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.