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The Call of the Wild

Term Definition
The Call of the Wild

In The Call of the Wild, London consistently portrays the main character, who is a dog, as having human-like thoughts and feelings. In this sense, the novel is a good example of the use of anthropomorphization in a work of literature. Also, a key theme consists of the difference between instinct on the one hand, and the cultural veneer that is imposed over instinct on the other. It thus prefigured some of the key ideas of modern psychology. 

The Call of the Wild Plot Summary

The Call of the Wild is a 1903 wilderness novel by American literary author/outdoorsman Jack London (1876-1916). Based on observations of Yukon dog-sledding culture, the literary story was inspired by London's own time in that region during the 1890s Klondike Gold Rush.

The story centers on Buck, a domesticated St. Bernard-Scotch Collie that gets stolen from its home on a California ranch, shipped up north to an abusive trafficker, and ultimately sold to Canadian dispatchers from the Klondike region, where the stout canine beats adversity to become the leader of a pack of postal sled dogs. 

After mastering the frosty terrains of Great White Northern postal routes, Buck and his pack are passed to a trio of inexperienced keepers, who misuse and abuse the dogs on an ill-advised trek across the Yukon wilderness. Before being forced along a doomed river crossing, Buck is spotted by an experienced outdoorsman, John Thornton, who—seeing great potential in the dog—frees the animal from its unqualified handlers. 

From there, Buck and Thornton develop a bond that endures them both through harrowing passages and fortuitous finds within the Klondike gold mines. On one occasion, however, Buck strays from his master to socialize with a local timber wolf, only to find Thornton and fellow campers dead upon returning. After getting revenge on the natives responsible for this ambush, Buck begins a new life as a free, wild dog, but returns each year to the site of Thornton's death to mourn his lost master.

Themes of The Call of the Wild

London spent nearly 12 months between 1897 and 1898 in the Klondike region, where he befriended a local landlord who owned a collie that served as the basis for Buck. Sled dogs were highly prized in the area because the icy northern terrains proved inhospitable for horses.

The Call of the Wild is a prime example of anthropomorphic fiction, in which an animal character is enhanced with human senses. London was also influenced by European naturalism, a literary genre that explored questions of nature versus nurture. In retrospect, the novel also stands as a prime example of American pastoralism, in which a central character—in this case Buck—finds his calling in nature. As such, the novel is seen as a reaction against industrialization; a popular theme in stateside literature during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

During his time in the Canadian and Alaskan winter camps, London was also influenced by some of the books he read, including The Origin of the Species by Charles Darwin, whose "survival of the fittest" concept is seen as a central theme of Buck's triumph over abusive owners, aggressive fellow dogs, and a harsh northern wilderness.

Story and Author - Historical Context

London first channeled his observations from up north into "Diablo—A Dog," a 1902 short story about a canine, Bâtard, that kills its master. In an effort to counterbalance this grim depiction of the species, he then began work on The Call of the Wild. Initially conceived as another short story, it eventually grew into a 32,000-word novel that premiered over a span of four issues of The Saturday Evening Post. Soon thereafter, it was published in book form and quickly made its way into the literary canon.

In the wake of this success, London proposed a companion novel that would center on a dog with the opposite trajectory in life: from wild to domestic. This idea would see fruition in 1906 as White Fang, the author's second-most popular work. 

Starting with a 1923 silent adaptation, The Call of the Wild has been brought to the big screen several times. In 1935, Clark Gable starred as Jack Thornton, while in 1972, Charlton Heston portrayed Buck's most beloved master.

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