Charles was a middle-aged, lightish-colored man, with weak and watery eyes and a mustache that twisted fiercely and vigorously up, giving the lie to the limply drooping lip it concealed.
The narrator introduces Charles, Mercedes’ husband and Hal’s brother-in-law. London’s description of Charles paints a picture of a weak, middle-aged man, enervated by civilized life. Charles’ dramatic mustache hides a drooping lip, symbolizing how civilization can be a pretense for vitality and mask true weakness. Charles appears ill-equipped, both in experience and in character, for life in the wild.
Hal was a youngster of nineteen or twenty, with a big Colt’s revolver and a hunting-knife strapped about him on a belt that fairly bristled with cartridges. This belt was the most salient thing about him. It advertised his callowness—a callowness sheer and unutterable.
Here, the narrator introduces Hal, a young American gold seeker, Mercedes’ brother, and Charles’ brother-in-law. London presents Hal as a stereotypical “greenhorn,” a young, naive American fresh from civilization and seeking gold on the frontier. Here, London notably uses the word callow to define Hal, a word that signifies the haughtiness of inexperienced youth. From this description, readers might infer that Hal lacks the knowledge and skills needed to make it in the wild, and yet he remains overly confident.
“The lazy brutes, I’ll show them,” he cried, preparing to lash out at them with the whip.
Hal and his family have overloaded the dog sled, and the sled won’t move. More experienced neighbors warn Hal that the sled won’t move unless they clear some weight, but Hal refuses to listen and decides to lash the dogs instead. Hal’s vanity and ignorance become a bane for Buck and the team of dogs and demonstrate the more problematic side of the relationship between man and dog.
“Undreamed of!” cried Mercedes, throwing up her hands in dainty dismay. “However in the world could I manage without a tent?”
Mercedes speaks and behaves like a pampered woman, spoiled and softened by civilized life. When Hal and Charles consider removing the tent to clear some weight from the sled, Mercedes becomes flabbergasted. Mercedes can’t imagine sleeping outdoors without a tent. Mercedes symbolizes how unsuited civilized women were to life in the wild.
“You poor, poor dears,” she cried sympathetically, “why don’t you pull hard?—then you wouldn’t be whipped.”
At first, Mercedes sympathizes with the dogs and their hardships as she watches Hal brutally whip them. Later, when things turn more urgent and the dogs are starving and unable to pull the sled, Mercedes insists on being carried, disregarding the dogs completely. Mercedes’ sympathy appears conditional and suggests the superficiality of the affectations of civilized life and thought.
It would have required an experienced man to keep the top-heavy sled upright, and Hal was not such a man.
The narrator explains how Hal’s lack of knowledge on how to load a sled properly causes many problems for him and the dog team. The top-heavy sled eventually topples over, and the dogs end up pulling a sled that is turned sideways. Hal’s lack of experience in the frontier causes absurd moments like these, as he becomes a symbol for the folly of civilized life.
Not only did they not know how to work dogs, but they did not know how to work themselves.
London suggests that Hal’s, Mercedes’, and Charles’ ignorance extends beyond a simple lack of experience in the wild. The three don’t even have the inner wisdom to compensate for their lack of experience to give them a fighting chance. Readers are reminded of this truth each time the three ignore the advice of those more experienced around them and then stubbornly drive ahead with pride.
The wonderful patience of the trail which comes to men who toil hard and suffer sore, and remain sweet of speech and kindly, did not come to these two men and the woman.
The narrator eventually reveals that Hal, Mercedes, and Charles devolve into a bickering mess and succumb to the pressures of life in the wild. Unlike Buck, who suffers through and grows stronger by the trials of life in the wild, these three crack and divide. London suggests that Hal, Mercedes, and Charles are too weakened by civilized life and fail to rise up to the challenge. They are not “masters” like Buck.
Mercedes nursed a special grievance—the grievance of sex. She was pretty and soft and had been chivalrously treated all her days . . . It was her custom to be helpless.
The narrator explains that as Hal, Mercedes, and Charles begin quarreling, Mercedes resorts to using the “helpless” card, which serves as her only leverage to get what she wants. Back in the city, this strategy worked and was actually cultivated and employed by many women at the time. In the wild, however, helplessness becomes absurd, and Mercedes’ insistence on being carried on the sled only makes matters worse.
“That’s because you’re not a fool, I suppose,” said Hal. “All the same, we’ll go on to Dawson.”
Hal’s reply to John Thornton’s suggestion that the ice is too thin to support them reveals that Hal has begun to listen to others around him, but not completely. Despite John’s warnings, Hal still insists on driving forward. Hal’s ill-fated decision leads the family to their death, as they all plunge into the icy waters shortly after.
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