He had a fine pride in himself, was even a trifle egotistical, as country gentlemen sometimes become because of their insular situation.
Buck, a large and handsome dog who is part St. Bernard and part Scotch sheep dog, lives on a sizable estate in California’s Santa Clara Valley. He is four years old and was born on the estate, which is owned by the wealthy Judge Miller. Buck is the undisputed master of Judge Miller’s place, as the locals call it, and is beloved by the Miller children and grandchildren. Buck has the run of the entire place, confident of his superiority to the pampered house pets and the fox terriers that live in the kennels.
But, unbeknownst to Buck, there is a shadow over his happy life. The year is 1897, and men from all over the world are traveling north for the gold rush that has hit the Klondike region of Canada, just east of Alaska. They need strong dogs to pull their sleds on the treacherous journey. Nor does Buck realize that Manuel, a gardener on Judge Miller’s estate, is an undesirable acquaintance. Manuel’s love of gambling in the Chinese lottery makes it difficult for him to support his wife and several children. One day, while the judge is away, Manuel takes Buck for a walk and leads him to a flag station where a stranger is waiting. Money changes hands, and Manuel ties a rope around Buck’s neck. When the rope is tightened, Buck attacks the stranger, but he finds it impossible to break free. The man fights him; Buck’s strength fails, and he blacks out and is thrown into the baggage car of the train.
When Buck regains consciousness, he feels himself being jolted around. He hears the whistle of the train and, from having traveled with the judge, recognizes the sensation of riding in a baggage car. He opens his eyes angrily and sees the kidnapper reaching for his throat. He bites the man’s hand and is thrown down and choked repeatedly, then locked into a cagelike crate. He stays there for the rest of the night, and, in the morning, his crate is carried out by four men. Buck is passed from vehicle to vehicle, neither eating nor drinking for two days and two nights. He grows angrier and resolves never to let his tormentors tie a rope around his neck again.
In Seattle, Buck’s crate is lifted into a small yard with high walls, while a stout man signs for him. Buck decides that this new man is his next tormentor and lunges at him inside the cage. The man smiles and brings out a hatchet and a club. He begins to break the crate, and the other men step back fearfully. Buck snarls and growls and leaps at the man with all his weight, but he feels a blow from the club. It is the first time he has been hit with a club, so he is both hurt and stunned, but he continues trying to attack until the man beats him into submission. Once Buck is exhausted and prostrate, the man brings him water and meat and pats him on the head. Buck understands that he does not stand a chance against a man with a club—it is his introduction into “primitive law,” where might makes right.
Buck watches other men arrive, sometimes taking other dogs away with them, and he is glad that he is not chosen. Buck’s time finally comes when a French Canadian named Perrault buys him and a Newfoundland bitch named Curly. They are taken onto a ship called the Narwhal and turned over to another French Canadian named Francois. They join two other dogs, Spitz and Dave, on the journey northward, and Buck realizes that the weather is growing colder. Finally, they arrive and step out onto a cold surface that Buck does not recognize, never having seen snow before.
The facts of life took on a fiercer aspect and . . . he faced it with all the latent cunning of his nature aroused.
The meaning of chapter titles in The Call of the Wild extends beyond a simple description of the plot. The first chapter, “Into the Primitive,” is concerned not only with Buck’s departure from civilization and his entrance into a more savage, primitive world, but also with the contrast between civilized life and primitive life. This contrast is strong throughout the novel, and the story of Buck’s adventures in the Klondike is largely the story of how he gradually sheds all the customs that define his earlier life in human society to become a creature of the wild, primal world of the north. Here, in the first days after his kidnapping, he takes the first steps away from his old life and toward a new one.