Call of the Wild: An Insight into the Life of Jack London

In his book The Call of the Wild, Jack London conveys the fleetingness of luxury and the constant hardship in his life by chronicling Buck's transition from an affluent lifestyle to a constant struggle for mastery.

(Written for a literature class assignment.)

Laced with tenets, experiences, wishes, fears, and hardships, novels are seldom written solely for the enjoyment of their readers. Everyone experiences problems throughout his or her life, and one of the best ways for authors to alleviate the pain caused by hardship is to write about their afflictions. In his book The Call of the Wild, Jack London conveys the fleetingness of luxury and the constant hardship in his life by chronicling Buck’s transition from an affluent lifestyle to a constant struggle for mastery.

The early years of London’s life were the only ones without adversity. London was born to a prosperous family, and he grew up in a life of facility. His mother, Flora Wellman, was the daughter of generous, rich parents (Kingman 23-24), and his father, William Chaney, made a living giving astrology lectures (22). London also spent much of his childhood with his mother’s friends, wealthy owners of a printing establishment who lived lavishly in a “fashionable neighborhood” (London, Charmian 25).

Like London, Buck, the canine protagonist in Call of the Wild, was initially worry-free. He was born into luxury at Judge Miller’s place, a “big house in the sun-kissed Santa Clara Valley” (London, Jack 1) where his life was effortless and sheltered. The feeble housedogs, Ysabel and Toots, basked in the auspices of the home, and Buck, having never encountered competition before, was the unopposed master of his domain: “And over this great demesne Buck ruled . . . the whole realm was his” (2). He “lived the life of a sated aristocrat” (2), and his “expeditions” were limited to playing and hunting with Judge Miller’s children. However, like that of London, Buck’s breezy lifestyle would not endure.

Once Flora married a man named John London, the quality of Jack’s life began to spiral downhill. Following the marriage, the Londons relocated to Oakland, California, to live in a farmhouse. At the mere age of five, Jack was expected to complete lengthy days of grueling farm work (Kershaw 14), and the family’s financial funds began to run dry. Due to lack of money, Jack’s education took a backseat to his farm work, and when Jack finally started school at the age of nineteen he gained a pugnacious reputation for fighting bullies. Some time after graduating, Jack caught “gold fever” and set out on the Klondike, a brutal gold rush across Canada’s Yukon region. However, rather than discovering gold, Jack encountered frostbite, fatigue, and scurvy (London, Charmian 247). To make matters worse, coming home offered him no consolation. America’s economy had plunged into a deep depression, and Jack was forced to wander between various odd jobs, all of which involved some form of menial labor, until he secured a career in writing.

Buck was also pried from his civilized environment and was gradually introduced to the world of wilderness. After being kidnapped and sold by Judge Miller’s gambling-indebted gardener, Buck was ousted from his previous throne and detained in a cage, where he was ruled by a man with a club. Although he attempted to regain his power, Buck could not escape the wrath of the club, and he quickly ascertained that he held no authority: “a man with a club [is] a lawgiver, a master to be obeyed” (London, Jack 6). When Buck was resold and harnessed with a team of sled dogs, he was still considered an underling, but his struggle for mastery was no longer against a man with a club. Rather, it was with Spitz, the sled team’s malevolent and volatile lead dog who constantly asserted his authority over Buck: “Spitz never lost an opportunity of showing his teeth. He even went out of his way to bully Buck” (15).

Over the course of his journey, tension brewed between Buck and Spitz – for example, Spitz laughed at the death of Curly, a dog Buck admired, and claimed Buck’s sleeping nest. The tension snapped when Buck’s and Spitz’s competition to catch a rabbit escalated into a deadly fight. Although Spitz had more combat experience, Buck’s prowess and cunning enabled him to evade Spitz and dethrone him with a deft crunch of the forelegs.

Such an experience describes a law unique to the wilderness, much different from that which Buck was used to. At Judge Miller’s place, “it was all well enough . . . under the law of love and fellowship, to respect private property and personal feelings” (13), but Buck learned that this type of law does not exist outside of its intended setting. Rather, the law in the wild was that only the strong survive, and those who could not depart from moral action were considered weak: “in the Northland, under the law of club and fang, whoso took such things into account was a fool, and in so far as he observed them he would fail to prosper” (13).

However, Buck’s struggle for mastery was not over yet: “Buck trotted up to the place Spitz would have occupied as a leader, but Francois, not noticing him, brought Sol-leks to the coveted position” (London, Jack 25). Although Francois tried to drag Buck away, Buck refused to back down. Even when Francois revealed the club, Buck snarled from a distance rather than cowering in fear: “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” (25). Francois had no choice but to give Buck the lead position, thus making him the master of the sled dogs.

Similarly, London emerged from his hardships as a successful writer. He wrote forty books in under sixteen years (Kershaw 279), and many became extremely popular with the American public. Some of his works were translated and sold in foreign countries, and many others were turned into films. Such exploits led London to become “the highest paid, most popular novelist and short story writer of his day” (Wissdorf), and his widespread popularity even made him a prominent promotional figure in the advertising business (Kershaw 280).

Although London overcame numerous odds to become a proficient writer, he could not escape hardship even at the time of his success. London eventually married, but his desire for a child was never fulfilled: his first baby fell victim to miscarriage, and the other died shortly after birth (Kershaw 246). London’s house was destroyed by fire (Wissdorf), his poor financial planning led him to “teeter . . . on the brink of bankruptcy” (Kershaw 277), and his health began to degrade as well. First came inflammatory rheumatism, which made him a prisoner of his own bed for a few days (277); then came kidney stones, which burdened him with unbearable pain (279). Eventually, drunk and depressed, London died (possibly by his own hands) at the age of forty.

Similarly, even though he had “won to mastership” against his fellow dogs, Buck was still prone to conflict with humans, and many of his beloved companions did not survive the journey. Curly, a Newfoundland who Buck admired, had her throat slashed when she approached a husky in a friendly manner; Dave, a dog who Buck admired for his assiduousness, eventually became ill and was put down by the sled masters; Dolly was bitten by wild huskies, went mad, and was killed by Francois; Billee, a good natured and sweet dog, was beaten to death; and many others drowned when the overloaded sled broke through the ice of a pond. Even prior to the drowning, Buck’s owners – Hal, Charles, and Mercedes – were the epitome of ineptitude and negligence: they piled the sled with superfluous items, confined the dogs to an abstemious diet, and beat the dogs when they were too exhausted to move the sled. On one occasion, Buck was beaten halfway to death, and the sole reason for his survival was John Thornton’s intervention. Buck’s life then took a turn for the better, but, as his luxury was fleeting, his new beloved master was killed by Yeehat Indians.

In London’s book The Call of the Wild, Buck is not a mere canine on an arctic expedition. Rather, through his story of Buck’s removal from a simple life and immersion in a constant struggle for mastery, London laments the fleetingness of luxury and the constant adversity in his life. He shows that promising beginnings cannot offer information about future events, and that hardship is an inescapable part of life.

Works Cited

Kershaw, Alex. Jack London: A Life. New York: St. Martin’s, 1998. Print.

Kingman, Russ. A Pictorial Biography of Jack London. New York: Crown, 1979.

London, Charmian. The Book of Jack London. New York: Century, 1921. Print.

London, Jack. The Call of the Wild. New York: Macmillan, 1963. Print.

Wissdorf, Reinhard. “A Surviving: The Short Life of Jack London.” Jack London International. Trans. Jack Mulder. StoryNet, 1996. Web. 23 May 2013.