The Call of the Wild, White Fang, and Other Stories

By Jack London
Published: 1903
The Call of the Wild, White Fang, and Other Stories book cover

Overview

Jack London's The Call of the Wild is a singular classic. It is a great novel that can be appreciated by readers of all ages, as well as a philosophical book that provides an action-packed adventure. Oddest of all, it is an experimental novel (half of the characters are canine, including the hero) that is a thrilling pleasure to read. No wonder this American novel has never lacked readers—both here and abroad.

"No man ever became great who did not achieve the impossible." —from the essay "The Question of a Name" (1900)

Introduction to the Book

The hero of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild (1903) is Buck, a St. Bernard/Scotch Shepherd dog. Late one night in 1897, a poor farm-worker steals Buck from his comfortable Northern California home and sells him as a sled dog. Set mostly during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897–98 in Canada’s Yukon Territory and Alaska, the novel chronicles Buck’s struggles and successes as he learns “the law of club and fang.”

Four years as a domesticated pet have not extinguished Buck’s primordial instincts or imagination. He courageously survives brutal cruelty from humans and the wilderness, and he becomes the leader of his dogsled team. He endures hunger and fatigue, learns to scavenge for food, and fights with a rival dog. Despite all this hardship, Buck is “mastered by the sheer surging of life” for the first time. Ultimately, Buck struggles between his love for his last master, John Thornton, and his desire to answer the mysterious call of his ancestors.

Drawing from Egerton R. Young’s historical narrative My Dogs in the Northland (1902), Jack London wrote The Call of the Wild in only one month. It first appeared in summer 1903 as a serialized work in the Saturday Evening Post. Although London was paid only $2,750 for the novel, he won instant literary fame and wide popularity.

London’s artistic intentions were often misunderstood. After one particular critique from President Theodore Roosevelt and naturalist John Burroughs, London wrote a letter of explanation: “The writing of [The Call of the Wild and White Fang] ... was in truth a protest against the ‘humanizing’ of animals.... Time and again ... I wrote, speaking of my dog-heroes: ‘He did not think these things; he merely did them’... These dog-heroes of mine were not directed by abstract reasoning, but by instinct, sensation, and emotion, and by simple reasoning.”

For this, and for London’s vivid description of the struggle for survival in a hostile environment, generations of children and adults have found The Call of the Wild an unforgettable adventure.

Major Characters in the Book

The Dogs

Buck
The narrator tells the story from Buck’s point of view. Stolen from his California home to labor as a sled dog in the Klondike, Buck quickly learns to survive and triumph. In addition to his cunning, patience, and strength, Buck’s greatest quality is his imagination, which allows him to fight by both instinct and reason.

Spitz
This well-traveled animal—a big white dog from Spitzbergen, Norway—is a practiced fighter who hates Buck. Despite his greater experience, Spitz meets his match when Buck challenges his leadership in a fight to the death.

Dave
The greatest desire of this gloomy, morose dog is to be left alone. Although he sleeps at every possible moment, he surprises Buck when they are first harnessed as a team: Dave loves his work and becomes a fair, wise teacher.

Sol-leks
His name means “the angry one,” an apt description of his feelings whenever another dog approaches from his blind side. Like Dave, Sol-leks wants to be left alone, loves his work, and quickly teaches Buck the best ways to work as a team.

The Humans

Judge Miller
Buck and his father, Elmo, were the prized pets of this kind-hearted judge who owns a large ranch in northern California’s Santa Clara Valley.

Manuel
This underpaid worker cannot support his wife and children. Motivated by easy money, he steals Buck one evening and sells him as a sled dog during the 1897-1898 Klondike Gold Rush.

The “man with the red sweater”
Never named, this man becomes the embodiment of one of the most important lessons Buck ever learns: In the quest for survival, the “law of club and fang” reigns supreme.

Perrault and François
These intrepid French-Canadian couriers bear important dispatches for the Canadian government, so they are happy to find a dog as strong as Buck. They are never cruel to their dogs, and Buck grows to respect their kind severity.

Hal, Charles, and Mercedes
A mixture of selfishness, greed, and incompetence distinguishes these middle-class Americans as some of literature’s most memorable antagonists. Hal’s ruthless beating of Buck is sure to awaken the reader’s desire for justice.

John Thornton
Thornton rescues Buck, and this man’s kindness and love heal more than the dog’s physical wounds. Master and dog save each other repeatedly.

Portrait of Jack London

Jack London. Photo by Bettmann/Corbis

Jack London (1876–1916)

The adventures told in Jack London’s fiction hardly surpass those from his real life. On January 12, 1876, the man we know as Jack London was born John Griffith Chaney in San Francisco, California, to an unwed mother, Flora Wellman. When Flora refused to have an abortion, the probable father—William H. Chaney—deserted her. Her depression was so severe that she attempted suicide twice in two days. Eight months later, Flora married John London, a widower with two daughters. John London gave his adopted son his surname and his love, and Jack spent his young boyhood on California ranches.

After the family moved to Oakland in London’s ninth year, Flora expected her son to contribute to the family income. His formal education stopped after grammar school, and his career among the working-class poor began. During his teen years, some of his jobs included newspaper boy, factory worker, oyster pirate, seal hunter, coal stoker, and sailor in Japan. In 1894, while tramping across America and Canada, London was imprisoned for vagrancy in an appalling New York penitentiary—an experience that helped make him a Socialist.

These events also ignited his desire for education, so the 19-year-old enrolled as a freshman at Oakland High School while working as a janitor there. After one year, he quit school and often studied 15 hours a day on his own—with the help of librarians from the Oakland Public Library—to prepare for the entry exams to the University of California, Berkeley. He was ultimately accepted, but his family’s poverty again proved too great a responsibility. He left Berkeley after one semester, tried to earn money by writing, and worked in a steam laundry.

When his brother-in-law asked him to join the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897, Jack London quickly agreed. Though they never found gold, London found literary riches in 1899 by selling stories to magazines based on his experiences in Alaska and Canada. His breakthrough came in 1900 when Houghton Mifflin agreed to publish a collection of his Klondike tales, The Son of the Wolf.

Between 1900 to 1905, London married Bess Maddern, had two daughters, wrote and published The Call of the Wild (1903) and The Sea-Wolf (1904), and traveled to Japan and Korea to report on the Russo-Japanese War. When he returned from Korea he divorced Bess, bought his beloved Sonoma Valley ranch in Glen Ellen, and married the woman he loved—Charmian Kittredge.

A man of abounding energy and zeal for life, he wrote more than 200 short stories, 20 novels, 400 nonfiction works, and three plays in less than 20 years. Despite his worldwide travels and diverse interests, he maintained a disciplined, rigorous writing schedule: 1,000 words (by hand) every morning. About writing he once said: “The three great things are: Good Health; Work; and a Philosophy of Life. I may add, nay, must add, a fourth—Sincerity. Without this, the other three are without avail. With it you may cleave to greatness and sit among the giants.” Despite his early death at age 40, Jack London remains seated deservedly among America’s literary giants.

"Having decided that I was a failure as a writer, I gave it up and left for the Klondike to prospect for gold. It was in the Klondike that I found myself. There nobody talks. Everybody thinks. You get your true perspective. I got mine."
—Jack London, from "Eight Factors of Literary Success," 1917

An Interview with Sara S. Hodson

On August 28, 2007, Adam Kampe of the National Endowment for the Arts interviewed Jack London scholar Sara S. Hodson, curator of literary manuscripts at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. An excerpt from their conversation follows.

Adam Kampe: How old was Jack London when he began writing?

Sara Hodson: He started writing in his teens. He would send his stories to magazines and publishers, and every one would come back, rejected. He would impale every letter on a tall spindle that he had in his writing room next to his rented typewriter, and soon he had a four-foot-tall spindle of rejection letters. But he never gave up! London had a burning desire to fulfill his potential as a writer. He felt it was simply a matter of getting that first sale, of selling the first story.

AK: London was a voracious reader. Is it true that he carried Paradise Lost and Origin of the Species with him to the Klondike?

SH: That’s right. The fact that he took Milton and Darwin tells you how much they meant to him, that those two books would carry him through the hardships and isolation. Each miner had to bring a thousand pounds of supplies—mostly food, of course—which was required by the Canadian government, so that they wouldn’t have more dead bodies than would already be inevitable. Because he saw all the dead animals, London carried his own supplies in multiple trips up the Chilkoot Pass. He was there in the summertime, and it took him ten trips to get his equipment and supplies to the top of the pass.

AK: What motivated him to leave California and head to the Yukon?

SH: He needed money, and he heard about the reports of gold strikes in the Klondike. I think he was also motivated by a historic time of adventure and excitement. Actually, he didn’t get any gold, but he really struck it rich with gold nuggets of stories that he heard from other Klondike miners. These were the kind of strong, stirring, adventurous tales that he was drawn to. He recognized that this is where the future of his writing lay.

AK: How much did that one year influence the writing of The Call of the Wild?

SH: That one year was an enormous influence for The Call of the Wild. London saw dogsled teams in the Klondike. He saw the way they behaved. He saw the way they were treated by their owners and mistreated. He saw life at its most harsh, at its most elemental, where to make a very small mistake can mean the loss of your life.

AK: Are there parallels between Jack London and his canine protagonist, Buck?

SH: London was much like the dog Buck in that he was a scrapper. He fought for what he knew was his right, and he never settled for less. Buck started out in a sheltered environment and is then thrown suddenly, rudely, brutally into a world where he has to fight to survive every single day. If he doesn’t learn the laws, he’s not going to survive. He learns which dogs he can trust.

Jack London was like that when he arrived in the Klondike. He didn’t know the life. He learned which men would show him what he needed to survive, the right way to behave toward other people and toward animals. John Thornton is also very much like Jack London. He’s a man of compassion, who can deal fairly with both humans and animals. London had his own way of approaching people, which was always to be fair, generous, and caring.

AK: Why is The Call of the Wild still considered a worldwide classic?

SH: The Call of the Wild is a timeless book in that it’s appropriate, useful, and enjoyable to read for anyone at any age at any time. It is a book about survival, and survival is an issue for everyone no matter whether we’re surviving a day in the office, a hard day of manual labor, a bad relationship, or the Klondike without fire or food. A story of survival speaks to all of us, because it makes us look within. Would I have what it takes to survive in that kind of environment? What would happen to me? It lets you imagine yourself in that circumstance.

  1. When news of the Klondike Gold Rush reached San Francisco in 1897, thousands of men (and some women) left their homes and families to search for gold with no certainty that they would be successful. Would you have made a treacherous journey on such a hope?
  2. The Call of the Wild has an unnamed narrator, who tells the story entirely from the perspective of Buck—a St. Bernard/Scotch Shepherd dog. How effective is Jack London’s ability to sustain the story from a dog’s point of view? What other stories have been told from an animal’s viewpoint?
  3. Describe "the law of club and fang” that Buck learns from the “man with the red sweater.” Is this lesson relevant for the survival of humans today?
  4. How does Buck respond when he is “suddenly jerked from the heart of civilization and flung into the heart of things primordial”? Why does the narrator believe his “imagination” is his greatest attribute?
  5. How does Buck’s first theft prove he will survive his new, hostile environment? What happens to his “moral consideration” after this transforming experience?
  6. One of the novel’s most important scenes is the fight between Buck and his rival, Spitz. Who initiates this fight? Does it have to end the way it does? Why or why not?
  7. Buck begins to hear a mysterious, mournful song only after he is removed from his life as a domesticated pet and taken to the harsh natural environment of the Klondike. Why couldn’t he hear this “call” in California?
  8. Are Hal, Charles, and Mercedes the novel’s primary antagonists? What does London suggest by including humans who seek gold at the expense of their own well-being?
  9. How does John Thornton differ from Buck’s previous masters? Why does Buck respond to Thornton with such devotion?
  10. Ultimately, John Thornton discovers gold “like yellow butter.” How does Buck respond to this new lifestyle, compared to the other dogs? Why does the “strain of the primitive” remain “alive and active” in Buck?
  11. The Call of the Wild begins with the opening lines of “Atavism,” a poem by John Myers O’Hara published in 1902. Although Jack London didn’t know the full poem at the time, he felt these four lines perfectly summarized his novel. Do you agree?