The World of Jack London
Excerpt: 3

Jack London's Naturalism:
The Example of The Call of the Wild

Earl J. Wilcox

BOTH JACK LONDON'S intentions and his accomplishments in The Call of the Wild account for the artistic success of the book. For the story which London intended to write—about a dog who merely reverts to the wild—developed into a full, 32,000 word novel. And the simplicity intended in the implicit atavism in the dog's reversion also became a more complex discussion than London apparently bargained for. But a fortuitous combination of events led London to produce the most popular and the best piece of fiction he ever wrote. Thus while he gauged his audience accurately in writing a popular account of Darwinian literature, at the same time the novel gave him an opportunity to explore the philosophical ideas which had been fermenting in his mind but which he had not found opportunity to express in full in his fiction.

Joan London reports her father as saying that he did not recognize “the human allegory in the dog's life-and-death struggle to adapt himself to a hostile environment.”1 And even after he had reread his story several times, he allegedly said, “I plead guilty, but I was unconscious of it at the time, I did not mean to do it.” (Joan London, 252) London's disclaimer has been eagerly accepted by critics who point to the discrepancies in both his plot and his philosophy. Indeed Miss London accepts her father's reported statement as fact, as does, apparently, Roy W. Carlson, and others who can find little to praise in even London's finest work.2 But London was aware of his intentions in the novel, at least in some of the “allegorical” aspects. For sometime later, in defending himself against charges of President Theodore Roosevelt and John Burroughs, who had accused him of being a “nature-faker,” London states his artistic purpose in The Call of the Wild and White Fang:

I have been guilty of writing two animal stories—two books about dogs. The writing of these two stories, on my part, was in truth a protest against the “humanizing” of animals, of which it seemed to me several “animal writers” had been profoundly guilty. Time and again, and many times, in my narratives, I wrote, speaking of my dog heroes: “He did not think these things; he merely did them,” etc. And I did this repeatedly to the clogging of my narrative and in violation of my artistic canons; and I did it in order to hammer into the average human understanding that these dog-heroes of mine were not directed by abstract reasoning. Also, I endeavored to make my stories in line with the facts of evolution; I hewed them to the mark set by scientific research, and awoke, one day, to find myself bundled neck and crop into the camp of the nature-faker.3

Throughout the essay, London relies on his rather thorough knowledge of Darwinian thought to defend his assertions. If London were not drawing inferences about man in his “dog-heroes,” his entire literary career, particularly in relationship to the naturalistic movement, is called into question. For to leave the implications of his struggle-for-survival thesis in the realm of “lower” animals is to relegate the stories to mere animal adventures. Indeed, there would seem to be no London achievement worth quibbling about. But, in fact, in both the first stories and the first novel—in which human beings are clearly the protagonists—these precise themes and motifs are basic philosophy. The extent to which London makes the Darwinian or Spencerian allegory directly applicable to human existence is surely left for the reader to decide. For while there is confusion in London's articulation between the explicit relationships of the evolutionary and atavistic concepts developed by Darwin and the views advanced by Spencer, London seems little concerned about delineating either with a nice distinction. Nevertheless, precise qualification which focuses on naturalistic implications of the novel accounts for the meaning of the work.

The plot of The Call of the Wild is so familiar, because of its widespread popularity, that to review it would appear unnecessary, particularly in view of the haste with which London wrote it. Since he is ostensibly concerned with dogs in the naturalism here, however, a brief statement of the plot may be helpful. In simplest terms, Buck, a magnificent dog, lives on Judge Miller's ranch in California. He is kidnapped and taken to Alaska where through numerous hardships and encounters with the “wild” he recognizes his affinity to it and reverts to his primordial state.

It is clear that Buck is not precisely one of the pure breed for whom London held greatest respect, because Buck is a cross between a St. Bernard and a Scotch sheperd.4 Still, Buck's pre-eminence, as London later explains, results from the lucky combination of his parents, a familiar philosophical idea emanating from London's views on natural selection. While the Judge is away at a meeting of the Raisin Growers' Association, Buck is stolen by Manuel, a ranch laborer, and sold for fifty dollars to a man who wants to use Buck in the Northern country.

In the suggestive initial chapter, “Into the Primitive,” Buck first learns the difference between the “cold” world to which he is being taken and the “warm” world from which he comes. He has not been accustomed to harsh treatment, but being an exceptionally wise dog, he quickly adjusts. In fact, his adjustment and his adaptability become his salvation. Buck's first reaction to rough treatment is in a spirit of rebelliousness. But, London tells his reader before he has gone a dozen pages into the narrative, Buck recognizes a new “law” when he sees it:

He saw, once for all, that he stood no chance against a man with a club. He had learned the lesson, and in all his after life he never forgot it. That club was a revelation. It was his introduction to the reign of primitive law, and he met the introduction halfway. The facts of life took on a fiercer aspect; and while he faced that aspect uncowed, he faced it with all the latent cunning of his nature aroused (21).

And each dog who is brought receives the same treatment:

As the days went by, other dogs came, in crates and at the end of ropes, some docilely, and some raging and roaring as he had come; and, one and all, he watched them pass under the dominion of the man in the red sweater. Again and again, as he looked at each brutal performance, the lesson was driven home to Buck: a man with a club was a law-giver, a master to be obeyed, though not necessarily conciliated. Of this last Buck was never guilty, though he did see beaten dogs that fawned upon the man, and wagged their tails, and licked his hand. Also he saw one dog, that would neither conciliate nor obey, finally killed in the struggle for mastery (22).

How easily London has transferred his concept of law from the early stories to this intriguing adventure of man's best friend is readily observable through the eyes of Buck, since Buck directs the reader's sympathies to the “good” and the “bad” as they pass through his life. The story is, of course, not an objective account of the struggle, not in any way an “experiment” in Zola's frame reference. Nevertheless, it is a forceful and powerful adventure through which London explores the latent possibilities of his Darwinian and Spencerian views.

Buck is finally sold to two Frenchmen who take him into the Klondike. There Buck learns a corollary law of the club, the law of fang. Buck's “primitive” ancestors lived by these laws. And Buck's own translation is succinctly noted: “He had been suddenly jerked from the heart of civilization and flung into the heart of things primordial" (25). Contrasted with the soft world from which Buck has come, in the primordial “all was confusion and action . . . There was imperative need to be constantly alert; for these dogs and men were not town dogs and men. They were savages, all of them, who knew no law but the law of club and fang (25).

Buck's first experience with the law of fang is in observing another dog, Curly, make friendly overtures to a husky. Curly is quickly struck, and as soon as she is down, “. . . (the pack) closed in upon her, snarling and yelping, and she was buried, screaming with agony, beneath the bristling mass of bodies (26). And Buck's mind quickly reaches its first significant conclusion:

So that was the way. No fair play. Once down, that was the end of you. Well, he would see to it that he never went down. Spitz ran out his tongue and laughed again, and from that moment Buck hated him with a bitter and deathless hatred (26).

From this moment Buck's most dangerous enemy is Spitz, a dog who has arrived with Buck for the new adventures. The allegory in their action is too obvious, the melodramatic tone is unmistakably clear: even as Scruff MacKenzie (an early London protagonist in a short story) fought for his life, Buck early discovers both the “rules” of “game” and the “laws” which govern the environment into which he has come.

London's implicit suggestion that the law of club and fang is supreme in the wild is weakened somewhat by his insistence that Buck learns unusually fast. Indeed, part of Buck's education grows out of his rebelliousness as much as his need for survival, as Buck apparently needs only one lesson to know whom to approach, when to act, and how to act. Always, London says, “he was learning fast,” and later, Buck is described as “an apt scholar.” Nevertheless, his schooling becomes important, for his mobility in adjusting to the environment precipitates the early sensations he has about his “call,” the urgency to return to the primordial world from which he has evolved. Using a familiar naturalistic image, the “trap,”5 London describes the prescience which surrounds Buck as he dreams of being caught and devoured by the pack. Even when he experiences his first snowfall and wakes to find himself buried,

. . .a great surge of fear swept through him—the fear of the wild thing for the trap. It was a token that he was harking back through his own life to the lives of his forebears, for he was a civilized dog, an unduly civilized dog and of his own experience knew no trap and so could not of himself fear it (29).

Watching and learning, Buck discovers that self-preservation means more than defensive action. Offensive maneuvers are also a part of the “law,” particularly in regard to the procurement of food. Like Theodore Dreisler's Carrie, who “adjusts” to Chicago to live, Buck steals food to live. But London cannot resist propagandizing, and he comments in non-Dreisian terms.

The first theft marked Buck as fit to survive in the hostile Northland environment. It marked his adaptability, his capacity to adjust himself to changing conditions, the lack of which would have meant swift and terrible death. It marked, further, the decay or going to pieces of his moral nature, a vain thing and a handicap in the ruthless struggle for existence. It was well enough in the Southland, under the law of love and fellowship, to respect private property and personal feelings; but in the Northland, under the law of club and fang, whoso took such things into account was a fool, and in so far as he observed them he would fail to prosper (33).

C. C. Walcutt has noted the similarity between this passage and the one in which London describes the adaptability of Vance Corliss, one of London's earlier protagonists.6 Once Buck learns to adjust, “his development (or retrogression) was rapid” (25). Experience is his teacher, even as it had been Sister Carrie's or Stephen Crane's Maggie. But his morality is not questioned by the reader because Buck is a dog—or because London chooses to ignore the moral implications of Buck's thievery. For Buck's “new” way of life is new to him only momentarily. As London closes out his discourse on the law of club and fang, he comments on Buck's strange awareness of memories of a previous life in which his ancestors had lived precisely as he is now having to live in his struggle for survival (33). As the culture of generations of civilizations fell from Scruff Mackenzie, the same process occurs through Buck's atavism.

The domesticated generations fell from him. In vague ways he remembered back to the youth of the breed, to the time the wild dogs ranged in packs through the primeval forest, and killed their meat as they ran it down. It was no task for him to learn to fight with cut and slash and the quick wolf snap. In this manner had fought forgotten ancestors (34).

Buck's evolutionary process is a combination of natural selection and of other Darwinian “accidents” through which he has evolved. The probability of his existence, a product of no clearly definable pattern, had characterized, for example, the view of Fortune La Perle (in an earlier London short story), who also knew life as chance. About Buck, too, London again asserts:

Thus, as token of what a puppet thing life is the ancient song surged through him and he came into his own again; and he came because men had found a yellow metal in the North, and because Manuel was a gardener's helper whose wages did not lap over the needs of his wife and divers small copies of himself (35).

It is London the pessimist who speaks for Buck in this cryptic manner.

The highest achievement of the novel is clearly Chapter III, “The Dominant Primordial Beast.” Following themes, images, and tonal qualities upon which Frank Norris had dwelt in his descriptions of McTeague and Trina, and with which Stephen Crane described his central figures in Maggie, London is emphatic and convincing: “The dominant primordial beast was strong in Buck, and under the fierce conditions of trail life it grew and grew” (36). By now Buck has had many hours of schooling which have prepared him for the supreme test. The lead dog, whose job it is to keep the others in line, even if killing is necessary, is Spitz. From the first, Spitz and Buck have been deadly enemies.7 When Spitz tries to steal Buck's bed, Buck reacts, and “The beast in him roared” (37). Even when Francois or Perrault, the masters, try to separate the dogs, Buck is eager to continue the fracas. Once in the grip of the new morality, “fair play was a forgotten code,” and Buck springs on Spitz (37). While these minor clashes characterize the long trips which Buck and his friends are making, Buck discovers also that he is soft from years in civilization. Buck's feet tell the tale: “(They) were not so compact and hard as the feet of the huskies. His had softened during the many generations since the day his last wild ancestor was tamed by a cave-dweller or river man” (41).

The inevitable, bloody showdown between Buck and Spitz is soon to come. And “Buck wanted it. He wanted it because it was his nature . . . ” (43). Buck had endured thus far because he was different from the Southland dogs: “He alone endured and prospered, matching the husky in strength, savagery, and cunning” (43).

London leads his reader along at a rapid pace as he points toward the supreme effort of Buck's life, his fight with Spitz. In the precision of moving toward the battle, London again shows the explicit parallel between the lives of the dogs whom he is describing and the lives of humanity whom he also has in mind. In perhaps the most poetic passage London ever wrote, he says:

With the aurora borealis flaming coldly overhead, or the stars leaping in the frost dance, and the land numb and frozen under its pall of snow, the song of the huskies might have been the defiance of life, only it was pitched in minor key, with long-drawn wailings and half-sobs, and was more the pleading of life, the articulate travail of existence. It was an old song, old as the breed itself—one of the first songs of the younger world in a day when songs were sad. It was invested with the woe of unnumbered generations, this plaint by which Buck was so strangely stirred. When he moaned and sobbed, it was with the pain of living that was of old, the pain of his wild fathers, and the fear and mystery of the cold and dark that was to them fear and mystery. And that he should be stirred by it marked the completeness with which he harked back through, the ages of fire and roof to the raw beginnings of life in the howling ages (45).

Finally, Buck is given the pre-eminent position as leader of the pack because the others respect his strength and his skill. Even Spitz resists open fighting, though grumbling has set in among some of the pack before the final stretch of a long journey between Dawson and Salt Water.

The call which has been haunting Buck returns one evening as he and others relax after a day in the traces. A snowshoe rabbit is treed, and the pack is off after it. While leading the pack in the chase, Buck remembers his primordial past:

All that stirring of old instincts which at stated periods drives men out from the sounding cities to forest and plain to kill things by chemically propelled leaden pellets, the blood lust, the joy to kill—all this was Buck's, only it was infinitely more intimate. He was ranging at the head of the pack, running the wild thing down, the living meat, to kill with his own teeth and wash his muzzle to the eyes in warm blood (47).

And in the description of this thrill of the chase, the joy, the ecstasy of living, London evinces a significant materialistic attitude that links him profoundly with the naturalists. Buck becomes, perhaps, the epitome of London's own materialistic impulses, in his exulting in the joy of living, the joy of life for its own sake. For Buck is also “mastered by the verb 'to live'” in precisely the same manner of Jan, the Unrepentant, and Sturgis Owens, and Scruff Mackenzie—all human protagonists in London's first short stories. Later, London depicted Wolf Larsen, a man, in similar terms; here it is Buck, the dog, who finds the life-urge, the sense of impulse, the will to live, dominating all else.

There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive. This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame; it comes to the soldier, war-mad on a stricken field and refusing quarter; and it came to Buck, leading the pack, sounding the old wolf-cry, straining after the food that was alive and that fled swiftly before him through the moonlight. He was sounding the deeps of his nature, and of the parts of his nature that were deeper than he, going back into the womb of Time. He was mastered by the sheer surging of life, the tidal wave of being, the perfect joy of each separate muscle, joint, and sinew and that it was everything that was not death, that it was aglow and rampant, expressing itself in movement, flying exultingly under the stars and over the face of dead matter that did not move (48).

This formula is characterized by impulse emerging from self-forgetfulness, and the individual who partakes does so without reason. In the comment, it is obvious that man and animal become one in this materialistic view.

Following immediately in the narrative is the passage which tells of Spitz's intention to prevent Buck's remaining the leader. The fight to death ensues. When Spitz attacks, Buck knows the meaning instantly:

In a flash Buck knew it. The time had come. It was to the death. As they circled about, snarling, ears laid back, keenly watching for the advantage, the scene came back to Buck with a sense of familiarity. He seemed to remember it all,—the white woods, and earth, and moonlight, and the thrill of battle.  . . . To Buck it was nothing new or strange, this scene of old time. It was as though it had always been, the wonted way of things (49).

The resulting battle is a bloody, ugly affair. It is won by Buck because he has imagination. The quality of mind which produces Buck's victory is indeed strange and perplexing psychological feat for a mere animal, but as odd as it appears, it does not leave room for mercy. That was “a thing reserved for gentler climes” (50). Buck reigns supreme, “the successful champion, the dominant primordial beast who had made his kill and found it good” (51). London is not explicit in arguing for survival as the motivation for Buck's fight, though it is certainly implicit in all that Buck does from the first encounter with Spitz. The capture of the rabbit is likewise not necessary for survival, but it is artistically relevant since it precipitates Spitz's desire to attack Buck.

After this chapter, which itself is episodic, the remainder of the novel seems almost anti-climatic, though in reality it is not because London still manages in scenes following to carry out his central thesis, Buck's return to a former, primitive state. So Buck becomes the leader of the pack, and the team successfully makes its trips between Dawson and other cities. In the leisure between trips, while lying by the fire, Buck's mind wanders back to Judge Miller's home, and London makes the dream of the call nearer:

The Sunland was very dim and distant, and such memories had no power over him. Far more potent were the memories of his heredity that gave things he had never seen before a seeming familiarity; the instincts (which were but the memories of his ancestors become habit) which had lapsed in later days, and still later, in him, quickened and became alive again (57).

And in Buck's dreams of the ancestral world of the primitive, described in a manner very similar to the setting in London's earlier “The First Poet” and the later book, Before Adam, Buck sees another man:

This other man was shorter of leg and longer of arm, with muscles that were stringy and knotty rather than rounded and swelling. The hair of this man was long and matted, and his head slanted back under it from the eyes. He uttered strange sounds, and seemed very much afraid of the darkness, into which he peered continually, clutching in his hand, which hung midway between knee and foot, a stick with a heavy stone made fast to the end. He was all but naked, a ragged and fire-scorched skin hanging part way down his back, but on his body there was much hair. In some places, across the chest and shoulders and down the outside of arms and thighs, it was matted into almost a thick fur. He did not stand erect, but with trunk inclined forward from the hips, on legs that bent at the knees. About his body there was a peculiar springiness, or resiliency, almost catlike, and quick alertness as of one who lived in perpetual fear of things seen and unseen (57).

With each passing day Buck and his mates are given sleds too heavy to pull, until finally their masters overwork them, and the entire pack crawls, half-dead into Dawson. There Buck is sold to a group of tenderfeet who try also to pack too much on a sled for the tired dogs to pull. In this dull little episode, Buck learns that not all people have a knowledge of even the rudiments of survival, for “Hal,” “Charles,” and “Mercedes” first quarrel, then fight, and finally resort to beating the dogs into moving the heavy sleds. John Thorton, an informed and interested trapper, warns the tenderfeet to stop beating the dogs and to go no further on the frozen river. After seeing their particularly harsh treatment of Buck, he rescues Buck from the group, and the naive trappers dash on, only to fall through the ice and drown.

In the penultimate chapter, the most often remembered but far less characteristic of the book's themes, London sentimentalizes his story to make effective the contrast of the last chapter where Buck answers the call of the wild. Thorton revives memories of the soft days before Buck came north. Still the episode only quickens Buck's dilemma. Buck cannot decide between the call of Thorton's love and the lure of the wild. In the structural tour de force of the novel, London parallels Buck's journey back to the wild with the literal journey the sled teams take to the wild country of Alaska:

He was older than the days he had seen and the breaths he had drawn. He linked the past with the present, and the eternity behind him throbbed through him in a mighty rhythm to which he swayed as the tides and seasons swayed. He sat by John Thorton's fire, a broad-breasted dog, white-fanged and long furred; but behind him were the shades of all manner of dogs, half-wolves and wild wolves. . . .

So peremptorily did these shades beckon him, that each day mankind and the claims of mankind slipped farther from him. Deep in the forest a call was sounding, and as often as he heard this call, mysteriously thrilling and luring, he felt compelled to turn his back upon the fire and the beaten earth around it, and to plunge into the forest . . .(82).

London says that “Buck earned sixteen hundred dollars in five minutes for John Thorton,” in summarizing the events that characterize Buck's “love of man.” But the love and the fame of his feats in civilization cannot forever restrain Buck. The more he is on the trail with the man he loves, the more also the vision; and in all his visions, the “trap” is prominent. Except for his love for Thorton, Buck's return to his “first” love becomes complete. In daydreams, while his masters work their claims, Buck wanders through the wilds until at last he cannot resist the call: “And he knew it, in the old familiar way, as a sound heard before” (98). In answering the call, Buck finds a friend in the wolf he has heard. But the two ways of life persist in his mind, even with increased perplexity as he returns to be with Thorton briefly. At last Buck's killing a bull moose assures him that it is with the wild he belongs:

There is a patience of the wild—dogged, tireless, persistent as life itself—that holds motionless for endless hours the spider in its web, the snake in its coils, the panther in its ambuscade; this patience belongs peculiarly to life when it hunts its living food; and it belonged to Buck as he clung to the flank of the herd. . .(104).

Trying to break completely with civilization, Buck discovers that it is not easy to leave the man he loves, but returning to find his master dead, Buck knows that “the last tie was broken. Man and the claims of man no longer bound him” (110). Thorton's death, Buck discovers, is at the hands of a tribe of Yeehats. In his revenge, Buck achieves his highest aim, his action pointing to the implicit allegory of the novel: “He had killed man, the noblest game of all, and he had killed in the face of the law of club and fang” (109). Symbolically, the law of survival has become explicit; the law of club and fang both pays and extracts its fee in the merging of the killing of the Indianman by the dog-man.

Once in the wild permanently, Buck soon successfully defends his life against a pack of wolves; then he knows that he was right to answer the call.

London's Darwinian epic is neatly concluded:

And here may well end the story of Buck. The years were not many when the Yeehats noted a change in the breed of timber wolves; for some were seen with splashes of brown on head and muzzle, and with a rift of white centering down the chest (111).

It is the Ghost Dog, as elusive in its forays into the Indians' camp as the Evil Spirit into which the dog eventually evolves in the Indian mythology. London apostrophizes the call, noting that Buck still exists in the folklore of the Yeehats, the primitive forerunner of man. And Buck and his “pack” still permeate the world:

But he is not always alone. When the long winter nights come on and the wolves follow their meat into the lower valleys, he may be seen running at the head of the pack through the pale moonlight or glimmering borealis, leaping gigantic above his fellows, his great throat
a–bellow as he sings a song of the younger world, which is the song of the pack (111).

The naturalism that characterizes this novel is not consistently developed. But neither is the naturalism always of a rigid, definable pattern in, for example, Norris' romantic ending of McTeague, or Dreisler's, or Crane's notable lack of reform (to choose random motifs historically associated with naturalism). In The Call of the Wild one does not learn how atavism is biologically or scientifically plausible, nor does one learn how the implicit determinism at work behind Buck's existence comes about. In London's mind, it is merely an assertion, an accepted, “Irrefragable fact,” not a scientifically controlled experiment. The book gives no help to either the sociologist or the biologist who turns here expecting to find Taine's, Darwin's, or Spencer's theories put into practice in fiction. Indeed, the ideas of Spencer and Darwin are certainly confused in the philosophy which does emerge. For Spencer felt that whatever evolutionary processes should work out in creating a complex society, the individual would never notice the changes. In Buck, however, the dominant operating pressure is clearly an evolutionary process, though not rationally defended by London, which the individual not only senses but ultimately knows. While Jung's and Freud's psychology later supported London's legend of the purlieu of a dog world, Darwinism was generally not intent on showing that in the descent of man the intuitive memories of a former state were a prerequisite to man's having been there. Nevertheless, while some technical difficulties preclude one's making rigid and categorical assertions about London's understanding and use of naturalistic theory, he was clearly writing for a popular audience that had no doubt about either his intentions or his accomplishments.

Source: Jack London Newsletter. Vol. 2. No. 3. (December 1969): 91-101.


1  Joan London, Jack London and His Times. (New York: Doubleday, 1939).
2  Roy W. Carlson, "Jack London's Heroes: A Study of Evolutionary Thought" (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of New Mexico, 1961). See his comments on 101.
3  Jack London, "The Other Animals" in Revolution and Other Essays. (New York: Macmillan, 1910): 238.
4  Call, 14.
5  Norris had used it in McTeague; Dreiser in Sister Carrie.
6  C. C. Walcutt, American Literary Naturalism: A Divided Stream. (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1956): 104.
7  One remembers the man-dog parallels in McTeague. Marcus Schouler and McTeague's battles, parodied in the novel by the dogs who keep growling at each other, bear a striking resemblance to Buck's and Spitz's encounter.

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