Chapter 4, Part 1: The Call of the Wild

Call of the Wild cover

As token of what a puppet thing life is, the ancient song surged through him and he came into his own again

The Call of the Wild, p. 22

When I wrote about Wolf Totem, I was surprised to learn that the author, Jiang Rong, was heavily influenced by American writer Jack London. London was mentioned at several points throughout the book, which served as a reminder that I had not yet read any of London’s works, despite the fact that he is perhaps one of the most influential writers about wolves – and, indeed, nature in general – of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Though White Fang is perhaps a more obvious choice of text for a Words on Wolves post, I opted to read and write about Call first, since it was written prior to White Fang, the latter of which was written as a companion piece to the former. I was interested to see how London’s thoughts about wildness and wolfishness changed over the course of several years and two books, and to what extent Jack London had influenced Jiang Rong, though these are topics for future posts.

Call of the Wild follows the story of Buck, a St Bernard-Scotch shepherd mix who is owned by a wealthy Californian family. London paints a picture of Buck’s leisurely life in the south in the first few pages of the book, but just as we are lulled into the lazy pace of this dog’s life of loafing, the chaos of the world outside the sun-kissed ranch disturbs the peace. A servant of the family betrays their – and Buck’s – trust, stealing the dog and selling him on to a man who supplies sled-dogs to gold miners in Alaska. This man teaches Buck the ‘law of club and fang’ by beating him senseless, a baptism of fire for a dog unused to experiencing indignity or cruelty at the hands of mankind. Buck is sent to the Klondike soon afterwards, where he learns from his fellow sled dogs that the north is, quite literally, a ‘dog-eat-dog’ world. Once he learns to adapt, however, Buck begins to thrive, even taking the ‘lead dog’ spot in the pack after winning a fight to the death. Yet Buck’s good fortune does not last long; he is subsequently sold to a group of three southerners who, despite their ambitions to make their fortune in the gold rush, are shockingly incompetent and naïve to the realities of life in the wilderness frontier. Due to their ineptitude and arrogance, Buck is almost killed at their hands, though he is rescued in the nick of time by a man named John Thornton. Buck lives with Thornton until the titular ‘call of the wild’ lures him into the forest, where we leave him as the leader of a wolf pack, having gained legendary status among the local people.

Given that this is a relatively short novel (it’s just over 90 pages in my edition), it is surprising how much there is to unpack here, so I’m actually going to do something a little different this time and split this post into two parts. In this first part, I will look at Buck’s journey from a tame pet to a lupine ruler of the wilderness, while in the second part, I’ll discuss the way in which the novel allows us to live vicariously through the animal, and how London uses anthropomorophisation to achieve this end.

A Baptism of Snow

The Call of the Wild, as its name suggests, is a celebration of wildness and the wilderness, its setting for the most part the inhospitable Klondike in which Buck’s life – and the life of the people who own him at various points – comprises little more than a relentless onslaught of one problem after another. A kingdom reigned by cold where every living being is subject to the whims of the winter, the chill of an icy breeze or the impenetrable wall of snow dropped by a sudden blizzard, this is an unforgiving landscape for man and dog alike.

This landscape, as wild a place as it gets, is not one where humans survive easily, and it is certainly not a place that civilisation has conquered. It is one of the few places on earth where mankind has not managed to bend nature to his will. At best, those who live here have carved a small niche out by adapting to the environment; the northland does not change for you, you change for it. If not, you die.

A gory scene near the beginning of the book makes this all too clear. As soon as Buck and his fellow southern dogs reach the Klondike, a friendly bitch named Curly is brutally killed by the local dogs in ‘the wolf manner of fighting’ after ‘she, in her friendly way, made advances to a husky dog the size of a full-grown wolf, though not half so large as she’ (p. 14). The retribution for her friendliness is immediate: ‘there was no warning, only a leap in like a flash, a metallic clip of teeth, a leap out equally swift, and Curly’s face was ripped open from eye to jaw’ (p. 14).

Buck thus quickly learns the hard lesson that he is no longer living in ‘the heart of civilization’, but in ‘the heart of things primordial’, a place where there:

 was neither peace, nor rest, nor a moment’s safety. All was confusion and action, and every moment life and limb were in peril. There was imperative need to be constantly alert; for these dogs and men were not town dogs and men. They were savages, all of them, who knew no law but the law of club and fang (p. 14).

Here, ‘kill or be killed, eat or be eaten, was the law’ (p. 64). It’s no wonder that London’s outlook has been called Darwinian (Mexal, 2017); it really is survival of the fittest in this place.

Having seen what happens to dogs who do not obey ‘the law of club and fang’, Buck has no choice but to adapt to his new environment as quickly as possible. It is a steep learning curve for a dog used to the luxuries of the south, to the ‘lazy, sun-kissed life […], with nothing to do but loaf and be bored’ (p. 14). Now, ‘he must cast off civilized behavior’ if he is to survive ‘the world of the primitive’ (Wiener, 2014). There is no fire beside which he may snooze an afternoon away, only snowdrifts into which he must dig a nest after a long, hard day of work (pp. 17-18), something he at first is only able to accomplish ‘with much fuss and waste effort’ (p. 18). There is no abundance of food but only a small ration of fish which ‘seemed to go nowhere’ if he managed to eat it all since, ‘a dainty eater, he found that his mates, finishing first, robbed him of his unfinished ration’ (p. 20). As a result, Buck ‘swiftly lost the fastidiousness which had characterized his old life’ but instead came to eat ‘as fast as they’ (p. 20). Not only this, but ‘so greatly did hunger compel him, he was not above taking what did not belong to him’ (p. 20); thus, his first ‘theft marked Buck as fit to survive in the hostile Northland environment. It marked his adaptability, his capacity to adjust himself to changing conditions, the lack of which would have meant swift and terrible death’ (p. 21). This adaptation in his behaviour is mirrored by the adaptation of his body: 

His muscles became hard as iron, and he grew callous to all ordinary pain. He achieved an internal as well as external economy. He could eat anything, no matter how loathsome or indigestible; and, once eaten, the juices of his stomach extracted the last least particle of nutriment; and his blood carried it to the farthest reaches of his body, building it into the toughest and stoutest of tissues. Sight and scent became remarkably keen, while his hearing developed such acuteness that in his sleep he heard the faintest sound and knew whether it heralded peace or peril. He learned to bite the ice out with his teeth when it collected between his toes; and when he was thirsty and there was a thick scum of ice over the water hole, he would break it by rearing and striking it with stiff fore legs (pp. 21-22).

Buck is soon almost unrecognisable in comparison to the dog who first arrived in the Klondike, whose innocence was epitomised by his delightful puzzlement upon seeing snow for the first time:

At the first step upon the cold surface, Buck’s feet sank into a white mushy something very like mud. He sprang back with a snort. More of this white stuff was falling through the air. He shook himself, but more of it fell upon him. He sniffed it curiously, then licked some up on his tongue. It bit like fire, and the next instant was gone. This puzzled him. He tried it again, with the same result. The onlookers laughed uproariously, and he felt ashamed, he knew not why, for it was his first snow (p. 13).

Yet some qualities Buck has not merely gained, but regained. When he wakes up from his first sleep in his snow-nest, for example:

At first he did not know where he was. It had snowed during the night and he was completely buried. The snow walls pressed him on every side, and a great surge of fear swept through him—the fear of the wild thing for the trap. It was a token that he was harking back through his own life to the lives of his forbears; for he was a civilized dog, an unduly civilized dog, and of his own experience knew no trap and so could not of himself fear it.

[…]

And not only did he learn by experience, but instincts long dead became alive again. The domesticated generations fell from him. In vague ways he remembered back to the youth of the breed, to the time the wild dogs ranged in packs through the primeval forest and killed their meat as they ran it down. It was no task for him to learn to fight with cut and slash and the quick wolf snap. In this manner had fought forgotten ancestors. They quickened the old life within him, and the old tricks which they had stamped into the heredity of the breed were his tricks. They came to him without effort or discovery, as though they had been his always. And when, on the still cold nights, he pointed his nose at a star and howled long and wolflike, it was his ancestors, dead and dust, pointing nose at star and howling down through the centuries and through him. And his cadences were their cadences, the cadences which voiced their woe and what to them was the meaning of the stillness, and the cold, and dark (pp. 18-22).

Having been a wolf in a dim and distant past, Buck therefore possesses the lupine instincts necessary to survive in his brutal environment. That this would be the case is foreshadowed by the fact that an excerpt from John Myers O’Hara’s poem “Atavism” serves as an epigraph to Call:

Old longings nomadic leap,

Chafing at custom’s chain;

Again from its brumal sleep

Wakens the ferine strain (p. 3).

Buck’s ‘savagery, ferociousness, and brutality’ (Wiener, 2014), his ‘ferine strain’, are not learned behaviours, but are lupine ‘qualities long dormant’ within him (Wiener, 2014), which years and generations of mankind’s civilising hand had sent into a deep sleep.

Indeed, it is when Buck dreams that he is able to truly tap into the depths of his ferine nature, to discover exactly where his lupine instincts come from:

The Sunland was very dim and distant, and such memories had no power over him. Far more potent were the memories of his heredity that gave things he had never seen before a seeming familiarity; the instincts (which were but the memories of his ancestors become habits) which had lapsed in later days, and still later, in him, quickened and become alive again.

Sometimes as he crouched there, blinking dreamily at the flames, it seemed that the flames were of another fire, and that as he crouched by this other fire he saw another and different man […]. This other man was shorter of leg and longer of arm, with muscles that were stringy and knotty rather than rounded and swelling. The hair of this man was long and matted, and his head slanted back under it from the eyes. He uttered strange sounds, and seemed very much afraid of the darkness, into which he peered continually, clutching in his hand, which hung midway between knee and foot, a stick with a heavy stone made fast to the end. He was all but naked, a ragged and fire-scorched skin hanging part way down his back, but on his body there was much hair. In some places, across the chest and shoulders and down the outside of the arms and thighs, it was matted into almost a thick fur. He did not stand erect, but with trunk inclined forward from the hips, on legs that bent at the knees. About his body there was a peculiar springiness, or resiliency, almost catlike, and a quick alertness as of one who lived in perpetual fear of things seen and unseen (pp. 41-42).

A later passage describing a second vision elucidates the first:

Buck spent long hours musing by the fire. The vision of the short-legged hairy man came to him more frequently, now that there was little work to be done; and often, blinking by the fire, Buck wandered with him in that other world which he remembered. […] Through the forest they crept noiselessly, Buck at the hairy man’s heels; and they were alert and vigilant, the pair of them, ears twitching and moving and nostrils quivering, for the man heard and smelled as keenly as Buck (pp. 77-78).

Buck is not dreaming, not merely conjuring things from his subconscious here (after emerging from these visions Buck ‘would get up and yawn and stretch’ only ‘as though he had been asleep’; pp. 41-42), but tapping into a sort of collective memory belonging to his proto-canine ancestors, wolves who had just forged an alliance with men. He even speaks with their voices, feeling their emotions running through him as he joins in with the song of the huskies, those dogs most similar to wolves:

With the aurora borealis flaming coldly overhead, or the stars leaping in the frost dance, and the land numb and frozen under its pall of snow, this song of the huskies might have been the defiance of life, only it was pitched in minor key, with long-drawn wailings and half-sobs, and was more the pleading of life, the articulate travail of existence. It was an old song, old as the breed itself—one of the first songs of the younger world in a day when songs were sad. It was invested with the woe of unnumbered generations, this plaint by which Buck was so strangely stirred. When he moaned and sobbed, it was with the pain of living that was of old the pain of his wild fathers, and the fear and mystery of the cold and dark that was to them fear and mystery. And that he should be stirred by it marked the completeness with which he harked back through the ages of fire and roof to the raw beginnings of life in the howling ages (pp. 31-32).

Like Buck, who springs upwards after a sleep buried in the ice, the wolf within which had lain dormant beneath many years’ worth of snowfall now comes crashing up to the present, his lupine soul comes back to life. The baptism of snow reawakens his primeval instincts, allowing the wolf within him to howl once more. A wolf within, he does not just survive, but thrives.

Challenging Civilisation’s Supremacy

As well as the brutal end of Curly, however, another example of the inevitable fate of the ‘unduly civilized’ (p. 18) who cannot, or simply refuse to adapt is later seen in the figures of the three incompetent and arrogant people who come to own Buck. This trio – a young man named Charles; his sister, Mercedes; and her husband, Hal – are determined to make their fortune in the Klondike Gold Rush despite the fact that they are more used to sitting comfortably indoors than experiencing hard work. The ineptitude of these people would be amusing, if not for the fact that their egotism and their unwavering confidence that civilisation will always prevail leads both people and animals to their death.  

But as we know all too well by now, the rules of the civilised world do not apply in the north. No matter what they do humans will never have supremacy here, they will never be able to force this cold corner of the world to submit to their whims. They will never sit atop of the hierarchy of life here; the creatures of the wilderness who have adapted to survive in the ice and snow reign supreme in the north.

Yet despite the – glaringly obvious – fact that ‘one does not bend the Northland to one’s own will’ (Mexal, 2017), Charles, Hal, and Mercedes seem to believe that they can simply bring civilisation to the wilderness and that the wilderness will bow to their ‘higher’ state, that it will become tame and its harshness disappear because they have brought their creature comforts and concerns of the civilised world with them. Thus, for example, when the three argue about who ‘did more than his share of the work’, the argument quickly devolves into other issues which have no meaning in or bearing upon the world which they now inhabit:

Starting from a dispute as to which should chop a few sticks for the fire (a dispute which concerned only Charles and Hal), presently would be lugged in the rest of the family, fathers, mothers, uncles, cousins, people thousands of miles away, and some of them dead. That Hal’s views on art, or the sort of society plays his mother’s brother wrote, should have anything to do with the chopping of a few sticks of firewood, passes comprehension; nevertheless the quarrel was as likely to tend in that direction as in the direction of Charles’s political prejudices. And that Charles’s sister’s tale-bearing tongue should be relevant to the building of a Yukon fire, was apparent only to Mercedes, who disburdened herself of copious opinions upon that topic, and incidentally upon a few other traits unpleasantly peculiar to her husband’s family. In the meantime the fire remained unbuilt, the camp half pitched, and the dogs unfed (p. 54).

All of the concerns of daily life in the south are meaningless here, and yet the three call upon them as though they are relevant to survival in the north. In fact, as the final sentence of the above quotation shows, such trappings of societal life only slow them down.

Interestingly, the same is true of the very words London uses in this passage, which ‘are a verbal exhibit of civilization’s bedeviling complexity’, in contrast to ‘when Buck is the subject [… and] the prose moves with his rhythmic gait’ (Benoit, 1968). As Raymond Benoit notes, this verbal display of the fruitless convolutedness of their civilised lives is a parallel to their actions, as ‘Charles, Hal and Mercedes overload the[ir] sled just as they overload the syntax’ (Benoit, 1968):

Buck watched them apprehensively as they proceeded to take down the tent and load the sled. There was a great deal of effort about their manner, but no businesslike method. The tent was rolled into an awkward bundle three times as large as it should have been. The tin dishes were packed away unwashed. Mercedes continually fluttered in the way of her men and kept up an unbroken chattering of remonstrance and advice. When they put a clothes-sack on the front of the sled, she suggested it should go on the back; and when they had put it on the back, and covered it over with a couple of other bundles, she discovered overlooked articles which could abide nowhere else but in that very sack, and they unloaded again.

Three men from a neighboring tent came out and looked on, grinning and winking at one another.

“You’ve got a right smart load as it is,” said one of them; “and it’s not me should tell you your business, but I wouldn’t tote that tent along if I was you.”

“Undreamed of!” cried Mercedes, throwing up her hands in dainty dismay. “However in the world could I manage without a tent?”

“It’s springtime, and you won’t get any more cold weather,” the man replied.

She shook her head decidedly, and Charles and Hal put the last odds and ends on top the mountainous load (p. 48).

Unsurprisingly, the sled topples over on the first bend in the road, because it is so overloaded with the ephemera of civilisation. The unceremonious ejection of their overabundant physical goods metaphorises the northland’s rejection of their materialism and of the trappings of civilisation which have no place here.

Conceding that they must leave behind some of the baggage if they are to get anywhere, the three begin to unload. As they do so, the ridiculousness of their presumption that civilisation can simply be imposed upon wilderness – and the wilderness forced to assimilate – becomes starkly apparent:

Canned goods were turned out that made men laugh, for canned goods on the Long Trail is a thing to dream about. “Blankets for a hotel,” quoth one of the men who laughed and helped. “Half as many is too much; get rid of them. Throw away that tent, and all those dishes,—who’s going to wash them, anyway? Good Lord, do you think you’re travelling on a Pullman?”

And so it went, the inexorable elimination of the superfluous. Mercedes cried when her clothes-bags were dumped on the ground and article after article was thrown out. She cried in general, and she cried in particular over each discarded thing. She clasped hands about knees, rocking back and forth broken-heartedly. She averred she would not go an inch, not for a dozen Charleses. She appealed to everybody and to everything, finally wiping her eyes and proceeding to cast out even articles of apparel that were imperative necessaries. And in her zeal, when she had finished with her own, she attacked the belongings of her men and went through them like a tornado (pp. 50-51).

Like Buck before he travelled to the north, Charles, Hal and Mercedes have been ‘unduly civilized’, becoming entirely naïve to the ways of the wilderness and reduced to undisciplined fools through their ‘evolution’ into societal creatures.

Yet unlike Buck, these three people are not able – or willing – to adapt to the Northland and to obey its rules. As a result, the cracks soon begin to show: ‘all the amenities and gentlenesses of the Southland had fallen away from the three people. Shorn of its glamour and romance, Arctic travel became to them a reality too harsh for their manhood and womanhood’ (pp. 53-54). ‘Manhood and womanhood’ seem derogatory classifications here, fragile constructs of human identity which, despite being the markers of civilisation and progress, cannot compete with the north, an environment ‘essentially unchanged in its “primordial simplicity”’ since the beginning of time (Mexal, 2017). Indeed, as London describes in his essay ‘The Somnambulists’, man is:

The mightiest and absurdest sleep-walker on the planet! Chained in the circle of his own imaginings, man is only too keen to forget his origin and to shame that flesh of his that bleeds like all flesh and that is good to eat. Civilization (which is part of the circle of his imaginings) has spread a veneer over the surface of the softshelled animal known as man. It is a very thin veneer; but so wonderfully is man constituted that he squirms on his bit of achievement and believes he is garbed in armor-plate. (London, 1910).

Strip away the ‘armour’ provided by civilisation and you reveal a ‘softshelled animal’ who is – not to put too fine a point on it – just flesh and bones like any other creature. The imagery here seems to suggest that those who awaken their ‘ferine’ instincts by purposely existing outside of this imagined world grow their own armour to cover their soft-shelled bodies, ensconcing themselves in their knowledge of the wilderness and, above all, their acknowledgement that it is not subject to their whims, but they to its.

Charles, Hal, and Mercedes, however, fall firmly into the ‘somnambulist’ camp. The trio believe they can complete their brutal journey because they are ‘armoured’ by their modernity, thinking themselves immune to the cold, as it were, the rules of the wilderness not applicable to them. They ‘fail to pull down their vanity and learn of the green (in this case, white) world’ (Benoit, 1968), instead wrapping themselves in the ‘veneer’ of civilisation which is nothing but a fantasy, a denial of the true supremacy of the wilderness and the inferiority of civilisation in the wild’s domain. Thus, when they meet John Thornton, a man familiar with the hardships of life at this snowy frontier, Hal tells him ‘with a sneering ring of triumph’ that ‘“they told us we couldn’t make White River, and here we are.”’. In response, Thornton says: ‘“Only fools, with the blind luck of fools, could have made it.”’ (p. 58). They have not outwitted the land of ice, but are living on borrowed time.

Thus, the three are swiftly ‘judged and condemned by London to a death caused by the weight of their own baggage which cracks the river ice’ (Benoit, 1968); as Thornton and Buck watch them depart on their sled:

Suddenly, they saw its back end drop down, as into a rut, and the gee-pol, with Hal clinging to it, jerk into the air. Mercedes’s scream came to their ears. They saw Charles turn and make one step to run back, and then a whole section of ice give way and dogs and humans disappear. A yawning hole was all that was to be seen. The bottom had dropped out of the trail (p. 60).

The trinkets of their civilized lives which they drag along with them ultimately lead to their demise; their ‘armour’ of civilisation does not protect them, but in fact only weighs them down. Consequently, the bottom quite literally drops out of their world, putting them in their rightful place at the bottom of the hierarchy of the snow-world. The wilderness proves its mastery by claiming them, the depths of the ice swallowing their bodies and their possessions and leaving no trace, as if they had never been there at all. They, and civilization, make no impression on this untameable world except for the hole into which they have fallen, as vacuous and empty as their own (now-ended) existences.

Like Thornton, on the other hand, Buck possesses the instincts to know that the trio are pursuing a fool’s errand, and refuses to sink with them; he:

refused to move under the rain of heavier blows which now fell upon him. […] he had made up his mind not to get up. He had a vague feeling of impending doom. This had been strong upon him when he pulled in to the bank, and it had not departed from him. What of the thin and rotten ice he had felt under his feet all day, it seemed that he sensed disaster close at hand, out there ahead on the ice where his master was trying to drive him (p. 59).

Thornton intercedes after watching Buck suffer this beating, rescuing the dog from his imbecilic owners before they meet their fate at the bottom of the melted ice.

From Dog to Wolf

Buck thus gains ‘freedom from the debilitating influences of civilization’ (Benoit, 1968) which had almost killed him, instead spending time with this ‘Nature’s Nobleman’ (Benoit, 1968), a man quite obviously well-acquainted with the perilousness of life on the Klondike who is used to ‘living close to the earth, thinking simply and seeing clearly’ (p. 65) in much the same way as Buck. During this time, it is therefore unsurprising that Buck’s visions of this proto-man and proto-dog become stronger, and it is at this point that he first enters the vision himself, partnered with the hairy man in the same way as he is partnered with Thornton:

Buck wandered with him in that other world which he remembered. […] Through the forest they crept noiselessly, Buck at the hairy man’s heels; and they were alert and vigilant, the pair of them, ears twitching and moving and nostrils quivering, for the man heard and smelled as keenly as Buck (pp. 77-78).

Buck spends more and more time inhabiting these visions of the world before civilisation, such that:

in spite of this great love he bore John Thornton, which seemed to bespeak the soft civilizing influence, the strain of the primitive, which the Northland had aroused in him, remained alive and active. Faithfulness and devotion, things born of fire and roof, were his; yet he retained his wildness and wiliness. He was a thing of the wild, come in from the wild to sit by John Thornton’s fire, rather than a dog of the soft Southland stamped with the marks of generations of civilization. Because of his very great love, he could not steal from this man, but from any other man, in any other camp, he did not hesitate an instant; while the cunning with which he stole enabled him to escape detection (pp. 63-64).

While Buck reverts to his more delicate, well-mannered self when in the company of Thornton, he has not forgotten nor relinquished the identity he has discovered within his soul since his time in the Klondike; the key phrase here is ‘seemed to bespeak the soft civilizing influence’. In fact, he has almost completed his journey away from the ‘civilizing influence’ of mankind that had formerly shaped his life; his love for Thornton does not re-civilise him in any way, but constitutes the only factor which keeps him from completing the process of de-civilisation.

In this, Buck is treading the opposite path to the wolf in his visions, who is journeying towards the ‘civilizing influence’ of a relationship with a man, and leaving behind ‘the strain of the primitive’. Buck and his dream-world counterpart are thus travelling in opposition directions upon the same road, the primitive at one end and civilisation at the other. The wolf, travelling towards domestication, is answering the call of civilisation, while Buck is shedding his tameness and answering the call of the wild.

Buck is therefore increasingly drawn towards the forest and his lupine nature, the blood and memories of his wild ancestors coursing through him and the titular call of the wild becoming more and more irresistible:

He was older than the days he had seen and the breaths he had drawn. He linked the past with the present, and the eternity behind him throbbed through him in a mighty rhythm to which he swayed as the tides and seasons swayed. He sat by John Thornton’s fire, a broad-breasted dog, white-fanged and long-furred; but behind him were the shades of all manner of dogs, half-wolves and wild wolves, urgent and prompting, tasting the savor of the meat he ate, thirsting for the water he drank, scenting the wind with him, listening with him and telling him the sounds made by the wild life in the forest, dictating his moods, directing his actions, lying down to sleep with him when he lay down, and dreaming with him and beyond him and becoming themselves the stuff of his dreams.

So peremptorily did these shades beckon him, that each day mankind and the claims of mankind slipped farther from him. 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, and on and on, he knew not where or why; nor did he wonder where or why, the call sounding imperiously, deep in the forest (pp. 64-65).

Soon, Buck discovers where ‘the call (or one note of it, for the call was many noted)’ is coming from; it is the howling of ‘a long, lean, timber wolf’, whom Buck finds ‘with nose pointed to the sky’ (p. 79). Buck meets this animal as an equal, as another wolf: 

Buck stalked into the open, half crouching, body gathered compactly together, tail straight and stiff, feet falling with unwonted care. Every movement advertised commingled threatening and overture of friendliness. It was the menacing truce that marks the meeting of wild beasts that prey (p. 79).

Running with his new friend, ‘Buck was wildly glad’, and ‘knew he was at last answering the call, running by the side of his wood brother toward the place from where the call surely came’ (p. 80). Now, he begins to tap not into the collective memory of his proto-dog ancestors, but of those animals even further back, the truly wild wolves:

Old memories were coming upon him fast, and he was stirring to them as of old he stirred to the realities of which they were the shadows. He had done this thing before, somewhere in that other and dimly remembered world, and he was doing it again, now, running free in the open, the unpacked earth underfoot, the wide sky overhead (p. 80).

After this encounter, Buck spends more and more time away from the humans, travelling through the wilderness ‘seeking vainly for fresh sign of the wild brother, killing his meat as he travelled and travelling with the long easy lope that seems never to tire’ (p. 81), because his ‘blood-longing became stronger than ever before. He was a killer, a thing that preyed, living on the things that lived, unaided, alone, by virtue of his own strength and prowess, surviving triumphantly in a hostile environment where only the strong survived’ (pp. 81-82). In (quite literally) following in the footsteps of the wolf, Buck too becomes a wolf in everything but form, and even so, ‘but for the stray brown on his muzzle and above his eyes, and for the splash of white hair that ran midmost down his chest, he might well have been mistaken for a gigantic wolf, larger than the largest of the breed’ (p. 82). His journey is not only physical, therefore, but spiritual; he is travelling further back into his lupine past, ‘his cunning’ becoming ‘wolf cunning’, and he becomes ‘as formidable a creature as any that roamed the wild’ (p. 82).

It is only his love for Thornton that keeps Buck tied, albeit by very thin threads, to civilisation: ‘Thornton alone held him. The rest of mankind was as nothing’ (p. 65). Thus, as soon as Thornton is dead, Buck once again hears the call, which was ‘sounding more luringly and compelling than ever before’ (p. 89). And now, ‘as never before, he was ready to obey. John Thornton was dead. The last tie was broken. Man and the claims of man no longer bound him’ (p. 89).

The wolf pack from whom the calls are emanating soon appear, and they accept Buck not only as a member, but as their leader who achieves legendary status among the local people:

the Yeehats tell of a Ghost Dog that runs at the head of the pack. They are afraid of the Ghost Dog, for it has cunning greater than they, stealing from their camps in fierce winters, robbing their traps, slaying their dogs, and defying their bravest hunters.

Nay, the tale grows worse. Hunters there are who fail to return to the camp, and hunters there have been whom their tribesmen found with throats slashed cruelly open and with wolf prints about them in the snow greater than the prints of any wolf. Each fall, when the Yeehats follow the movement of the moose, there is a certain valley which they never enter. And women there are who become sad when the word goes over the fire of how the Evil Spirit came to select that valley for an abiding-place (pp. 90-91).

Buck’s transformation is complete; even the footprints which he leaves behind are no longer those of a dog, but those of a magnificent wolf.

Yet Buck is not merely an ‘Evil Spirit’. No longer tied to humanity, he is not explainable on mankind’s terms, but instead, his true self exists separately to the legends told about him, as ‘a visitor […] to that valley, […] which the Yeehats do not know. […] a great, gloriously coated wolf, like, and yet unlike, all other wolves’, who ‘may be seen running at the head of the pack through the pale moonlight or glimmering borealis, 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’ (p. 91). He is no longer a creature named by man; as soon as he joins the pack, he casts off his name (‘here may well end the story of Buck; p. 90). He is not Buck, nor a ghost dog, an Evil Spirit, nor anything which the humans try to label him as in the stories which they tell, their futile attempts to make sense of him. He is beyond the realms of human understanding.

He is no longer a recipient of the call of the wild, but a wolf who sings that call. Whereas before, Buck had ‘pointed his nose at a star and howled long and wolflike’ (p. 22), he himself now sounds the call of the wild, the howling of a true wolf. He is the singer of the call of the wild.

He is a wolf.

To be continued…

References / further reading

London, Jack (2018). The Call of the Wild. London: Penguin

Benoit, Raymond (1968). ‘Jack London’s “The Call of the Wild”’. American Quarterly, 20.2, pp. 246-248

London, Jack (1910). ‘The Somnambulists’, in Revolution, and Other Essays. New York: Macmillan, pp. 39-53

Mexal, Stephen J. (2017). ‘Darwin’s Anachronisms: Liberalism and Conservative Temporality in The Son of the Wolf’, in The Oxford Handbook of Jack London, ed. by Jay Williams. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 259-276

Wiener, Gary (2014). ‘Introduction’, in Wildness in Jack London’s ‘The Call of the Wild’, ed. by Gary Wiener. Farmington Hills: Greenhaven Press. pp. 9-17

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: