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Classic of the Month: The Call of the Wild

Updated: Oct 21, 2023

As you probably recall, last month I started a new monthly series that will highlight a new "classic" every month. This month's classic is The Call of the Wild by Jack London. Again I am very loosely basing my idea of classic's on this "A classic is a novel that represents a genre or a writing style, or it can be a novel that makes a contribution to literature. There are all kinds of classics, from horror classics to romance classics, from novels that sold millions of copies to a novel that changed how a genre was written." Due to the widely different views on what a classic is, these books may be considered classics by me but your opinion may be different.


So what is The Call of the Wild?

The Call of the Wild is a novel by Jack London published in 1903. The story is set in the Yukon during the 1890s Klondike Gold Rush—a period in which strong sled dogs were in high demand. The novel's central character is a dog named Buck, a domesticated dog living at a ranch in the Santa Clara Valley of California as the story opens. Stolen from his home and sold into service as sled dog in Alaska, he reverts to a wild state. Buck is forced to fight in order to dominate other dogs in a harsh climate. Eventually he sheds the veneer of civilization, relying on primordial instincts and learned experience to emerge as a leader in the wild. London lived for most of a year in the Yukon collecting material for the book. The story was serialized in the Saturday Evening Post in the summer of 1903; a month later it was released in book form. The novel’s great popularity and success made a reputation for London. Much of its appeal derives from the simplicity of this tale of survival. As early as 1908 the story was adapted to film and it has since seen several more cinematic adaptations.


Plot Overview (Detailed)

Buck, a powerful dog, half St. Bernard and half sheepdog, lives on Judge Miller’s estate in California’s Santa Clara Valley. He leads a comfortable life there, but it comes to an end when men discover gold in the Klondike region of Canada and a great demand arises for strong dogs to pull sleds. Buck is kidnapped by a gardener on the Miller estate and sold to dog traders, who teach Buck to obey by beating him with a club and, subsequently, ship him north to the Klondike.

Arriving in the chilly North, Buck is amazed by the cruelty he sees around him. As soon as another dog from his ship, Curly, gets off the boat, a pack of huskies violently attacks and kills her. Watching her death, Buck vows never to let the same fate befall him. Buck becomes the property of Francois and Perrault, two mail carriers working for the Canadian government, and begins to adjust to life as a sled dog. He recovers the instincts of his wild ancestors: he learns to fight, scavenge for food, and sleep beneath the snow on winter nights. At the same time, he develops a fierce rivalry with Spitz, the lead dog in the team. One of their fights is broken up when a pack of wild dogs invades the camp, but Buck begins to undercut Spitz’s authority, and eventually the two dogs become involved in a major fight. Buck kills Spitz and takes his place as the lead dog.

With Buck at the head of the team, Francois and Perrault’s sled makes record time. However, the men soon turn the team over to a mail carrier who forces the dogs to carry much heavier loads. In the midst of a particularly arduous trip, one of the dogs becomes ill, and eventually the driver has to shoot him. At the end of this journey, the dogs are exhausted, and the mail carrier sells them to a group of American gold hunters—Hal, Charles, and Mercedes.

Buck’s new masters are inexperienced and out of place in the wilderness. They overload the sled, beat the dogs, and plan poorly. Halfway through their journey, they begin to run out of food. While the humans bicker, the dogs begin to starve, and the weaker animals soon die. Of an original team of fourteen, only five are still alive when they limp into John Thornton’s camp, still some distance from their destination. Thornton warns them that the ice over which they are traveling is melting and that they may fall through it. Hal dismisses these warnings and tries to get going immediately. The other dogs begin to move, but Buck refuses. When Hal begins to beat him, Thornton intervenes, knocking a knife from Hal’s hand and cutting Buck loose. Hal curses Thornton and starts the sled again, but before they have gone a quarter of a mile, the ice breaks open, swallowing both the humans and the dogs.

Thornton becomes Buck’s master, and Buck’s devotion to him is total. He saves Thornton from drowning in a river, attacks a man who tries to start a fight with Thornton in a bar, and, most remarkably, wins a $1,600 wager for his new master by pulling a sled carrying a thousand-pound load. But Buck’s love for Thornton is mixed with a growing attraction to the wild, and he feels as if he is being called away from civilization and into the wilderness. This feeling grows stronger when he accompanies Thornton and his friends in search of a lost mine hidden deep in the Canadian forest.

While the men search for gold, Buck ranges far afield, befriending wolves and hunting bears and moose. He always returns to Thornton in the end, until, one day, he comes back to camp to find that Yeehat Indians have attacked and killed his master. Buck attacks the Indians, killing several and scattering the rest, and then heads off into the wild, where he becomes the leader of a pack of wolves. He becomes a legendary figure, a Ghost Dog, fathering countless cubs and inspiring fear in the Yeehats—but every year he returns to the place where Thornton died, to mourn his master before returning to his life in the wild.


What Genre is this book?

The Call of the Wild is within the genre of Adventure Fiction.


Was this book banned?

The novel was banned in 1929 in Italy and Yugoslavia, supposedly because of London's openly socialist views. In 1933 it was burned by the Nazi Party for similar reasons.


Why is it considered a classic?

The book is Buck’s journey through violence and hardship, loyalty and loss, as he finally finds himself and his home in the Yukon wilderness.

The fact that there are not too many books out there with the central character as a dog and that it is a full-length action-packed adventure is probably what attracted us as kids, and the brutal heartbreaking nature of it is possibly the reason why it still remains in our hearts.

But, this dog’s adventure is not just something that is taught and read in schools world over, it is one of the best-known stories written by an American author for a reason. Through Buck’s story, London explores mankind and all its quirks. Each and every one of us can relate to Buck and his journey of life; thrown out of the comfort of his Southern home and into the Northern wilderness, he has to confront his new surroundings and through his struggle for survival, he discovers himself and his true calling.

Even though Call of the Wild falls into the fable genre, instead of dogs that can talk and tell jokes, through a third person narrative, London powerfully places the reader in a position of strong empathy, thereby attributing human thoughts and emotions to what Buck is going through. The entire setting of the fable is allegorical – the sun-kissed Santa Clara Valley represents the soft materialistic world and the frigid Yukon symbolises the battleground where one wages his war against all odds to realise his life’s purpose. The story itself can be divided into four sections, expressly conveyed through London’s use of imagery and symbolism.

The first section has to do with the journey and self-discovery, where pain and physical violence are dominant symbols as Buck learns to survive in the harsh Yukon landscape.

The second section, after Buck takes the leadership of the sledge team from Spitz and the team gets passed on from owner to owner, loss and death become dominant symbols as he almost dies at the hands of an ignorant master.

In the third section, as Buck slowly wins back his strength under the loving care of John Thornton, the Klondike landscape too revives itself as it welcomes spring, symbolising his rebirth.

The fourth section is the immortalization of Buck, as he fully reverts to nature and becomes a part of his ancestral wolf-pack, thus realising his true calling and thereby attaining mythical stature.

Hear the voice, answer the call, and be everything you can be.


If your not much of a reader, I would still recommend this book as it is a short one, however there are also lots of movie adaptations that you can watch. I would suggest either the 1972 version as it is closest to the novel or even the 2020 version while its not close to the novel it is based on it and is a very good movie.


Have you read this book? Or even seen the movies? What do you think?


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