Buck's the alpha dog. The top dog. The big dawg.
And no, we're not being subtle (that wouldn't be in the spirit of London's novel, after all). Buck's an actual d-o-g. He's a canine. And he's our hero.
But put aside any expectation of Buck being the protagonist of a novel by humans and for humans because of his human tendencies. Far from it—Buck's the star of the show because he's a dog that just gets doggier.
But it’s easy to forget he’s not a person (aside from the whole dragging-a-sled-through-the-frozen-North business). That’s because we’re in his head. We never see dialogue-style quotations around Buck’s thoughts, so this isn’t quite Homeward Bound, but Buck is personified in a Lassie sort of way. He has emotions, desires, motivations, the works.
Just check out this passage:
The snow walls pressed him on every side, and a great surge of fear swept through him—the fear of the wild thing for the trap. It was a token that he was harking back through his own life to the lives of his forebears; for he was a civilized dog, an unduly civilized dog, and of his own experience knew no trap and so could not of himself fear it. The muscles of his whole body contracted spasmodically and instinctively. (2.12)
That's not only a visceral passage (you can feel the cold of the snow and Buck's muscles "contract spasmodically); it's also a super-psychological passage. We get Buck's animal fear (trap = no bueno) and we get his pretty advanced-level reasoning of that fear (he knows he's a pampered pooch and doesn't know from the fear of traps...so it must be a fear that predates his birth).
And this dynamic combo of emotions and psychologizing is why we can empathize with Buck as our main character even though he’s got four legs—after all, he seems more human than a lot of fictional humans we could name (*cough Christian Gray *cough cough).
But who is Buck, really? What kind of dog is he? Aside from his physical prowess, Buck's distinguished by his ability to learn and adapt. He goes from being the new kid on the block to the head of the sled team, ousting another alpha dog on the way. By the end of the story he’s a force to be reckoned with.
You're a good dog, Buck. Yes you are.
A Wolf In Dog's Clothing
Of course, the most fascinating part of Buck is his struggle with The Big Question: would I rather kill things with my bare teeth and hunt in the wild, or live in comfort with a person that loves me? We’ve all probably asked ourselves a similar question—think of any time you've been asked, "What century would you have liked to live in?"
And, unlike most of us—the people who resoundingly answer "21st Century, please! I like clean hospitals with computers!"—Buck opts for the first option.
He wants to answer the call of the wild. He's not playing hard to get:
And not only did he learn by experience, but instincts long dead became alive again. The domesticated generations fell from him. In vague ways he remembered back to the youth of the breed, to the time the wild dogs ranged in packs through the primeval forest and killed their meat as they ran it down. It was no task for him to learn to fight with cut and slash and the quick wolf snap. In this manner had fought forgotten ancestors. They quickened the old life within him, and the old tricks which they had stamped into the heredity of the breed were his tricks. They came to him without effort or discovery, as though they had been his always. And when, on the still cold nights, he pointed his nose at a star and howled long and wolflike, it was his ancestors, dead and dust, pointing nose at star and howling down through the centuries and through him. And his cadences were their cadences, the cadences which voiced their woe and what to them was the meaning of the stiffness, and the cold, and dark. (2.25)
But why? Buck doesn't let the call of the wild go to voicemail because he feels an intense connection to some former, primitive version of himself. London wants us to marvel at Buck’s muscular body and the fact that he can essentially bench press Spitz...but he also wants us to marvel at the untameable nature of Buck's spirit.
His point is that Buck was made to be a wild animal:
Faithfulness and devotion, things born of fire and roof, were his; yet he retained his wildness and wiliness. He was a thing of the wild, come in from the wild to sit by John Thornton's fire, rather than a dog of the soft Southland stamped with the marks of generations of civilization. (6.8)
As they say: you can take the dog out of the primeval forest, but you can't take the primeval forest out of the dog.
Who Needs Crossfit When You Can Be A Sled Dog?
But let's talk about strength of bodies a little bit more, because this novel is all about the brawn.
Buck goes through an amazing physical transformation in The Call of the Wild that ends up being a great way to analyze his character arc in the broader sense. Buck's no squirt to begin with; part of the reason he’s stolen from his ranch is that he’s a physically impressive dog. He's ripped:
Perrault grinned. Considering that the price of dogs had been boomed skyward by the unwonted demand, it was not an unfair sum for so fine an animal. The Canadian Government would be no loser, nor would its dispatches travel the slower. Perrault knew dogs, and when he looked at Buck he knew that he was one in a thousand-- "One in ten t'ousand," he commented mentally. (1.45)
But he’s no Rocky yet. He still has to go through a few training montages (Buck's theme song is "Gonna Mush Now") and the transformation process is not all that pleasant. Buck suffers physically in order to gain what ultimately becomes physical dominance. Buck's "glossy coat" gets significantly less glossy, and he ends up run-down, beat-up, torn sideways, and generally deteriorating in every other direction in between.
Man's Best Friend
How does this reflect his character arc in the broader sense? At first, Buck doubts that the wild is the right place for him. And by "doubt" we mean he hates getting beaten with a club and nearly starved to death. (We're pretty sure we'd feel the same way.) This experience corresponds to his physical deterioration— which seems like bad news bears for Buck.
Then he meets Thornton and physically bounces back. (We love you, Thornton.)
But by the time he crosses paths with Thornton, the World's Best Dog Owner, Buck's a changed hound. He finds that he's no longer content to sit by the fire and be man's best friend. The drive that compels him to seek his destiny out in the wilds of the Yukon is almost stronger than his enduring love for his buddy Thornton:
So peremptorily did these shades beckon him, that each day mankind and the claims of mankind slipped farther from him. Deep in the forest a call was sounding, and as often as he heard this call, mysteriously thrilling and luring, he felt compelled to turn his back upon the fire and the beaten earth around it, and to plunge into the forest, and on and on, he knew not where or why; nor did he wonder where or why, the call sounding imperiously, deep in the forest. But as often as he gained the soft unbroken earth and the green shade, the love for John Thornton drew him back to the fire again. (6.11)
In this passage we see the softer side of Buck (he really does heart John Thornton) juxtaposed with the intensity of his desire to become a truly wild doggy. His loyalty to John comes, in part, because Thornton allows him to run a bit wild—Buck's allowed to be the feral beast he is at least part of the time.
But when John is killed, Buck's finally set 100% free. He realizes that the true nature of wildness is to be unburdened, and that freedom really is just another word for nothing left to lose.Buck's Timeline
Jack London believed in Herbert Spencer's theory of "survival of the fittest," which means basically that an organism or group that is better suited to an environment will have a better chance for survival than an animal or group that is less suited. In other words, Spencer suggested that learning did not play a great role in the survival of a species. More often it had to do with luck -- a major environmental change would suddenly make one group of organisms better off than it had been before, and they would therefore live longer and reproduce more.
London clearly makes use of the idea of "survival of the fittest" in The Call of the Wild. By chance, Buck's environment undergoes a tremendous change - he is kidnapped and taken from a "sun-kissed," easy existence to the wilds of the Klondike. Buck survives because he was genetically more suited to that environment than many of the other dogs who were there. He did not need to learn much of anything - the instincts for survival were handed down by his ancestors -- a more poetic version of genetic inheritance.
London takes the idea even more literally than is necessary. If Buck had remained in Santa Clara, he would not have passed on his genetic traits, for there were no suitable mates available to him. At the end of The Call of the Wild it reads that "the years were not many when the Yeehats noted a change in the breed of timber wolves; for some were seen with splashes of brown on head and muzzle, and with a rift of white centered down the chest." Buck has had many children, children who will inherit from Buck all of the experience and "fitness" of their ancestors.
This theme also relates to London's interest in Charles Darwin's and Herbert Spenser's work. For the first time there was a scientific theory, which suggested that human beings as well as animals have natural instincts which are merely things passed down through the genetic code. In The Call of the Wild, London dwells a great deal on animal instinct, for Buck's ability to listen to his instinct both makes him more and more powerful and draws him more and more deeply towards the wild. When Buck leads the team into John Thornton's camp, he does not consciously know why he does not get up. He is as capable of continuing as the other dogs, and he has no desire to be killed. Instead, he unconsciously sensed that the snow and ice under his feet were getting weaker and weaker. His instincts told him to go no further, and he obeyed them, saving his life.
One of the unique features of London's novel is that he also writes about human instincts. Men like Francois, Perrault, John Thornton and his partners have shaken off the trappings of civilization, and London implies that this change allows them better access to their instincts. Consequently, they thrive on the trail, making it through multiple dangerous incidents because they trust their impulsive reactions. In contrast, Hal, Mercedes and Charles possess instincts, like all human beings, but they are so suffused with the notions of civilized life that they are unable to access them. London emphasizes the value of instincts, and he certainly presents their reassertion as a positive feature of a more natural, wilder lifestyle.
When Buck is kidnapped and taken to the Klondike, he learns that loyalty is a characteristic which differs under the law of Club and Fang. Though this new kind of loyalty may seem less genuinely good, Buck discovers that it is stronger and perhaps truer than the loyalty he had understood before. When Buck lived in California with Judge Miller, loyalty was a noble idea. He certainly felt loyal to the Judge when he protected his grandchildren or walked steadfastly by his sons. But his loyalty was not only never tested, he also knew that it would never be tested.
In the Klondike, Buck discovers that loyalty is not so noble, because it stems primarily from self interest. His team's and his human leaders' survival depends upon the behavior of each member of the group. They are fiercely loyal to their goal and to helping each other, because it is the only way to survive. When Spitz acts against the best interests of the group by attacking Buck while they are fending off the foreign huskies, he proves that he is disloyal. This is a serious charge, because it could lead to the destruction of the entire group. After that time, Buck finds it easy to turn the other dogs against Spitz, for they know that he cares more about his own selfish desires for leadership than the survival of the group. The groups' loyalty is tested again and again, and each time it proves true. The strength of this loyalty suggests that loyalty based on self-interest is ultimately stronger and more meaningful than loyalty based on a noble ideal.
When Buck falls in with John Thornton, he contradicts this idea to some extent. He loves John Thornton so much that he is willing to do things that are against his self-interest, even stupid things such as jumping off a cliff. But London seems to go to some effort to emphasize that Buck performs these acts out of passionate love, rather than pure loyalty.
In California, Buck believed he was very powerful, for he was the most important dog in Judge Miller's household. He ruled over all of the other dogs, and he even believed that he ruled over the people. In the Klondike, he learns what a hierarchy really is, and he understands that power is truly the power over life and death. All of the dogs either have power, and must exert it in order to survive, or they give up their power to a bigger and stronger dog and can merely hope that that dog will protect them.
Once Spitz fears Buck's power, Buck realizes that he must exert it. The appearance of power must lead to the assertion of power. The only other option is death. Buck quickly learns one of the most important laws of Club and Fang. When Curly is killed for making a friendly advance to another dog, he recognizes that he is in a world where it is kill or be killed. He immediately begins to see the world in terms of who he has power over and who has power over him.
The issue of power exists both in the relations of the dogs among themselves and in the relation of the dogs and the men. Slowly over the course of the novel Buck learns that human beings do not have intrinsic power over dogs. When he asserts his right to leadership of the sled, he imposes his will on Francois, even though Francois has a club. When he kills the Yeehat Indians, he consciously acknowledges that he need never fear human beings again. In this world, he is more powerful than a human being. In light of this view of power, London suggests that a wild, natural existence is not as free as the reader might imagine. Buck is free because he is the most powerful, but he must never for a moment let down his guard. The natural world is dominated by rules and codes just as the civilized world is, and in this world, Buck can read and understand the subtlest of controls.
One can reframe Buck's journey in The Call of the Wild as a search for companionship. Buck is never alone in the novel, but instead travels between a various number of humans and other dogs, often wondering why he is not completely happy. At the beginning of the novel, Buck does not seem to lack for anything. One might wonder whether Buck is actually better off at the end of the novel, if he never felt unfulfilled in his Santa Clara home. But, it seems likely that Buck was simply young, and as he grew older he would have felt the lack of true companionship more strongly.
Buck encountered several positive kinds of companionship along his journey. First Francois and Perrault, then the Scotchmen, engaged him in meaningful relationships based on work, along with the rest of the dog team. Though Buck was sometimes tired and uncomfortable, he was fulfilled by his work. His relationship to John Thornton was obviously superior to these, and it was at its peak when he was able to work for John Thornton, fulfilled by his labor and inspired by his love. But, throughout these times, he was restless and knew something was missing.
Buck always dreamed of his companionship with wild man, because only that partnership was completely equal. Then, Man and Dog were united by mutual goals, mutual labor, mutual fears and mutual desires. When Buck meets the lone wolf in the woods and runs with him for a few hours, he finally understand the meaning of the call that he has felt. His relationship with the wolves is like his relationship with wild man. When John Thornton dies, Buck is free to go with the wolves. He mourns John Thornton, because he loved him, but the story suggests that Buck's final home among the pack of wolves is the right one.
Another idea held by London, which he clearly makes use of in The Call of the Wild is his belief in socialism. London seems to hold a romantic and general idea of socialism rather than a radical and specific one. The most important idea imbued in The Call of the Wild is that everyone is suited to a particular kind of work, and everyone will be happiest if they are doing that work. London lived this ideal, for even when he was making a great deal of money as a writer, he was always trying out new ways of keeping busy and contributing to society, whether he was exploring new ways of farming or advocating for women's suffrage.
In The Call of the Wild, London portrays the dogs as happiest when they are engaged in labor. The more appealing characters, such as Dave and Sol-leks, come alive only once they have been strapped into their traces, ready to take to the trail. Dave's refusal to abandon his position is as noble and heart-wrenching as any human sacrifice, and though it is heartbreaking when he is shot, it also seems like the kindest course of action. When Buck is leading the sled team for John Thornton, he becomes restless and a little unhappy only when Thornton and his partners find gold, and there is little work for the dogs to do. Arguably, Buck dreams of his ancient master, because only then was he invested in a human partnership with completely mutual goals, desires and needs. Their work was the same and it was constant, and there could be no better relationship for a dog. As much as Buck loves John Thornton, he finds his real happiness roaming the woods, killing his own food, constantly engaged in the act of defending or sustaining his life.
London does not make entirely the same point with regard to the humans of the book. Hal, Mercedes and Charles are clearly unsuited to this work and should never have undertaken it. Perrault and Francois live for the trail almost as much as the dogs do. But, John Thornton, probably intended to be the most appealing human character, seeks gold so that he will no longer have to labor. One might suggest that London dislikes John Thornton's quest for gold. As he, his men, and the dogs searched for gold, they were immensely happy. There needs were met, they enjoyed each day, and they were fulfilled by their search. As soon as gold was discovered, they labored merely for the recovery of money, and the work itself was not pleasurable to them. Ultimately, John Thornton's inability to recognize the true value of life in the wild may have lead to his death at the end of the novel. While seeking gold, Thornton lost touch with his instincts and made himself vulnerable to attack.
Throughout the novel London questions the idea of humanity as a virtue. He demonstrates clearly that men do not innately possess any virtues, and that in some circumstances, men are the most virtuous who have become the least civilized. He also makes it clear that the virtues assigned to the idea of humanity fit equally well into the world of animals. The idea of humanity as a virtue (the quality of being humane) suggests that civilization has allowed human beings to morally develop further than wild creatures. But, Hal, Mercedes and Charles represent the most "civilized" people in the novel, and they ultimately act selfishly and cruelly. Outside of their natural position, humanity seems a fairly useless virtue.
In contrast, Buck and the other dogs do not generally perform selfless acts or sacrifice their own interests solely for others; however, they also enforce a strict code of putting the survival of the group as a whole above the mere survival of the individual. When Buck meets John Thornton, he does begin to perform selfless acts, because he is inspired by love, but those acts have nothing to do with any notion of humanity.
London suggests that the idea that humanity is a virtue is merely a conceit of human beings. People are no more likely to be genuinely kind or genuinely careful of others than animals are -- they are simply more likely to try to disguise their own selfish desires and actions.