Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Life-and-death battles punctuate The Call of the Wild’s narrative, serving as reminders of the dangers of life in the Klondike, but more importantly as markers of Buck’s gradual integration into his new environment. When Buck first arrives in the north, he watches a friendly dog named Curly brutally killed by a husky. Soon, he finds himself in a rivalry with Spitz that ends with the two of them locked in single combat, a battle from which only Buck emerges alive. Having established himself as a dominant dog with this victory, Buck must continue to prove himself in battles with other creatures—with a bear, with a moose, and, finally, with humans. When Buck kills the Yeehat Indians who have killed John Thornton, he is fighting for his life against mankind for the first time, a sure sign of his final assimilation into the wild.
One of the themes of The Call of the Wild is “atavism,” or an animal’s (in this case, Buck’s) recovery of the instincts of his wild ancestors. For Buck, this recovery involves repeated visions of his primitive past, which usually occur late at night when he is lying alongside a campfire. He sees the men around him as primitive men, draped in furs and wary of the prehistoric dark around them, and then he has visions of himself as a primitive, wild creature, hunting his prey in the primeval forests. Each of these visions brings him closer to his destiny, which is the return to his ancestors’ ways and becoming a wild animal himself.
Songs and Calls
Although the literal and figurative “call of the wild” that London refers to in the title does not come into play until the novel’s end, the idea of ritualistic songs, chants, or calls appears throughout as a means of establishing a sense of collectiveness. Buck often seeks to develop his sense of individualism, but connecting with and being among different groups ultimately makes his personal growth possible. He hears and participates in numerous dog calls throughout, each one bringing him closer to the wild animal he eventually becomes. The first time that Buck engages in this kind of collective act occurs at the end of Chapter Two as he “howled long and wolflike” at the moon as a means of connecting with his ancestors. Traveling to the North requires Buck to explore a new side of himself, and channeling the ritualistic behavior of his predecessors gives him the strength to begin his transformation. He becomes integrated with another key group, the sled dogs in Dawson, by joining in their mournful, nightly song in Chapter Three. The bleaker tone of this moment highlights the shared struggle of wild dogs both past and present, bringing him even closer to the scrappy survivalist that he eventually becomes. Most importantly, however, Buck hears wolf calls from deep in the forest that inspire him to pursue a truly wild life. These calls, which begin occurring in Chapter Six, are more ambiguous compared to the dogs’ songs and speak to Buck in a particularly instinctual way. Although Buck initially maintains ties to the more civilized world of Thornton and the dogs, these calls awaken an even more authentic version of himself. Joining the wolf pack and participating in this collective, animalistic call ultimately empowers Buck to fully embrace his inner beast.