The Call of the Wild: Revisited


I found violence not in Hemingway’s wars; I found shadow not in The Heart of Darkness. I found them in The Call of the Wild – a thick, black goop of pure, animalistic evil. I found them in the hearts of dumb sleigh-dogs and dead trees and snow, blacker and thicker still in the hearts of men – thieves, murderers, slavers – where it seeped out from. I found evil in Jack London’s pen, dripping into a Klondike winter.

Buck’s life in the Judge’s home was of safety and peace – of love and affection, of basking in the warmth of the “sun-kissed Santa Clara Valley”. Under the Judge’s care, Buck grew healthy and handsome, full of life. A traitorous servant deceived and sold him as a slave in the Klondike gold rush, turning his life upside down. Buck found himself toiling in the freezing death under the tyranny of the master’s club and the thirsty glare of cannibalistic dogs.

Our hero, Buck, is a dog. While London’s genius portrays him as sentient and intelligent, it’s London’s enduring love for dogs that brings Buck into humanity. Ironically, Buck’s story is consistently juxtaposed with the violent, animalistic side of mankind – the supposed master of all beasts in the sea, sky, and land.

Buck’s tameness began to fade when he was first introduced to the law of club: obey the man or suffer the club. Initially his stubbornness only brought him blow after blow, for his spirit breaks long after his body – but it eventually did. The once proud companion was reduced into a slave-beast; half his tameness rotten into submission. If this scene evoked pity in the poor reader, pray he is able to stomach the rest.

It was the law of fang that completed his transformation. Its first victim was a husky named Curly: her friendly ways were a weakness, and weakness has no place in the wild. At the first sign of her playful advances, the crowd of dogs wolfed her down, leaving nothing but a ripped, bloody carcass. Shocked, Buck quickly learned the law of fang: You had to fight for everything to survive: bed, food, positions in the sleigh.

Throughout the months in the snow, his torn body began to grow with muscle, and ancestral instincts long dead were awoken. He felt a growing desire to howl at the moon. Prospectors doubted him wild dog or domesticated wolf. The final half of his tameness had ignited into savagery. His love – for dogs or for men – was dead. He was a monster.

Buck’s final test took place under the full moon. London skillfully illuminates the dog fight under the winter moonlight: Buck facing the alpha male, surrounded by a circle of shivering, salivating dogs – itching to pounce on the defeated.

London’s wordsmithing illustrates the fight with great clarity and intense emotion: the thrill of battle pulsating from every word until the very end, when tranced readers realise that their shoulders and necks are sore from attention. It was more of a strategic duel than a wild rumble given how vividly London describes Buck’s calculated moves and discipline. Dare I say he wrote it as thrilling as Lew Wallace did with Ben-Hur’s chariot race, yet as bloody as the mutilations of cats in Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore.

“There was no hope for him. Buck was inexorable. Mercy was a thing reserved for gentler climes. He manœvred for the final rush. The circle had tightened till he could feel the breaths of the huskies on his flanks…”

It’s strange how emotionally exhausting a book about dogs can be, even for those apathetic to animals. London explores Buck’s emotions as if a man’s, bringing forth anger, fear, hatred, hopelessness, and melancholy like a spear straight through the reader’s chest – doing so without any speech from Buck himself, and conveying emotions deeper and more realistic than any young adult bestseller novels would. It requires no small amount of talent to evoke such powerful feelings with no dialogue, but only a dog’s movements.

Buck ended up in the leash of stubborn fools after being sold multiple times. Three amateur gold-diggers in the merciless snow: a spoiled woman, an angry man and a clueless boy. They beat their dogs senseless and fed them frozen horse hide: these savages clearly did not deserve to have the gem that is Buck running their reins, and their callousness only adds to the frustration the reader feels.

Justice was served, finally, when John Thornton saved Buck as he was being beaten to death by the three for refusing to cross thin ice.

“As Buck watched them, Thornton knelt beside him and with rough, kindly hands searched for broken bones. By the time his search had disclosed nothing more than many bruises and a state of terrible starvation, the sled was a quarter of a mile away. […] They saw Charles turn and make one step to run back, and then a whole section of ice gave way and dogs and humans disappear. A yawning hole was all that was to be seen. The bottom had dropped out of the trail.”

This was the end of Buck’s suffering, and the beginning of love. No longer a slave, Buck was now John Thornton’s guardian. John gave him food, fire and a home. Buck won bets and defended their home. But Buck felt something he had never felt back in Santa Clara Valley. It was companionship and duty to the Judge, but now, it was “love that was feverish and burning, that was adoration, that was madness, it had taken John Thornton to arouse”.

John Thornton would give him rough strokes and call him names; Buck would pounce on and leave teeth-marks on his hand. This was love to these two veterans. The couple became inseparable and Buck became his travel companion.

Buck loved John Thornton, but the rest of humanity was still dead to him. He might be free from the law of club and fang, but his wolfish impulses rage within him still. He felt his ancestors beckoning him into the wild, and the desire to call back with a long howl to the moon. It was John Thornton, and John Thornton alone, who kept him from giving into the call of the wild.

But John Thornton could only keep him for so long. The wolves’ calls deep within his genes finally triumphed when one night Buck left his camp and found a herd of bulls. His primordial instincts led him to strike the monstrous alpha, battling him for days and nights even after the herd had moved on. Only after the rampage was over and his primitive thirst sated did he remember the love he had abandoned.

He found carcasses of dogs and men scattered around the camp with arrows stuck in them, and the Yeehats dancing wildly atop death and ruin. Never before had Buck let blind rage overcome his senses – not even in the torturous snow – for he was intelligent, but now he had become an animal.

“It was Buck, a live hurricane of fury, hurling himself upon them in a frenzy to destroy. He sprang at the foremost man […], ripping the throat wide open till the rent jugular spouted a fountain of blood. He did not pause to worry the victim, but ripped in passing, with the next bound tearing wide the throat of a second man.”

His rage was for the love of John Thornton. For the pain and regret of the love lost.

“Death, as a cessation of movement, as a passing out and away from the lives of the living, he knew, and he knew John Thornton was dead. It left a great void in him, somewhat akin to hunger, but a void which ached and ached, and which food could not fill.”

Unlike other pains he had felt, Buck was confused with this strange pain. It was the pain that we know as sharp pangs in our chest, the word which sticks heavy in our throat, the news which sucks the breath from our lungs, the loss that leaves a vacuum devouring the colours of our eyes – the pain we call sadness. Still an animal, he could only relate it to hunger, not knowing what it really was or what could make it go away, only knowing that it hurts. He was human enough to feel such emotions, but not enough to live with it. So he abandoned all things human and left civilisation to join the wolves of the forest, finally answering the call of the wild.

Like a poltergeist in torment, Buck couldn’t express himself outside of howls. He had no mouth, yet he must scream. As emotions increase exponentially when there’s nowhere to release them, imagine how much festers within Buck given the hell he’d been through. It’s worth noting how human beings, expressive as we are, can relate our deepest, most intimate emotions to a dog, without a single word coming from him. If the reader shed a tear for Buck’s misery, it only means that he has a heart.

As London conveys in the book, the heartless are no different from animals. The evil in men has rendered them no higher than mindless beasts of the wild. It was the hunger for money that made the servant betray Buck, the need for power that wrecked his bones with a club, the greed for gold that led the three idiots to death, and the thirst for blood that was sated when the Yeehats – the literal savages – murdered everything that moved.

From the eyes of a speechless dog, London shows us how humanity has fallen into savagery even behind the veil of civilisation. Even today, animalistic acts are found behind modern concepts:  Business is the fight for food – politics is the struggle to be the alpha. It’s eat or be eaten in the concrete jungle. Buck may be speechless, but he’s saying a lot when a “humanised” animal such as him decides that the wild – lawless and godless – fits a creature with a heart better than does civilisation.