The Call of the Wild | Study Guide

Jack London

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The Call of the Wild | Context


Klondike Gold Rush

In August 1896, Canadian miner Robert Henderson advised a group of prospectors to look for gold in Rabbit Creek in an area around the Klondike River in the Yukon, in northwest Canada. Sure enough, the prospectors discovered gold in the creek. Word about gold at Rabbit Creek spread like wildfire to miners in nearby areas, and the Klondike gold rush began.

Many of the early miners at Rabbit Creek, later named Bonanza Creek, struck it rich. When some of these miners returned to Seattle, Washington, in July 1897, news about gold in the Klondike spread throughout the United States. In the fall of 1897, about 30,000 prospectors arrived in the Alaskan towns of Skagway and Dyea, which became launching points for miners. Jack London was among these fortune hunters. However, London and his fellow prospectors still had to make a journey of several hundred miles to reach the Klondike. The trip was often hazardous, and many were killed by avalanches or harsh weather. In The Call of the Wild, London describes a doomed party of greenhorns, or inexperienced miners, who hired a dogsled to transport them to the Klondike.

Miners found gold not only at Bonanza Creek but also in many other rivers in the area. A boomtown called Dawson sprang up near the junction of Bonanza Creek, the Klondike River, and the Yukon River, and it reached a population of 25,000 within a few months. Boomtowns such as this were filled with unruly miners; Jack London vividly describes rowdy barroom scenes in sections of The Call of the Wild. To rein in the mischief, a detachment of the North-West Mounted Police was stationed in the region. The second wave of prospectors arrived in 1898, when more than 7,000 boats loaded with 28,000 miners headed down the Yukon River toward the gold fields. By this time, however, much of the surface gold had already been mined. Even so, prospectors mined a total of about $22,275,000 by 1900. Jack London was not among those who struck it rich.

After 1900, the population in the Yukon region began to decline steadily, falling from 27,219 in 1901 to 4,157 in 1921. Large mining companies bought up the small claims and used heavy equipment to dredge up gold from the riverbeds. By 1930, about $200 million of gold had been taken from the Klondike.

Dogsled Teams

Dogsled teams usually have four or six dogs, although some teams have more. In The Call of the Wild, François and Perrault have a team of 9 dogs, and Charles, Hal, and Mercedes have a team of 14 dogs. Today, most dogsled teams work in pairs, with two in the front, two in the middle, and two in the back. In The Call of the Wild, though, dog teams work in single file, which was more common back in the days of the Klondike gold rush.

Like a successful sports team, an efficient sled-dog team has members that work well together; each dog has its strengths and weaknesses and its own distinct personality. In The Call of the Wild, Spitz is aggressive and domineering, Billee is submissive and congenial, and Joe is ill-humored and taciturn. The musher—the person who runs the dogsled—must understand each dog's personality and pair or position dogs so they work well together. If dogs dislike each other, such as Buck and Spitz in The Call of the Wild, they will constantly fight if paired or if placed near each other in single file. However, dogs that love one another's company often won't work well together, either; they'll want to play instead. The best bet is to pair dogs or place them close together if they get along but are not too friendly.

Each sled dog has its own physical traits, too. In a six-dog paired team, the lead dogs are often alert and intelligent animals who take directions well. The middle dogs must socialize well with others, because they have dogs in front of and behind them. The back dogs, called the wheel dogs, need to be strongest; they are the closest to the sled and thus bear the brunt of the pulling. In The Call of the Wild, Buck is a large dog who has tremendous strength, so he could be used as a wheel dog. However, he is also very intelligent and a born leader who takes directions well. So after Buck asserts himself as the leader of the pack, he takes the position of lead dog. Thus, Buck displays the natural selection of his breeding (Darwin), the acquiring of characteristics needed to best survive (Spencer), a will to power (Nietzsche), and the advantages of working as a community (Marx).

Critics' Responses

In the years since The Call of the Wild was published, critiques of the novel have fallen into several general categories. Some scholars psychoanalyze the text, discussing ways the story reveals the workings of Jack London's subconscious. Indeed, London was familiar with Sigmund Freud's work in psychoanalysis and was interested in Freud's writings about symbolism in dreams. Others focus on the influence of Charles Darwin's theories. According to Darwin, there is a natural process of selection in which living things compete for essentials such as food. He also theorized that animals have evolved a moral sense based on doing what is good for the community. Darwin believed that one's environment has a strong influence on one's nature. The critic Tina Gianquitto states, "Darwin, along with Herbert Spencer, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Karl Marx ... gave him [London] a way to comprehend ... communities of humans and dogs ... in the Klondike."

Some critics claim that Buck represents the superhero as defined by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche believed the ideal person, to whom he refers as the overman or superman, is one who learns to harness his or her strong passions and use them in a creative way. When Buck learns about the "law of club and fang," he realizes he must control his passions and use them in certain ways to survive. By doing this, Buck becomes a type of "super canine."

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