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.
This quotation is from the beginning of Chapter I, “Into the Primitive,” and it defines Buck’s life before he is kidnapped and dragged into the harsh world of the Klondike. As a favored pet on Judge Miller’s sprawling California estate, Buck lives like a king—or at least like an “aristocrat” or a “country gentleman,” as London describes him. In the civilized world, Buck is born to rule, only to be ripped from this environment and forced to fight for his survival. The story of The Call of the Wild is, in large part, the story of Buck’s climb back to the top after his early fall from grace. He loses one kind of lordship, the “insular” and “sated” lordship into which he is born, but he gains a more authentic kind of mastery in the wild, one that he wins by his own efforts rather than by an accident of birth.
He was beaten (he knew that); but he was not broken. He saw, once for all, that he stood no chance against a man with a club. He had learned the lesson, and in all his after life he never forgot it. That club was a revelation. It was his introduction to the reign of primitive law, and he met the introduction halfway. The facts of life took on a fiercer aspect and, while he faced that aspect uncowed, he faced it with all the latent cunning of his nature aroused.
This quotation is taken from late in Chapter I, “Into the Primitive,” just after Buck has been beaten repeatedly by one of his kidnappers. Each time he is clubbed, Buck leaps up to attack again, until finally the man knocks him unconscious. This incident is Buck's introduction to a new way of life, vastly different from the pampered existence that he led in the Santa Clara Valley. There, civilized law, and civilized morality were the ruling forces—symbolized by the fact that his first master, Judge Miller, is a judge. In the wild, though, Buck comes to terms with “the reign of primitive law,” in which might makes right, and a man with a club (or a powerful dog) can do as he pleases to weaker creatures. In this scene, Buck is mastered by the man with the club, but he learns his lesson well and soon comes to master others.
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. . . . Thus, as token of what a puppet thing life is the ancient song surged through him and he came into his own again. . . .
This quote, taken from Chapter II, shows that as Buck fights for survival in the harsh world of the Klondike, he relies increasingly on buried instincts that belonged to his wild forebears. The role of this atavistic development—“atavism” refers to the recovery by an animal of behaviors that belonged to its ancestors—points to one of the central themes of London’s novel, namely, the way that primitive instincts and urges persist beneath the veneer of civilization. Throw a soft, civilized creature (human or animal) into the wild, London suggests, and if he survives, he, like Buck, will come to depend on the same instincts that guided the life of his primitive ancestors. “The ancient song,” in his phrase, is only waiting for the right opportunity to emerge.
A pause seemed to fall. Every animal was motionless as though turned to stone. Only Spitz quivered and bristled as he staggered back and forth, snarling with horrible menace, as though to frighten off impending death. Then Buck sprang in and out; but while he was in, shoulder had at last squarely met shoulder. The dark circle became a dot on the moon-flooded snow as Spitz disappeared from view. Buck stood and looked on, the successful champion, the dominant primordial beast who had made his kill and found it good.
These words constitute the final paragraph in Chapter III, describing the climactic battle between Buck and Spitz. The paragraph marks the moment that Buck comes into his own by vanquishing and killing his great rival, and then taking Spitz’s place as the team's lead dog. He has left his life as a pampered pet far behind—now he is “the successful champion . . . the dominant primordial beast.” Throughout the novel, London suggests that life in the wild is defined by a struggle for mastery, and the Buck-Spitz duel is the central example of this struggle, the moment when Buck establishes himself as a master of the kill-or-be-killed ethic of the wild.
[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 to plunge into the forest. . . . But as often as he gained the soft unbroken earth and the green shade, the love of John Thornton drew him back to the fire again.
This quotation is from Chapter VI, “For the Love of a Man,” and it depicts the tension building within Buck during his time with John Thornton. Thornton is the ideal master, and his relationship with Buck represents a perfect partnership between man and dog. London tells us that this is the first time that Buck has truly loved a human being. Yet, at the same time, it is clear that Buck’s destiny lies in the wild, and so he is torn between the urges that pull him away from humanity and his intense loyalty to Thornton. That love, it becomes clear, is the only thing tying him to the world of men—which means that when Thornton is killed, there is nothing left to hold him, and he embraces his destiny as a wild creature.