The Call of the Wild: Story and Character Analysis

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John Thornton
The Call of the Wild is, first and foremost, the story of Buck’s gradual transformation from a tame beast into a wild animal. But even as the novel celebrates the life of a wild creature, it presents us with the character of John Thornton, whose connection to Buck suggests that there may be something good and natural in the human-dog relationship, despite its flaws. Thornton, a seasoned gold prospector, saves Buck from being beaten to death by the odious Hal and then becomes Buck’s master. From then on, a deep and abiding love blossoms between man and dog. Their relationship is a reciprocal one—Thornton saves Buck, and Buck later saves Thornton from drowning in a river. It is clear that Buck is more of a partner than a servant to the prospector. This mutual respect, we are assured, is characteristic of all Thornton’s relationships to dogs—every one of his animals bears an abiding love for him, which is returned in kind. Even as Buck is increasingly drawn to a life away from humanity, a life in the wild, his affection for Thornton keeps him from making the final break. Indeed, so strong is their bond that it is broken only when Thornton dies, and even then Buck makes an annual pilgrimage to his last master’s final resting place.

Buck is prone to visions of more primitive worlds, and sometimes he sees the humans around him as ancient men, wearing animal skins and living in caves or trees. In some of these visions, he is running alongside these men, protecting them from the terrors of the night. His relationship to Thornton, the novel implies, is like these ancient man-dog connections; it is primitive rather than civilized, and so it remains strong even as Buck leaves the civilized world behind.

Hal, Charles, and Mercedes

These three can be analyzed in a group, because London never develops them beyond our initial impressions of them, which are strikingly similar: Hal and Charles are foolish and callow; Mercedes is spoiled and sentimental. Taken together, the trio serves as a vehicle through which London attacks the debilitating effects of human civilization and warns of how little use such civilization is in the wild. From their first appearance, Hal, Charles, and Mercedes are woefully out of place in the untamed North. Both Hal and Charles display “a callowness sheer and unutterable,” while Mercedes is spoiled and unreasonable—“it was her custom to be helpless,” London notes. As a group, the three have no experience in the wild, and, thus, they make mistake after mistake, overpacking the sled, allowing Mercedes to ride instead of walking, and miscalculating how much food they need for the journey to Dawson. When their mistakes become apparent, instead of taking action, they begin bickering and feuding, fighting over old grudges and trifles rather than dealing with the problems at hand.

The civilized world tolerates and even smiles on such absurdity, London suggests, but the wild has no such mercy. In the cold of the Klondike, incompetence is deadly, not only for the three foolish Americans but also for the team of dogs, for the humans’ poor planning has brought them to the brink of starvation. Hal, Charles, and Mercedes are weak and foolish figures, and their folly has its own reward—death in the icy waters of a northern river.

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes

Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

The Indispensable Struggle for Mastery

The Call of the Wild is a story of transformation in which the old Buck—the civilized, moral Buck—must adjust to the harsher realities of life in the frosty North, where survival is the only imperative. Kill or be killed is the only morality among the dogs of the Klondike, as Buck realizes from the moment he steps off the boat and watches the violent death of his friend Curly. The wilderness is a cruel, uncaring world, where only the strong prosper. It is, one might say, a perfect Darwinian world,...
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