Although The Call of the Wild is told from the perspective of an anonymous third-person narrator, the events that are recounted are those that the dog Buck experiences directly. As such, it is not unreasonable to call him the only fully developed character in the story. He is the only character whose past we know anything about, and London is careful to emphasize the human qualities of his protagonist, enabling us to empathize with the animal. Filtered through the third-person omniscience of the narrator, Buck comes across as far more than a creature of instinct, since he has a sense of wonder, shame, and justice. He also possesses a capacity for mystical experiences and for great, unselfish love, as his relationship to Thornton amply demonstrates. He may be a dog, but he is more human than many of the people around him.
Buck’s story is cyclical: he is introduced as a pampered prince, and the story concludes with Buck as a veritable king of beasts. In between, Buck undergoes experiences that provide him with greater insight about the world. Buck begins as a spoiled regent, strutting proudly over his soft, sun-kissed domain, but he abruptly sees everything taken away from him. He is reduced to nothing, beaten and kicked and forced to pull sleds through the Canadian wilderness. This experience, though, far from destroying him, makes him stronger, and he wins back his kingdom—or rather, he wins a new kingdom, a wild one that better suits his true destiny as a wild animal. The Call of the Wild is, as its title suggests, a celebration of wildness, of primitive life, and even of savagery. Buck’s rise to greatness is not an easy path; it is a struggle, a course strewn with obstacles, from the long duel with his rival Spitz to the folly of Hal, Mercedes, and Charles. But these obstacles, London indicates, are to be rejoiced in rather than avoided: life is ultimately a long struggle for mastery, and the greatest dogs (or men), the Bucks of the world, will always seek out struggles in order to prove their greatness. Thus, when Buck goes from being a moral, civilized pet to a fierce, bloodthirsty, violent wolf-dog, we are glad rather than shocked, because we know that he is fulfilling his highest -possible destiny.
The Call of the Wild is, first and foremost, the story of Buck’s gradual transformation from a tame beast into a wild animal. But even as the novel celebrates the life of a wild creature, it presents us with the character of John Thornton, whose connection to Buck suggests that there may be something good and natural in the human-dog relationship, despite its flaws. Thornton, a seasoned gold prospector, saves Buck from being beaten to death by the odious Hal and then becomes Buck’s master. From then on, a deep and abiding love blossoms between man and dog. Their relationship is a reciprocal one—Thornton saves Buck, and Buck later saves Thornton from drowning in a river. It is clear that Buck is more of a partner than a servant to the prospector. This mutual respect, we are assured, is characteristic of all Thornton’s relationships to dogs—every one of his animals bears an abiding love for him, which is returned in kind. Even as Buck is increasingly drawn to a life away from humanity, a life in the wild, his affection for Thornton keeps him from making the final break. Indeed, so strong is their bond that it is broken only when Thornton dies, and even then Buck makes an annual pilgrimage to his last master’s final resting place.
Buck is prone to visions of more primitive worlds, and sometimes he sees the humans around him as ancient men, wearing animal skins and living in caves or trees. In some of these visions, he is running alongside these men, protecting them from the terrors of the night. His relationship to Thornton, the novel implies, is like these ancient man-dog connections; it is primitive rather than civilized, and so it remains strong even as Buck leaves the civilized world behind.
These three can be analyzed in a group, because London never develops them beyond our initial impressions of them, which are strikingly similar: Hal and Charles are foolish and callow; Mercedes is spoiled and sentimental. Taken together, the trio serves as a vehicle through which London attacks the debilitating effects of human civilization and warns of how little use such civilization is in the wild. From their first appearance, Hal, Charles, and Mercedes are woefully out of place in the untamed North. Both Hal and Charles display “a callowness sheer and unutterable,” while Mercedes is spoiled and unreasonable—“it was her custom to be helpless,” London notes. As a group, the three have no experience in the wild, and, thus, they make mistake after mistake, overpacking the sled, allowing Mercedes to ride instead of walking, and miscalculating how much food they need for the journey to Dawson. When their mistakes become apparent, instead of taking action, they begin bickering and feuding, fighting over old grudges and trifles rather than dealing with the problems at hand.
The civilized world tolerates and even smiles on such absurdity, London suggests, but the wild has no such mercy. In the cold of the Klondike, incompetence is deadly, not only for the three foolish Americans but also for the team of dogs, for the humans’ poor planning has brought them to the brink of starvation. Hal, Charles, and Mercedes are weak and foolish figures, and their folly has its own reward—death in the icy waters of a northern river.
Jack London was an oyster pirate (poacher of oysters) not a pirate