The Call of the Wild | Study Guide

Jack London

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The Call of the Wild | Chapter 5 | Summary

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Summary

Buck and his dog team pull a sled guided by the Scotch man and his friend into Skaguay. The dogs and men are both dead tired. In the last five months, the group had covered 2,500 miles. The dogs desperately need a long rest. After three days, two men from the States, named Charles and Hal, and a woman named Mercedes buy the dog team. Charles is married to Mercedes and Hal is her brother. They overload the sled, and the men get angry at the exhausted dogs because they are unable to make the sled budge. Onlookers suggest the greenhorns pack less and give the dogs more rest. But they ignore advice. Charles considers the animals lazy and whips them. Eventually, the dogs are able to move the top-heavy sled into the street, but in the first turn, the sled tips over, scattering the belongings.

The three greenhorns reload the sled with half their belongings. Even then, the sled is too heavy. Hal and Charles buy six more dogs and add them to the team, making a total of 14 dogs. The two men have never seen a sled with so many dogs and are proud of the number. However, they fail to realize that sleds don't have 14 dogs because sleds can't carry enough food to feed them all. The next morning, Buck and his massive dog team pull the sled out of Skaguay, accompanied by Charles, Hal, and Mercedes. Buck does not trust these people because they don't know how to do anything and seem unwilling to learn. They at first overfeed the dogs in an attempt to make them pull harder. The narrator states, "But it was not food that Buck and the huskies needed, but rest." Soon, the three amateurs run low on food and start to underfeed the dogs.

The starving dogs begin to die off. Meanwhile, Hal, Charles, and Mercedes begin to quarrel constantly among themselves. Mercedes expects to be treated as a dainty lady and grows resentful when Hal and Charles speak harshly to her. She also insists on riding in the sled, making the load 120 pounds heavier. Hal believes his two companions and the dogs need to be tougher. He repeatedly beats the dogs with a club. As if in a nightmare, Buck and his canine teammates pull the sled as much as their exhausted bodies will allow. Buck has wasted away "so that each rib and every bone in his frame were outlined cleanly." Still, he and the remaining four dogs stagger on.

During this ordeal, the spring weather becomes warm and sunny. Trees bloom, birds sing, and the ice starts to melt. Finally, the expedition reaches the camp of John Thornton. The dogs collapse. Thornton warns the greenhorns the "bottom was dropping out of the trail" because of the melting ice. Charles and Hal ignore this advice. Using a whip, Hal tries to force the dogs to get up. They all do so, except for Buck, who remains lying at the head of the team. Furious, Hal whips Buck and then beats him with a club. Thornton watches this abuse in torment. Buck has a vague sense of impending doom lying ahead and so refuses to move. Finally, Thornton hurls Hal away from Buck and uses a knife to cut the dog loose. Hal, Charles, and Mercedes continue on as the remaining dogs lug the sled. Buck and Thornton watch as the dogs, sled, and three people head out on some ice about a quarter of a mile ahead. Suddenly, the ice gives way, Mercedes screams, and the doomed expedition disappears into the frigid water. Thornton and Buck look at each other, and Buck licks Thornton's hand.

Analysis

Jack London explores a situation in which civilization clashes with the wild. Hal, Charles, and Mercedes are highly civilized. They talk about seeing plays, and Mercedes expects to be treated like a refined lady. As a result, they see themselves as superior to the uncivilized world of the Northland and refuse to learn skills that would help them survive. In contrast, Buck was a civilized dog who has been willing to learn and adapt. Because of this, he has thrived in the Northland.

Because of their clash with the wild, Hal, Charles, and Mercedes demonstrate the negative (or reverse) side of the themes of knowledge and power, law and order, and belonging. For instance, instead of gaining knowledge that leads to power (like Buck), the three greenhorns have a lack of knowledge that leads to weakness and eventually death. Well-meaning inhabitants of Skaguay offer the trio excellent advice, such as resting the dogs and lessening the load. However, the three of them refuse to rest the dogs and don't reduce the load enough. The only advice they take is loosening the sled runners from the ice. This refusal to learn leads directly to their demise. Even when a veteran outdoorsman like John Thornton tells Hal, Charles, and Mercedes not to continue because of the melting ice, they refuse to listen. Instead, they attempt to cross ice and plunge to their death, taking all the dogs, except for Buck, with them. Their greed for gold endangered their lives and the lives of all their dogs.

Also, Hal, Charles, and Mercedes exhibit a negative use of law and order. In previous chapters, the "law of club and fang," when used correctly, helps the community survive in the wild. For example, the man in the red sweater teaches Buck he must obey his human master. If the human masters are knowledgeable about sledding and the wild, such as the French-Canadian men and the Scotch man, Buck's obedience to them helps everyone in his group survive. However, because of their ignorance, the attempt by Hal, Charles, and Mercedes to use the "law of club and fang" backfires. The three beat the dogs, not to maintain discipline, but rather to impose their stupid rule. Violence, therefore, is not used to enhance survival, but rather to inflict abusive. The dogs can't pull the sled effectively because they are exhausted. However, Hal, Charles, and Mercedes have failed to give the dogs their needed rest and so beat them to get better performance. As a result, they abuse the dogs, who perform even worse because of the beatings.

Finally, Hal, Charles, and Mercedes, because of their refusal to learn and adapt, place themselves outside the community of men and dogs in the wild. The trio shows no desire to belong to this community because they see themselves as above it, which is fatal. London shows the wild as a steady, constant force that follows its own natural laws. In the winter, the weather can get fierce, with harsh winds and plunging temperatures. In the spring, the weather becomes pleasant, but this causes melting ice. Sled expeditions that work as a well-functioning community can often deal with these forces of nature. François and Perrault and their dogs show this after the wolf attack took their food. However, sled expeditions that consist of pompous individuals who fail to form a healthy community will likely be destroyed by these forces. The narrator states, "Not only did they not know how to work dogs, but they did not know how to work themselves." As a result, their community on the sled expedition is dysfunctional and deadly. For example, when they run low on food, Hal, Charles, and Mercedes begin to constantly argue among themselves, instead of working together to survive. At the end of the chapter, the trio has a last chance at survival. They can swallow their pride and accept guidance from John Thornton, a person who knows about forming a strong community in the Northland. If they do this, perhaps Thornton will welcome them as guests into his community, giving them food and shelter. London appears to suggest that had they followed the important tenets of socialism—setting aside their greed for gold, working within their community, working for the common good—they more likely would have found success. However, Hal, Charles, and Mercedes remain deluded, doomed individuals.

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