Why this book: This book was a selection for a reading group I’m in. Everyone in the reading group had read the book in elementary or junior high school, and we were looking for a good short book that would generate some good discussion. This is the one we agreed to read.
My Impresssions: I understand how this book has become a staple of adventure reading for young people – it is quite short, the prose and narrative are straightforward, there is no sex, there is a clear hero who thinks in a pretty straightforward manner (it’s a dog – so what would you expect?) The violence is between animals, and on the surface its themes are simple – power, persistence, connection with nature, and survival. But that is just on the surface. This is much more than a simple adventure story for kids – it is a morality tale that says much about human beings and how they interact with each other and the world we live in. The story of Buck, the dog, is a metaphor for how we humans would interact without the thin veneer of civilization.
Buck is a smart, healthy, and in fact ‘Alpha male’ dog living the good life on a ranch in California when he is ‘dognapped’ and sold to be shipped to the Klondike to pull sleds during the Alaskan gold rush. London describes Buck and his perceptions in the third person without giving Buck overly human perceptions or sensibilities. Buck is smart and clever to be sure, with a strong instinct to survive and to dominate, but he finds himself quickly in ‘over his head’ when he is taken away from the comfortable life of a ranch dog. But his instinct to survive is strong and he figures out the rules pretty quickly. Within the team of dogs pulling the sled, the pecking order and the “moral” framework is pretty simple and clear: Pull your weight. Know your place. Anyone who has been in a highly charged male environment recognizes the personalities of the dogs in the team from their own experience with humans. London actually gets specific in stating how morality in this survival-of-the-fittest world becomes merely a matter of power and survival.
“ This first theft marked Buck as fit to survive in the hostile Northland environment….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 all 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.”
London’s message that human behavior is a different version of animal behavior is clear. He also brings an interesting variety of humans into the story – though the only woman is a pretty but frivolous and self-centered nag who contributes to the demise of her equally stupid consorts. Within this back-drop of quasi-civilized human interaction, Buck is constantly hearing and increasingly listens to his own primal and genetic instincts, and this instinctive attention to his primitive self is key to his survival and success. Those dogs which don’t have strong primal instincts, or in whom these instincts have been bred or conditioned out, perish.
I believe London shared Nietzsche’s belief that civilization and culture dilute the best in man’s primal nature – the will to power. Nietzsche (and I believe London) believed that good manners, conforming to social conventions and the temptations to live comfortably in the civilized world, breed weakness and mediocrity. Both Nietzsche and London believed that our primitive instincts are our true source of power and creativity, and are what drive man and civilization forward. If we fail to respect, cultivate and honor our primal instincts we eventually self destruct, or become victim to the whims and even primitive brutality of those who do hold on to their primal selves. I believe that Buck’s relationship to John Thornton toward the end of the book represented London’s ideal compromise between civilized living and honoring one’s primal instincts.
The key weakness I found in the book was the absence of the sex drive as an explicit factor in the ‘call of the wild’ that London portrays. The one poor representative of a human female in the story has no canine counterpart– we read of no female dogs (I hesitate to say ‘bitches’) that Buck may have encountered. Only in the end, when we read a single line referring to Buck’s progeny is there any indication that Buck had any draw to the female of the species. This may in part explain why this book has been so readily recommended to young readers in our own sexually suppressed culture. I believe that the drive to reproduce, to seek powerful mate(s), and to fight to conceive and protect one’s progeny and thereby ensure the survival of the species, is a fundamental part of our primal ‘will to power’ and instinct to survive. If Jack London shared this belief, there is no evidence of it in The Call of the Wild.
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