The Laws of Civilization and of Wilderness
While the two lives that Buck leads stand in stark contrast to each other, this contrast does not go unchallenged throughout the novel. His life with Judge Miller is leisurely, calm, and unchallenging, while his transition to the wilderness shows him a life that is savage, frenetic, and demanding. While it would be tempting to assume that these two lives are polar opposites, events later in the novel show some ways in which both the wild and civilization have underlying social codes, hierarchies, and even laws. For example, the pack that Buck joins is not anarchic; the position of lead dog is coveted and given to the most powerful dog. The lead dog takes responsibility for group decisions and has a distinctive style of leadership; the main factor in the rivalry between Buck and Spitz is that Buck sides with the less popular, marginal dogs instead of the stronger ones. Buck, then, advocates the rights of a minority in the pack—a position that is strikingly similar to that of his original owner, the judge, who is the novel’s most prominent example of civilization. The rules of the civilized and uncivilized worlds are, of course, extremely different—in the wild, many conflicts are resolved through bloody fights rather than through reasoned mediation. But the novel suggests that what is important in both worlds is to understand and abide by the rules which that world has set up, and it is only when those rules are broken that we see true savagery and disrespect for life. Mercedes, Hal, and Charles enter the wild with little understanding of the rules one must follow to become integrated and survive. Their inability to ration food correctly, their reliance upon their largely useless knife and gun, and their disregard for the dogs’ suffering all attest to laws of the wilderness that they misunderstand or choose to ignore. As a result, the wilderness institutes a natural consequence for their actions. Precisely because they do not heed the warnings that the wild provides via one of its residents, John Thornton, they force the team over unstable ice and fall through to their deaths. The novel seems to say that the wild does not allow chaos or wanton behavior but instead institutes a strict social and natural order different from, but not inferior to, that of the civilized world.
"There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise... 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" (London 62). This famous excerpt from The Call of the Wild by Jack London reveals that the joy of living comes about through the loss of self-awareness. Though London has long been praised for his storytelling ability, far too often he is disparaged for his so-called indecisiveness. However, though London had eclectic beliefs, the above passage makes it clear that he believed that the same type of ecstasy occurs for all people in every kind of setting. With this passage and others like it in The Call of the Wild, London reveals that despite the many differences between nature and civilization, these two settings have many similarities as well. London drew inspiration for this novel from the wide variety of experiences that he had throughout his short life. He grew up in San Francisco, but at the age of fifteen he started to expand his horizons by traveling the world by ship. At this point he became a Socialist, developed a dislike for capitalism, and chose to fully support Darwin's theories; all of these decisions strongly influenced his writing. When he was twenty-one, he went to Alaska to take part in the Klondike Gold Rush, and his life was changed forever. The wilderness of...
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