Review Notes for The Call of the Wild
-by Jack London (January 12, 1876 - November 22, 1916)
-written in 1903; takes place in 1897 (the same year London himself went to the Yukon to become a prospector
-London’s most famous work, blending his experiences as a gold prospector in the Canadian wilderness with his ideas about nature and the struggle for existence.
Buck, a powerful dog, half St. Bernard and half sheepdog, lives on Judge Miller’s estate in California’s Santa Clara Valley. He leads a comfortable life there, but it comes to an end when men discover gold in the Klondike region of Canada and a great demand arises for strong dogs to pull sleds. Buck is kidnapped by a gardener on the Miller estate and sold to dog traders, who teach Buck to obey by beating him with a club and, subsequently, ship him north to the Klondike.
Arriving in the chilly North, Buck is amazed by the cruelty he sees around him. As soon as another dog from his ship, Curly, gets off the boat, a pack of huskies violently attacks and kills her. Watching her death, Buck vows never to let the same fate befall him. Buck becomes the property of Francois and Perrault, two mail carriers working for the Canadian government, and begins to adjust to life as a sled dog. He recovers the instincts of his wild ancestors: he learns to fight, scavenge for food, and sleep beneath the snow on winter nights. At the same time, he develops a fierce rivalry with Spitz, the lead dog in the team. One of their fights is broken up when a pack of wild dogs invades the camp, but Buck begins to undercut Spitz’s authority, and eventually the two dogs become involved in a major fight. Buck kills Spitz and takes his place as the lead dog.
With Buck at the head of the team, Francois and Perrault’s sled makes record time. However, the men soon turn the team over to a mail carrier who forces the dogs to carry much heavier loads. In the midst of a particularly arduous trip, one of the dogs becomes ill, and eventually the driver has to shoot him. At the end of this journey, the dogs are exhausted, and the mail carrier sells them to a group of American gold hunters—Hal, Charles, and Mercedes.
Buck’s new masters are inexperienced and out of place in the wilderness. They overload the sled, beat the dogs, and plan poorly. Halfway through their journey, they begin to run out of food. While the humans bicker, the dogs begin to starve, and the weaker animals soon die. Of an original team of fourteen, only five are still alive when they limp into John Thornton’s camp, still some distance from their destination. Thornton warns them that the ice over which they are traveling is melting and that they may fall through it. Hal dismisses these warnings and tries to get going immediately. The other dogs begin to move, but Buck refuses. When Hal begins to beat him, Thornton intervenes, knocking a knife from Hal’s hand and cutting Buck loose. Hal curses Thornton and starts the sled again, but before they have gone a quarter of a mile, the ice breaks open, swallowing both the humans and the dogs.
Thornton becomes Buck’s master, and Buck’s devotion to him is total. He saves Thornton from drowning in a river, attacks a man who tries to start a fight with Thornton in a bar, and, most remarkably, wins a $1,600 wager for his new master by pulling a sled carrying a thousand-pound load. But Buck’s love for Thornton is mixed with a growing attraction to the wild, and he feels as if he is being called away from civilization and into the wilderness. This feeling grows stronger when he accompanies Thornton and his friends in search of a lost mine hidden deep in the Canadian forest.
While the men search for gold, Buck ranges far afield, befriending wolves and hunting bears and moose. He always returns to Thornton in the end, until, one day, he comes back to camp to find that Yeehat Indians have attacked and killed his master. Buck attacks the Indians, killing several and scattering the rest, and then heads off into the wild, where he becomes the leader of a pack of wolves. He becomes a legendary figure, a Ghost Dog, fathering countless cubs and inspiring fear in the Yeehats—but every year he returns to the place where Thornton died, to mourn his master before returning to his life in the wild.
Significance of Chapter Titles
I: Into the Primitive
II: The Law of Club and Fang
III: The Dominant Primordial Beast
IV: Who Has Won Mastership
V: The Toil of Trace and Trail
VI: For the Love of a Man
VII: The Sounding of a the Call
Buck: half St. Bernard and half sheepdog, stolen from a California estate and sold as a sled dog in the Arctic
Spitz: Buck’s archrival and the original leader of Francois’s dog team. Spitz is a fierce animal—a “devil-dog,” one man calls him—who is used to fighting with other dogs and winning.
Dave - A dog on Buck’s team. Dave becomes ill on one of the team’s journeys but refuses to leave the harness, preferring to die pulling the sled. In his stubbornness at this task, Dave is an example of gritty determination.
Sol-leks - An older, more experienced dog on Buck’s team.
Curly - A friend of Buck’s, met on the journey to the North. Curly’s death, when she naively tries to be friendly to a husky, acts as a warning to Buck of the harshness and cruelty of his new home.
John Thornton: Buck’s final master, a gold hunter experienced in the ways of the Klondike. Thornton saves Buck from death at the hands of Hal, and Buck rewards Thornton with fierce loyalty. Thornton’s relationship to Buck is the ideal man-dog relationship: each guards the other’s back and is completely devoted to the other. The strength of their bond is enough to keep Buck from acting on the forces he feels are calling him into the wild.
Francois and Perrault: French Canadian mail drivers who buy Buck and add him to their team
Mercedes: Charles’s wife and Hal’s sister. Mercedes is spoiled and pampered; sentimental and unsuited for the wild.
Hal: Mercedes’ brother; inexperienced in the North; represents the weakness of overcivilized men and to embody the man-dog relationship at its worst.
Charles: husband of Mercedes; shares their inexperience and folly; their inexperience costs them and their dogs their lives when they crash though river ice and drown
Judge Miller - Buck’s original master, the owner of a large estate in California’s Santa Clara Valley.
Manuel - A gardener’s helper on Judge Miller’s estate. Manuel kidnaps Buck and sells him in order to pay off his gambling debts.
Man in the red sweater: carries a club; “breaks” Buck and other dogs; teaches Buck his first lesson of the “law of club and fang
Suggested Essay Topics
1. Discuss Mercedes, Hal, and Charles. What role do they play in the novel? How do they function as embodiments of the worst side of civilization?
2. To what extent does London anthropomorphize Buck—that is, present him like a human being? To what extent is he still clearly an animal?
3. Compare the roles of John Thornton and Judge Miller. Who, from the novel’s point of view, is the better master? Defend your answer.
4. What is the “call of the wild”? How does it affect Buck's behavior throughout the novel?
1. How does The Call of the Wild present the human-dog relationship?
London’s novel is the story of Buck’s transformation from a pampered pet to a fierce, masterful wild animal, and this transformation naturally means that the canine protagonist gradually separates himself from his human masters on his way to achieving a final independence. Nevertheless, The Call of the Wild ultimately offers an ambiguous, rather than negative, portrait of Buck’s relationship to humanity. It suggests that while some human-dog relationships can be disastrous to the dog’s welfare, others are mutually beneficial, and a natural love can develop between dogs and their masters. The negative side of the man-dog compact is embodied in Hal, Charles, and Mercedes, whose inexperience, stubbornness, and general incompetence bring disaster not only on themselves but also on their sled dogs. The trio’s failure to understand the laws of the wild ultimately leads to the death of every one of their animals—except, of course, Buck, whom John Thornton saves. It is Thornton, whom Buck loves intensely, who embodies the better way in which humans and dogs can be partners, where each looks out for the other’s welfare. Buck’s visions of primitive man and his faithful dog suggest that this relationship is ultimately more primitive than civilized, and that there may be a natural bond between men and their dogs that predates modern society. Nevertheless, the story ultimately demands that even this bond be cast aside and that Buck seek his own way—suggesting that for the truly masterful animal, the greatest of dogs, having a master is only a temporary condition.
2. What is the “law of club and fang”? What does it represent? How is Buck introduced to it?
The opening of the novel sets up a contrast between two worlds: the sunny, comfortable world of Judge Miller’s estate, where Buck lives in spoiled, lordly contentment, and the harsh, frigid world of the Klondike, where he is dragged against his will. The judge’s world, as his title suggests, is defined by moral and legal codes, while the world of the Klondike is governed by a very different law. In the cold North, might makes right, and one must be willing to fight if one wishes to stay alive. Strength, not justice, is the central value. Buck learns this lesson from two events. First, he is beaten with a club by one of his kidnappers until he learns obedience, an event that teaches him about the power of violence and about the need to give in when threatened by a superior force. This reality constitutes the law of the club, and Buck learns the law of the fang when he arrives in Canada and watches one of his fellow dogs, a female dog named Curly, torn to pieces by a pack of huskies. “So that was the way,” he thinks to himself. “No fair play. Once down, that was the end of you.” These are the rules that Buck learns to live by and excel at in order to eventually become a king whose rule is defined by the “law of club and fang.”
1. What/who is Buck?
(A) A dog, half St. Bernard and half Scottish shepherd
(B) A young gold hunter
(C) An Arabian stallion
(D) An Alaskan wolf
2. Where does Buck live at the beginning of the novel?
(A) Nome, Alaska
(C) The Santa Clara Valley, in California
(D) Flagstaff, Arizona
3. What is the name of Buck's first master?
(A) John Thornton
(B) Judge Miller
4. Who kidnaps Buck from his home?
(A) Hal and Charles
(B) Yeehat Indians
(C) Judge Miller
(D) Manuel, a gardener
5. Which dog gets killed immediately upon her arrival in the North?
6. What is the profession of Francois and Perrault?
(A) Gold hunters
(B) Dog trainers
(C) Mail carriers
(D) Fur traders
7. Who is Buck's great rival on the team of dogs?
8. What event intervenes to stop a fight between Buck and Spitz?
(A) An avalanche
(B) An attack by Indians
(C) A flash flood
(D) An attack by wild dogs
9. What event brings about the final confrontation between Buck and Spitz?
(A) A wild chase after a rabbit
(B) A dispute over some food
(C) A fire in the camp
(D) The death of Billee
10. What does Buck demand after Spitz's death?
(A) More food
(B) Less work
(C) That he be made the lead dog
(D) That he be allowed to run wild
11. Who buys Buck and the other dogs when they are sold by the mail company?
(A) John Thornton
(B) Hal and Charles
(C) Judge Miller
12. What does Mercedes insist on doing that slows the sled down?
(A) Stopping frequently to feed the dogs
(B) Taking shortcuts over patches of dirt
(C) Buying fewer dogs
(D) Riding on the sled herself
13. What happens to the dogs during Hal and Charles's trip to Dawson?
(A) They begin to die of starvation
(B) They make record time
(C) They break their harnesses and escape into the woods
(D) They begin to attack one another
14. How does John Thornton save Buck's life?
(A) He shoots Hal and Charles
(B) He pulls him out of the river when the ice breaks
(C) He prevents Hal from beating him to death
(D) He goes to Dawson to get medicine for Buck's illness
15. What happens to Hal, Charles, and Mercedes after they leave John Thornton's?
(A) They reach Dawson unscathed
(B) Their sled and team breaks through the ice and they drown
(C) They are ambushed by Yeehat Indians
(D) They die of starvation
16. How does Buck save John Thornton's life?
(A) Buck kills a man who is about to shoot Thornton
(B) Buck fends off attacking Yeehat Indians
(C) Buck pulls his master back when Thornton is about to fall off a cliff
(D) When Thornton gets caught in the rapids, Buck swims to him and pulls him to safety
17. What bet does Thornton win with Matthewson?
(A) That Buck can outrun a train
(B) That Buck can move a sled loaded with a thousand pounds
(C) That Buck will do anything Thornton orders him to do
(D) That Buck can find a buried treasure
18. What does Buck do when Thornton gets into a bar fight?
(A) He cowers under the bar
(B) He drags Thornton outside by the collar
(C) He leaps at the throat of Thornton's assailant
(D) He runs to find the police
19. What quest sends Thornton and his friends into the wilderness?
(A) The search for a legendary lost mine
(B) The search for Thornton's missing brother
(C) The search for the Northwest Passage
(D) The search for a lost tribe of Indians
20. While the men camp and look for gold, what does Buck do?
(A) He scouts for hostile Indians
(B) He returns to Dawson carrying messages
(C) He sleeps all day
(D) He spends long periods of time in the deep forest, making contact with wolves
21. What kind of animal does Buck spend four days hunting?
(A) A mountain lion
(B) A moose
(C) A polar bear
(D) A wolf
22. What does Buck find when he returns from hunting?
(A) The camp has burned
(B) John Thornton has abandoned him and returned to Dawson
(C) The camp has been attacked by Yeehat Indians
(D) Nothing is amiss
23. What happens to John Thornton?
(A) He is killed by Indians
(B) He is lost in a blizzard and freezes to death
(C) He dies of hunger
(D) He lives to a ripe old age in Nome
24. What does Buck learn when he attacks the Yeehat Indians?
(A) That they are too strong for him
(B) That he cannot kill humans
(C) That arrows hurt
(D) That he can kill men, as long as they are not armed
25. What does Buck do at the end of the novel?
(A) He drowns
(B) He goes mad and is killed by John Thornton
(C) He is killed by wolves
(D) He joins a wolf pack and becomes a legendary figure in the wild