You don't have to love dogs to appreciate that Jack London's The Call of the Wild (1903) is one of the best American novels. Why? We hope our study guide is particularly helpful for teachers and students to better understand the nuances of the story and its significance in American Literature.
Read the novel: The Call of the Wild, Character Analysis & Summary, Genre & Themes, Symbolism, Historical Context, Quotes, Discussion Questions, Paired Readings, Useful Links, and Notes/Teacher Comments
Buck - The 140 pound Saint Bernard and Scotch Shepherd mix dog, who is the narrator of the story.
Judge Miller - Buck's first owner who raised him in a big house in the "sun-kissed" Santa Clara Valley, before Buck was abducted to the Yukon Territory to become a sled dog.
John Thornton - The first kind-hearted owner Buck has ever had in the Yukon, leading his team of sled dogs, which he treats humanely, compared to other men.
Perrault, Francois, Curly - French Canadian miners assembling their dog teams to find gold. Buck didn't like them, but respected them as a new kind of men. Perrault, in particular, knew dogs, recognizing Buck as "one in ten thousand."
The man in the red sweater - The man who bought Buck, beats dogs; not even worth naming, he's so cruel.
Spitz - The dog who challenges Buck for the leadership position of the pack, losing a "fight to the death."
Yeehat Indians - The fictional tribe Jack London invented for the story, who are responsible for attacking Thornton's camp and murdering him (and his friends). Buck got his revenge by killing some, so they fear him as an evil spirit, a "Ghost Dog" they fear who dwells in the valley they will not enter.
The story is told by a dog named Buck, a 140 pound Saint Bernard- Shepherd mix, who is abducted from his comfortable life as a pet to endure the cruel, chaotic, and harsh conditions as a working sled dog during the Klondike Gold Rush in the 1890s. Buck is mistreated by many owners before he ends up in the kindly hands of John Thornton, after enduring a severe beating for refusing to make an unsafe river crossing. Buck lets Thornton nurse him back to health. Thornton recognizes the dog's intelligence, strength, and assumed leadership of the pack as they endure many hardships in their quest to find gold. Their circumstances reduce their goal to mere survival, as both cannot ever fully recover from the cruelty of other men. Their enduring friendship becomes the defining featuring of their survival. Yeehat Indians attack Thornton's camp, killing Thornton, Hans, Pete and the dogs Skeet and Nig. Buck attacks the chief and rips his throat, the others try to shoot Buck, but hit their friends instead. Buck is regarded as an Evil Spirit, the Ghost Dog who kills hunters and warriors in the valley they refuse to enter. Buck provided his instinct and hardened heart; he is now truly wild. But he'll never forget the enduring love from one man, proven better than one in ten thousand.
London's story is in the genre of adventure fiction, though with a realistic historical setting; sub-genre is survival.
Man/Dog vs. nature
Man vs. man
Man vs. dog
Dog vs. dog
The law of club and fang
Authority hierarchies (dominant primordial beast)
Some scars never heal (physical and emotional)
Instinct rules: kill what you eat, trust your reflexes, trust no one, you might survive
Discipline with compassion (Thornton) vs. violence (other men)
Conform vs. fight
Brains vs. brawn (Buck has both)
Trust (Buck lets Thornton heal him) vs. distrust (Buck endures a beating rather than make an unsafe river crossing)
London's chapter titles reveal the story:
1: Into the Primitive
2: The Law of Club and Fang
3: The Dominant Primordial Beast
4: Who Has Won to Mastership
5: The Toil of Trace and Trail
6: For the Love of a Man
7: The Sounding of the Call
London employs a number of symbols in the story that impart a number of lessons (for both man and beast):
The Club - the symbol of domination and submission under its rule. It represents man's undisputed total domination over the dogs, there's no ambiguity in its power.
The Fang - represents the dogs' social hierarchy of established dominance, and their forced cooperative working relationship as a team subject to man's domination. It also represents the dogs' instinct for survival, work, and focus-on-mission, and their utter contrast to domestic dogs as pets.
Red - The color represents blood, death, and the cruelty capable of all men. The "man in the red sweater" whom Buck never forgot, is the symbol of all things cruel and hateful about man.
Jack London's story is set during the Klondike Gold Rush, in which an estimated 100,000 prospectors came to the Yukon, Canada after gold was discovered by local miners and reported to Seattle, triggering a stampede of wanna-be prospectors between 1896 - 1899. Most went home poor, but had plenty of stories to tell. The trip required passage from Southeast Alaska over Chilkoot Pass to the Yukon River, descending to the Klondike. Between the hazards of elevation and extreme weather conditions, many did not surive or abandoned their quest. By 1889, folks lost interest and the goldfield were abandoned for the most part, though gold mining activity continued until 1903, the same year London published his most famous book.
It's worth mentioning that the Yeehat Indian tribe is fictionalized. No such North American tribe exists. London made it up, along with their legend of the "Ghost Dog."
Explain what the following quotes mean and how they relate to the story:
"Old longings nomadic leap,
Chafing at custom's chain;
Again from its brumal sleep
Wakens the ferine strain." Chpt. 1 epigraph
"During the four years since his puppyhood he had lived the life of a sated aristocrat; he had a fine pride in himself, was even a trifle egotistical, as country gentlemen sometimes become because of their insular situation." Chpt. 1
"They were new dogs, utterly transformed by the harness...the toil of the traces seemed the supreme expression of their being, and all that they lived for and the only thing in which they took delight." Chpt. 2
"An oath from Perrault, the resounding impact of a club upon a bony frame, and a shrill yelp of pain, heralded the breaking forth of pandemonium. The camp was suddenly discovered to be alive with skulking furry forms--starving huskies, four or five score of them, who had scented the camp from some Indian village. They had crept in while Buck and Spitz were fighting, and when the two men sprang among them with stout clubs they showed their teeth and fought back." Chpt. 3
"The driver went about his work, and he called to Buck when he was ready to put him in his old place in front of Dave...Buck was in open revolt. He wanted, not to escape a clubbing, but to have the leadership. It was his by right. He had earned it, and he would not be content with less." Chpt. 4
"He remembered the man in the red sweater, the death of Curly, the great fight with Spitz and the good things he had eaten or would like to eat. He was not homesick. The Sunland was very dim and distant, and such memories had no power over him. Far more potent were the memories of his heredity that gave things he had never seen before a seeming familiarity; the instincts (which were but the memories of his ancestors become habits) which had lapsed in later days, and still later, in him, quickened and became alive again. " Chpt. 4
"There was no power of recuperation left, no reserve strength to call upon. It had been all used, the last least bit of it. Every muscle, every fiber, every cell, was tired, dead tired. And there was reason for it. In less than five months they had traveled twenty-five hundred miles, during the last eighteen hundred of which they had but five days' rest." Chpt. 5
"They were perambulating skeletons. There were seven all together, including him. In their very great misery they had become insensible to the bite of the lash or the bruise of the club...when the club or whip fell upon them, the spark fluttered feebly up, and they tottered to their feet and staggered on." Chpt. 5
"Those who were looking on heard what was neither bark nor yelp, but a something which is best described as a roar, and `they saw Buck's body rise up in the air as he left the floor for Burton's throat...Buck loosed his teeth from the flesh of the arm and drove in again for the throat. This time the man succeeded only in partly blocking, and his throat was torn open...[Buck's] reputation was made, and from that day his name spread through every camp in Alaska." Chpt. 6
"But especially he loved to run in the dim twilight of the summer midnights, listening to the subdued and sleepy murmurs of the forest, reading signs and sounds as a man may read a book, and seeking for the mysterious something that called -- called, waking or sleeping, at all times, for him to come.” Chpt. 7
"'Never was there such a dog,' said John Thornton one day, as the partners watched Buck marching out of camp." Chpt. 7
“His cunning was wolf cunning, and wild cunning; his intelligence, shepherd intelligence and St. Bernard intelligence; and all this, plus an experience gained in the fiercest of schools, made him as formidable a creature as any that roamed the wild.” Chpt. 7
"The Yeehats tell of a Ghost Dog that runs at the head of the pack. They are afraid of this Ghost Dog, for it has cunning greater than they, stealing from their camps in the fierce winters, robbing their traps, slaying their dogs, and defying their bravest hunters." Chpt. 7
1. Why does London have Buck narrate the story?
2. Discuss the story's survival theme, particularly the meaning of "the law of club and fang."
3. Describe Buck's character and how he establishes his dominance of the pack. Compare his innate abilities (his breed and instincts) versus his learned behaviors (he was a pet who learned how to be a dominant Yukon dog).
4. Discuss London's use of anthropomorphism (giving human qualities to animals). Discuss the dog and human thoughts and behaviors.
5. Provide textual evidence how London reveals the strong emotional connection between John Thornton and Buck, and how both been forever damaged by the cruelty of other men.
6. Describe Thornton's relationship with all the dogs, compared to Buck in particular.
7. Contrast specific behaviors of working sled dogs in this story (how they eat, fight, work together, relate to humans) versus domestic house dogs.
8. Identify and discuss the use of symbols in the novel (start with the club, fang, red, food).
9. Is this story considered "historical fiction"-- a realistic portrayal of the Yukon and the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s? Can you find any inaccuracies? Here's an Overview of the Klondike Gold Rush
10. Explain the legend of the "Ghost Dog."
11. Explain the idiom, "It's a dog-eat-dog world" as it relates to this story.
12. Read about Jack London's life, including his year in the Yukon where he "found himself." How does his own story influence this one?
Movie time! Watch the 1935 movie, (yes, this is the old one in black & white), The Call of the Wild (1935), starring Clark Gable and Loretta Young, shot on Mt. Baker, Washington, where the cast endured real cruel winter conditions. Complete two columns contrasting book vs. movie adaptation (really, a female love interest?)
Creative writing prompt: Write a story of your own using anthropomorphism narrating your pet's story. What stories would he/she tell about living with you?
Compare another story's plot, setting, symbols, writing style, and relationships with The Call of the Wild:
White Fang, considered its sequel. Which novel do you like better and why?
Holding Her Down, about hobos riding the Canadian Pacific rail lines.
To Build a Fire is our all-time favorite Jack London story about a man who slowly freezes to death, his dog knows better.
Read London's lesser-known story about an aging boxer: A Piece of Steak, compare both stories' themes of survival and the high stakes of a potential life-or-death fight.
The Star Rover is a brutal story about a professor serving a life sentence for murder at San Quentin, San Francisco Bay.
Not known for his poetry, Daybreak is a touching departure from London's survival genre, about unrequitted love (requiring a different type of survival skills).
You choose: Select another author's survival story you like. Can the protagonist die and still fit this genre?
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