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The Call of the Wild | Study Guide

Jack London

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The Call of the Wild | Themes


Civilization versus the Wild

Jack London conveys the theme of civilization versus the wild through the stages of Buck's transformation. In the first stage, Buck lives the plush life of a domesticated dog on a sprawling Californian estate that London portrays as the height of civilization. Buck sees himself as the ruler of this realm.

Stage two begins dramatically: Buck is captured and sold as a sled dog, and soon he faces the uncivilized world of the Northland, a world with no genteel rules or comfort. As Buck learns dogs in the North follow the "law of club and fang" and must kill or be killed, he begins to connect with his primitive instincts. But although he is governed by the law of the wild, Buck isn't yet wild; he spends most of his time with people. François, Perrault, and the Scotch half-breed perform tasks of civilization, delivering dispatches and mail, and Buck forms a strong bond of love with John Thornton. Stage two, therefore, is an intermediate stage in which Buck connects with his primitive instincts in a rough but human setting.

In the final stage, Buck becomes immersed in the wild while leading Thornton's dogsled. Here, Buck's primordial instincts reach their full potential, and he becomes a fierce predator. After Thornton's death, Buck breaks from the human community and surrenders completely to the call of the wild by becoming a leader of a wolf pack.

Law and Order

In The Call of the Wild, London contrasts two sets of rules: "the law of club and fang" and "the law of love and brotherhood." For London, "the law of club and fang" rules the uncivilized world and the wild, and "the law of love and brotherhood" is most often found in civilization. The wild has no human-made code of laws, so it is ruled by strength and the survival of the fittest. Buck triumphs in the wild because he becomes "a killer, a thing that preyed ... by virtue of his own strength and prowess, surviving triumphantly in a hostile environment where only the strong survived."

London never asserts that "the law of club and fang" is stronger than "the law of love and brotherhood." Instead, he creates a dichotomy within Buck where the two laws coexist. When he meets John Thornton, Buck already is connected with his primal instincts. However, after forming a strong bond of love with Thornton, Buck suppresses these wild instincts and allows his love for the man to rule him. Eventually, when Buck stalks prey in the forest, his primitive side develops even more, creating an internal struggle between the "law of club and fang" and "the law of love and brotherhood." Buck seems to develop two identities—the loyal, affectionate dog in Thornton's camp and the fierce predator in the wild. London never indicates which side of Buck is stronger. When Thornton dies, however, Buck no longer has a bond with humans, and he is free to embrace the wild.

Knowledge and Power

London depicts the theme of knowledge and power mainly through Buck's ability to adapt and change to his environment. Buck is always open to learning new skills and embracing his instincts. For example, he is perplexed about how to sleep on cold winter nights in the North, but he soon learns that the other sled dogs dig nests in the snow, and he does likewise. Also, Buck observes how Spitz fights, and uses this knowledge to defeat him. The more Buck learns, the more powerful he becomes, and this allows him to embrace the call of the wild.

The author also stresses what happens when civilized people and dogs fail to adapt to the wild. Of such dogs, the narrator states, "They [domesticated dogs] were all too soft, dying under the toil, the frost, and starvation." The humans Hal, Charles, and Mercedes are too foolish, prideful, and conceited to adapt to the wild. Their ignorance leads them to overfeed, underfeed, and otherwise mistreat the dogs, and in the end, that ignorance kills them. For Jack London, lack of knowledge leads to weakness and death.


For London, the theme of belonging is directly tied to the importance of community. Throughout the novel, Buck yearns to be part of a community. On the Judge's estate, Buck belongs to a civilized community and is perfectly content with his place in it. If Buck had never been captured, he would have lived out his days in peace without ever hearing the call of the wild. However, when Buck is thrust into the Northland, he must adapt his behavior to a new, uncivilized community, or else he won't survive long. Then when he meets John Thornton, Buck develops a love for him and wants to stay with him. He wants to belong to Thornton's community, which consists of the man's friends and other dogs.

London also suggests that people yearn to belong to a community. Because François and Perrault take their roles in the community so seriously, they face all types of hardships to deliver their dispatches. Thornton and his friends seek the society of fellow prospectors in various boomtowns, and this community's respect is important to them. To earn it, Thornton asks Buck to accomplish a seemingly impossible task, pulling a sled loaded with 1,000 pounds of flour.

London sees community as essential for survival. When Buck mutinies against Spitz, the dog team becomes unruly, and their sense of community is fractured. If the unrest continues, the sled team's lives will be at risk; an inefficient team will make them more vulnerable to the harsh environment. François is well aware of this: "François swore strange barbarous oaths, and stamped the snow in futile rage, and tore his hair." When Buck defeats Spitz and takes leadership of the team, the community is restored, and the dogsled makes record time. Meanwhile, Hal, Charles, and Mercedes are misfits in the Northland community. Because they make no effort to belong, they put themselves and their dogs at risk.

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