered gold in the Klondike region of the Yukon in north-western Canada in 1896 and the news reached Seattle and San Francisco almost a year later, it triggered a mass migration of an estimated 100,000 people, all eager to strike it rich. Some succeeded, but a majority of the prospectors went in vain.

To prevent mass starvation, the Canadian government required gold diggers to bring a year’s supply of food with them. These rations, together with their equipment, could weigh up to a ton. Because people needed to carry these vast provisions in stages, over snowy, mountainous terrain, many diggers didn’t arrive until the summer of 1898. Boomtowns started to appear along the various routes to the gold fields, with Dawson City at the end where the Klondike and the Yukon came together. The population of Dawson City grew from 500 to roughly 30,000 over a two-year period. To accommodate this rapid growth, the North-West Mounted Police moved the native Hän people onto a reserve and as a result many died. Production at the Klondike lasted until approximately 1903.

Development

Jack London wrote The Call of the Wild in only two months. Initially intended as a short story, it soon turned into a novel. He started writing at the beginning of December, 1902 and sent it for serial publication to the Saturday Evening Post on January 26th, 1903. The Post agreed to publish it provided London reduced its length of 32,000 words by 5,000. It was published in five installments over the summer of 1903, and one month later by Macmillan in book form. The first edition included 10 tipped-in color plates by illustrators Philip R. Goodwin and Charles Livingston Bull, and a color frontispiece by Charles Edward Hooper. The first print run of 10,000 copies sold out immediately. London separately sold the English serial rights to A. P. Watt & Son, also in 1903.

London based the detailed descriptions of the Alaskan wilderness and life in the rough environment of the Klondike gold rush on his own experience – he went there with his brother-in-law in his early twenties. The story reflects London’s fascination with evolutionary theory, inborn instincts and the collective human (and animal) memory that transcends space and time.

Reviews and Legacy

When George P. Brett, President of the Macmillan Company, first read Jack London’s manuscript of The Call of the Wild, he liked it, but predicted that the novel wouldn’t be successful. He believed it was “too true to nature” for most readers; too gruesome and brutal in its descriptions of life in the Alaskan wilderness. But Brett was wrong: when London’s story was published in 1903, it was an instant hit and at the age of 27, Jack London became a world-famous author. London could not quite believe that he had made it – he was concerned that the novel was “a lucky shot in the dark that had unexpectedly found its mark.” But the book became – together with his other “dog fiction” stories – his enduring legacy, securing him a place among the great authors of world literature.

The Call of the Wild has been translated into as many as 70 languages, and has also seen numerous film adaptations, the first one a silent film made in 1923. Its first “talking” version came out in 1935, starring Clark Gable and Loretta Young. The 1972 adaptation starred Charlton Heston as John Thornton. In 2019, there is a planned release for the next adaptation, a live-action CGI-animated adventure film directed by Chris Sanders, written by Michael Green, and starring Harrison Ford, Dan Stevens, Karen Gillan, Bradley Whitford and Omar Sy.

There are also a few looser adaptations, for example a 1978 Peanuts television special What a Nightmare, Charlie Brown! and a comic adaptation made in 1998 for Boys’ Life magazine. In this version, white criminals, not Indians, kill John.

About the Author

Jack London was born on January 12th, 1876 in San Francisco. His mother Flora Wellman split from Jack’s father and married the carpenter John London in September of the same year. Jack was given John’s surname. John London started many unsuccessful business ventures, and there was never much money for the family. In 1891, Jack graduated from grammar school and started working at a cannery. In 1893, he enlisted as a seaman aboard a sealing schooner and traveled for eight months to Hawaii, Japan and the Bering Sea. In the same year, he wrote his first short story, “Typhoon Off the Coast of Japan,” which won the first prize in a contest for young writers. In the following years, Jack hiked across the United States and Canada. In 1896, Jack briefly attended the University of California, but left after only one semester. In July, 1897, he sailed with his brother-in-law to Alaska to join the Klondike Gold Rush. Upon his return a year later, he sold his first story and published several stories, poems and essays. In 1900, he married Bessie Maddern, and over the next two years they had two children together, Joan and Bessie. However, their marriage was short-lived, and he left her in July, 1903, divorcing officially in November 1904. In 1905, he married writer Charmian Kittredge. Between 1900 and 1916 he completed more than 50 fiction and non-fiction books, hundreds of short stories and numerous articles. In 1903, he experienced overnight success with the publication of The Call of the Wild. Among his other best-known stories are White Fang, The Sea-Wolf, Martin Eden and John Barleycorn. During the same time, he started and oversaw several construction projects: his farm, Beauty Ranch, in 1905; a custom-built sailing ship, the Snark, in 1906; and his dream house, Wolf House, in 1910. The Londons continued to travel extensively, but health problems cut their last Snark voyage short. In 1914, Jack worked as a war correspondent in Mexico, but his health continued to deteriorate. He died, aged only 40, on November 22nd, 1916 of uremia.


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