Growing up, The Call of the Wild was one of the staples of my library, a book I read half a dozen times before I turned 18. I hadn’t picked it up in fifteen or twenty years, but I did so yesterday and read it through adult eyes. The story I remembered, but I was shocked anew at the dark and cruel world London created. It is a story of nature versus beast. Of survival of the fittest. Of the molding of a savage, feral animal.
The year is 1897 and the Yukon gold rush is in full swing. Buck is dognapped from his California estate home and delivered to the northern wilderness where he learns quickly the “law of tooth and fang.” Only the strong, the merciless, the cunning survive. Primeval instinct takes over, and Buck learns to become all these things.
London writes a great deal about this reverting to wolfish instinct. Buck was “harking back through his own life to the lives of his forebears.” His ancestors “quickened the old life within him, and the old tricks which they had stamped into the heredity of the breed were his tricks. They came to him without effort or discovery, as though they had been his always.” London illustrates for us the domestication of wolf to dog by tracing it backwards through Buck’s feral slide. But with a trick of his pen, London merges this with a much larger form of evolution. Buck, with his age-old eyes, sees the image of a prehistoric man, hunched and hairy, fearful and wary. “Survival of the fittest” (natural selection) is a significant, logical theme in this book, but parents beware, at times London draws heavily on a Darwinist worldview.
In this hostile and primitive setting, Buck adapts, he reasons, he hates and holds grudges. He also delights, he imagines, and even finds humor in a situation–all very humanlike qualities. Yet he remains very much a dog, so we can easily forgive the monster he turns into. He becomes a cunning thief, a harsh task master, and a brutal killer of weaker dogs and of the smaller animals that give him life. In such a climate, London tells us, he must be this way to survive. The book details “the decay of his moral nature” (if dogs have such a thing). Morality is 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.”
So you can see why this book has always mystified those who classify books by genre. It is called children’s literature because the main character is a dog. Yet it has some troublesome themes. And it also has some horrible, horrible scenes. Dogs are beaten to death by men. They are killed in gruesome fights. And men kill each other. I remember crying as a child each time I read this (and I admit I got misty again yesterday), yet I’ve been drawn back again and again by the power of this story. I love the wilderness, despite its harshness, and I’ve always been an incurable dog-lover. And not everything in the book is darkness. In chapter six, Buck falls madly in love with a good master. This deep, mysterious bond that can form between mankind and dogkind is something I can related to, something I’ve always treasured.
For all its darkness, blood and cruelty, at the end of this book I’m always overcome by a heavy feeling of awe. I’d recommend this one for ages 10+.