Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Call of the Wild by Jack London

Heed the Call!
This is the novel that made Jack London famous, and rightfully so. The Call of the Wild is a masterpiece that belongs on any top ten list of American literature. Its excellence is made even more remarkable by the fact that its protagonist is a dog. Due to this singular characteristic, or maybe because of the various sanitized versions in print and film aimed at young audiences, many who haven't read the novel erroneously presume it’s a children's book. Though it’s true one could categorize this work in the genre of adventure fiction, any designation as children’s literature could not be further from the truth. It is a brutal and at times frightening story, constructed upon a foundation of deep scientific and philosophical thought.

The dog in question is Buck, a giant Saint Bernard/shepherd mix who leads a comfortable existence on the California ranch of one Judge Miller. The Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s erupts, creating a demand for quality dogs needed for the difficult work of pulling sleds. Buck, suddenly a very valuable commodity, is stolen from his idyllic home and whisked away to the harsh wilderness of the North, essentially becoming a canine slave. Buck at first resists his captors, but after frequent beatings he realizes his survival depends upon prudent obedience and opportunistic cunning. Once thrust into this world of violence and toil, Buck not only adapts to his harsh new life but learns to thrive on it.

The Call of the Wild is truly a beautiful piece of writing that outshines anything else London produced in the early Klondike period of his career. Each sentence is poetically crafted, and imbued with an almost Emersonian insistence of the dignity and majesty of nature. A love of dogs is not a prerequisite for enjoying this book, but a love of nature may very well be. Buck and the other dogs in this novel are symbols for the myriad ways in which different specimens of mankind react to the conflict between the harsh reality of nature and the comfortable illusion of civilization. Though in some respects the dogs act as surrogates for human behaviors and attitudes, London does not anthropomorphize these animals. The subhuman psychology he relates is based on the sound empiricism of natural observation. With the exception of some brief speculations into Buck’s experiences with ancestral memories, the canine behavior described here does not overstep the boundaries of science.

In The Call of the Wild, London has created the ultimate literary manifestation of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Buck’s world is governed by “the law of club and fang”, a paraphrasing of Darwin’s “survival of the fittest”. There is no good or evil in London’s depiction of nature. The only morality present in this primordial world is Pantheistic and Stoic: Nature is always right. When Buck is removed from civilization, his prehistoric instincts take over, and while the life he lives may be harsh and brutal, the freedom gained is more than reward enough to offset the hardship. Buck is allowed to choose between savage and civilized. Though today that’s a choice few are able to make, London’s masterpiece hearkens back to a more primitive time in humanity’s past, striking a chord with the animal nature buried deep within us that longs to be unleashed.
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