The Call of the Wild: Themes & Analysis

Instructor: Sharon Linde

Sharon has a Masters of Science in Mathematics

The book The Call of the Wild uses the characters, storyline and subject matter to explore ideas that almost all of us experience. This lesson will fill you in on these themes, help with understanding the storyline, and offer a few questions to test your comprehension.

The Call of the Wild - The Basics

Author Jack London wasn't your typical storyteller. Born in 1876, he drew inspiration for his work as a novelist and journalist from his early life experiences in poverty, as a sailor, a hobo and a cannery worker. For his bestselling novel, The Call of the Wild, he visited and lived in Klondike, a region of northwest Canada, immersing himself in the climate, culture and atmosphere to make his novel authentic. Originally published as a serial in The Saturday Evening Post during the summer of 1903, the novel went on to be published as a book that same year. It is considered by some to be London's best work, a huge accomplishment considering he was the bestselling and highest paid author of his time.

Author Jack London

What makes The Call of the Wild so memorable? Let's take a look.

The Call of the Wild - Summary

Life is sweet for Buck, a St. Bernard/Collie mix, who is also the main character. His life with his first owner in sunny California is portrayed as warm and cozy; keep that in mind to contrast to Buck's later life. That comfort comes to a sudden end when he is stolen and sold, first to an abusive owner in Seattle, then to two men who take him to Klondike. This region has extreme weather - hot, dry summers and long, cold and snowy winters. It was also the scene of a gold rush in the late 1800s. It is here that Buck is trained as a sled dog.

A team of sled dogs
sled dogs

Lessons for Buck

Can you see how much Buck's life has changed? He went from being a pampered pet in a warm and sunny house to a member of a sled dog team in frigid Klondike. You may not realize that for sled dogs there is a pecking order, or a grouping of the dogs based on strength. The strongest dog is the leader and the others fall into line behind. Buck is a natural leader, but has to fight for his place among his new team. Eventually, he kills the lead dog and takes his place at the front of the pack.

Buck is instinctively a leader and London portrays him as a wise character. One pivotal point in the novel shows this, as Buck's new owners, who have mistreated the team and shown themselves to be ignorant of the conditions of the Klondike, command Buck to lead the team across an icy river. Buck senses danger and refuses, which gets him a serious beating. Luckily a new character, John Thornton, is there to step in. He threatens the abusive owners and takes Buck as his own.

Buck's New Friendships

Thornton proves to be a great new friend to Buck, nurturing him back to health. Buck returns the favor by saving Thornton's life and winning races and money for Thornton. Thornton and his friends begin panning for gold at Klondike and Buck spends some time wandering the wilderness, chasing salmon, hunting animals and visiting a wolf pack. Buck feels at home with the pack and recognizes something about their kind of life, but is dedicated to Thornton. One tragic night, Buck returns to camp to find Thornton and the other members dead, killed by natives. Buck finds and kills the natives, then follows the 'call of the wild', or the wolf pack, where he begins his new life in the wild as the alpha-wolf, or leader of the pack. Legend survives that Buck breeds a new kind of dog-wolf that is still seen today in that region.

Themes in The Call of the Wild

As we can see there are several themes running through this seemingly simple story. A theme is a story's main message or big idea. Authors use events and characters to symbolize, or explain, messages they'd like to teach readers. Let's take a peek at a few we see in The Call of the Wild.

Cover art for The Call of the Wild
call of the wild

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