DOGS CAUGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF THE HUMAN–NATURE CONFLICT



Published in 1903, Jack London’s novel Call of the Wild narrates the experiences of Buck, a St. Bernard-Scotch shepherd mix who is kidnapped from his comfortable home in California and enlisted as a sled dog in the Alaskan gold rush during the 1890s.

While today it is considered primarily reading for schoolchildren (despite brutal scenes of dogs fghting and killing each other, humans abusing dogs, and Buck slaughtering the—unfortunately demonized—native people who killed his beloved master John Thornton), it was an immediate best seller upon publication.

This was likely because its deep ambivalence about the domestication of the dog and human civilization paralleled a nationwide nostalgia for the rugged conditions of life on a frontier that Americans had recently been told was gone forever. Buck’s story offered a powerful example of a domesticated creature who can tap into his wild heritage and go feral in order to survive when his conditions change.

When he is abruptly taken from his pampered, overly civilized life in California to the new, brutal environment of frontier Alaska, both other dogs and humans threaten him viciously, and he must revert to his wildest, most primitive instincts to survive. As London describes it, “The domesticated generations fell from him. In vague ways he remembered back to the youth of the breed, to the time the wild dogs ranged in packs through the primeval forest and killed their meat as they ran it down. It was no task for him to learn to fght with cut and slash and the quick wolf snap” .

 Clearly linked to a notion of the dog’s wild origins, Buck’s primitive instincts spring back, allowing him not just to survive but eventually to become what London calls “the dominant primordial beast”: frst he kills off his arch-enemy, Spitz, the original leader of the sled team, and takes his place, and by the end of the book he responds to “the call of the wild” by joining a wolf pack and becoming their leader.

Before that, though, Buck also experiences the pinnacle of human–canine companionship with John Thornton, whom the narrator describes (from Buck’s perspective) as the “love master.” Thornton rescues Buck, by then a seasoned sled dog, from thoughtlessly cruel, incompetent people for no utilitarian purpose—it’s made clear that he doesn’t need another dog—and makes decisions, such as halting a journey when Buck needs time to recover, purely for Buck’s beneft. Buck is not expected to help with the conquest of nature or sacrifce himself for his master.

 Of course he is willing to, though, and saves Thornton’s life more than once, but it’s out of a ferce loyalty that Thornton earned, frst by saving Buck’s life and then by tenderly caring for him during the rest of their time together. Their relationship is an ideal of respect, cooperation, and equality. Quite signifcantly, Thornton dies in the end, not Buck. On the other hand, Thornton is clearly an exception; most people treat Buck badly or at least value him mostly for the work he can do. In this novel, domesticated status seems a bad bargain for dogs, and Buck needs his wildness to survive.

 Even while still with John Thornton, Buck is increasingly pulled toward the titular call of the wild: “Deep in the forest a call was sounding, and as often as he heard this call, mysteriously thrilling and luring, he felt compelled to turn his back upon the fre and the beaten earth around it, and to plunge into the forest, and on and on, he knew not where or why; nor did he wonder where or why” (52). While Buck’s bond with Thornton is particularly beautiful, with “the love for John Thornton draw[ing] him back to the fre,” London shows that even this ideal human–canine relationship is fragile and temporary for a really vital animal. Buck has to choose eventually, and the choice seems inevitable—though never quite fnished, since he continues to mourn Thornton after he joins the wolves.

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