Revisiting a Classic: The Call of the Wild

From one of American literature’s most prominent figures, The Call of the Wild is a timeless tale of self-discovery that continues to enthrall readers, young and old.

by Nikhil Sreekandan

© Nikhil Sreekandan

Many of us probably picked up Jack London’s ‘The Call of the Wild’ in our early reading years, along with the likes of ‘Treasure Island’ and ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ as we gently opened the doors to the world of classic literature.

London’s most famous work, Call of the Wild is an adventure novella which tells the story of a dog named Buck (a cross between a St Bernard and a Scotch collie), who is stolen from his comfortable California home and is sold off to prospectors rushing off to Alaska to hunt for gold.

The book is Buck’s journey through violence and hardship, loyalty and loss, as he finally finds himself and his home in the Yukon wilderness.

The fact that there are not too many books out there with the central character as a dog and that it is a full-length action-packed adventure is probably what attracted us as kids, and the brutal heartbreaking nature of it is possibly the reason why it still remains in our hearts.

But, this dog’s adventure is not just something that is taught and read in schools world over, it is one of the best-known stories written by an American author for a reason.

Through Buck’s story, London explores mankind and all its puzzlings. Each and every one of us can relate to Buck and his journey of life; thrown out of the comfort of his Southern home and into the Northern wilderness, he has to confront his new surroundings and through his struggle for survival, he discovers himself and his true calling.

There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive. This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame; it comes to the soldier, war-mad on a stricken field and refusing quarter; and it came to Buck, leading the pack, sounding the old wolf-cry, straining after the food that was alive and that fled swiftly before him through the moonlight.

Even though Call of the Wild falls into the fable genre, instead of dogs that can talk and tell jokes, through a  third person narrative, London powerfully places the reader in a position of strong empathy, thereby attributing human thoughts and emotions to what Buck is going through.

© Nikhil Sreekandan

The entire setting of the fable is allegorical – the sun-kissed Santa Clara Valley represents the soft materialistic world and the frigid Northland symbolises the battleground where one wages his war against all odds to realise his life’s purpose.

The story itself can be divided into four phases, expressly conveyed through London’s use of imagery and symbolism.

“He had been suddenly jerked from the heart of civilization and flung into the heart of things primordial.” 

The first phase has to do with the journey and self-discovery, where pain and physical violence are dominant symbols as Buck learns to survive in the harsh Yukon landscape.

The second phase, after Buck takes the leadership of the sledge team from Spitz and the team gets passed on from owner to owner, loss and death become dominant symbols as he almost dies at the hands of an ignorant master.

In the third phase, as Buck slowly wins back his strength under the loving care of John Thornton, the Klondike landscape too revives itself as it welcomes spring, symbolising his rebirth.

The fourth phase is the immortalization of Buck, as he fully reverts to nature and becomes a part of his ancestorial wolf-pack, thus realising his true calling and thereby attaining mythical stature.

“He had killed man, the noblest game of all, and he had killed in the face of the law of club and fang.”

Call of the Wild is also one of the prime examples of American pastoralism – Buck’s calling to go back to the wild – effectively contrasts mother nature to our urban society, representing London’s reaction against industrialisation and the capitalist way of life.

Christopher ‘Supertramp’ McCandless reading ‘The Call of the Wild’ in the biographical drama film ‘Into the Wild.’ © Nikhil Sreekandan

London’s vivid and urgent style of writing and his astonishing know-how of the world he’s describing is mighty capable of ensuring the reader’s involvement in his story.

And as London’s prose excels, multiple layers of meaning are piled on to this short fable adventure; the basic plot of the journey of a dog from Santa Clara to Klondike becomes the process that every man goes through, transcending his lowest defeats and highest achievements, as he strives to attain his true calling.

Hear the voice, answer the call, and be everything you can be.

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