The Call of the Wild

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Domestication to Devolution Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
The Man-Dog relationship Theme Icon
The Pursuit of Mastery Theme Icon
Wild Law and Order Theme Icon
Domestication to Devolution Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Call of the Wild, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Domestication to Devolution Theme Icon

While Buck is deeply influenced by his human masters, The Call of the Wild is ultimately about Buck's transformation from a domesticated dog to a wild wolf. London's Darwinian influences are at work in Buck's "development,” or rather his gradual "retrogression” into a primeval beast. Like an evolving organism, Buck sheds characteristics ill-suited to his environment and takes advantage of traits that help him thrive. He tunes in to his latent, feral instincts, becoming less pet-like and more wolf-like—his soft paws toughen for icy conditions, his body strengthens for work in the traces, he gains endurance against the pain of the club and the lash of the whip, and his bloodlust for live prey increases.

As Buck physically devolves, his memory recedes into a primordial past, where he actively envisions hunting and scavenging with a caveman. This primeval vision is realized when Buck satisfies his deep desire to kill a bull moose on his own. In this way, Buck not only acts like a wolf, but thinks like a wolf, as well. Buck's devolution completes itself when he joins with his timber wolf "brethren” at the novel's conclusion. He not only becomes their leader, but fathers many wolves, who bear his traits, thereby cementing his place in the wild wolves' lineage.

Domestication to Devolution ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Domestication to Devolution appears in each chapter of The Call of the Wild. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Domestication to Devolution Quotes in The Call of the Wild

Below you will find the important quotes in The Call of the Wild related to the theme of Domestication to Devolution.
Chapter 1 Quotes

Old longings nomadic leap,
Chafing at custom's chain;
Again from its brumal sleep
Wakens the ferine strain.

Page Number: 1
Explanation and Analysis:

The epigraph is from a John O'Hara poem, in which O'Hara praises the wild for awakening long-dormant instincts in the consciousness. The poem suggests that all beings, whether they're "civilized" or not, have a fundamental longing for action and adventure--a longing that's repressed because of the influence of "custom." And yet the instinct for action and wildness (becoming feral, or "ferine") can be awakened suddenly and unexpectedly from its "brumal" (wintry) sleep. As we'll see, the poem is the perfect epigraph for London's novel. Just as one's primal instincts can be awoken by sudden, unexpected events, Buck is roused from his luxurious lifestyle by a sudden kidnapping that awakens his primal, wolfish instincts. Like the poem's progression, the novel itself is essentially Buck's transition from a dog of "custom" to one that is "ferine."

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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 a country gentleman sometimes become because of their insular situation. But he had saved himself by not becoming a mere pampered house-dog.

Related Characters: Buck
Page Number: 2
Explanation and Analysis:

London establishes that Buck's life is idle and easygoing--he has little to do, no food to earn. His master, a prominent judge, is gentle and prosperous, so Buck is well-treated and well-fed.

Throughout the novel, London will draws comparisons between Buck the dog and human beings. Here, for instance, London compares Buck to an aristocrat, and the comparison is more insightful than it might seem at first. Like the aristocrats of Europe, Buck has a long, warlike past--the aristocrats, after all, used to be loyal soldiers of the king, but in recent centuries, they've allowed their luxurious lifestyles to suppress their talents for war. Buck, by the same token, is a dog, meaning that he's a descendant of wild, savage wolves. Buck has the instincts for violence and fighting, but because he's lived in luxury, his instincts have been mostly suppressed.

Chapter 2 Quotes

He had been suddenly jerked from the heart of civilization and flung into the heart of things primordial. No lazy, sun-kissed life was this, with nothing to do but loaf and be bored. Here was neither peace, nor rest, nor a moment's safety. All was confusion and action, and every moment life and limb were in peril. There was imperative need to be constantly alert; for these dogs and men were not town dogs and men. They were savages, all of them, who knew no law but the law of club and fang.

Related Characters: Buck
Related Symbols: The Law of Club and Fang, The Southland v. The Northland
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:

At the beginning of Chapter 2, London clarifies everything that's happened to Buck in Chapter 1: Buck has been ripped away from his old life in California--he can longer count on food or shelter. Instead, Buck has to adapt to his new, chaotic surroundings, finding the best way to obey the "law of club and fang."

The law of club and fang is, in essence, London's interpretation of survival of the fittest. All beings in the universe are competing with each other for food and shelter--the difference is that some animals (humans, dogs) are less aware of the competition than others. In his new environment, Buck is suddenly made aware of the laws of the universe, and adapts accordingly.

Here London also contrasts town with nature, the "Southland" (California) with the "Northland" (Alaska). Because of their drastically differing environments, it's suggested, even the very morals of each place are different. In the South, there is enough warmth and food to indulge in "luxuries" like boredom, compassion, or fun. In the North, however, one must be "savage" in order to survive.

This first theft marked Buck as fit to survive in the hostile Northland environment. It marked his adaptability, his capacity to adjust himself to changing conditions, the lack of which would have meant swift and terrible death.

Related Characters: Buck
Related Symbols: The Southland v. The Northland
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Buck learns how to survive in the harsh new environment in which he finds himself. Buck doesn't get much food, so he has to steal other dogs' food in order to survive. Buck quickly learns that he's good at stealing without getting caught--as a result, he survives the harsh Northland instead of slowly starving to death.

London's observations about dogs might just seem like good writing, but they also contain some important insights that could be applied to human society, too. London was a committed socialist, who believed that society was wrong to punish thieves and robbers so harshly. Thieves, he maintained, weren't immoral people--they were just trying to feed themselves and survive poverty. The only true morality in life, London believed, was the law of survival. London doesn't judge Buck for thieving--just as he didn't judge thieves--instead, he seems glad that Buck is asserting his will and surviving.

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 a torken of what a puppet thing life is, the ancient song surged through him and he came into his own again.

Related Characters: Buck
Page Number: 14
Explanation and Analysis:

In this important passage, London describes how Buck's inner instincts are awoken during his time as a sled dog. For much of his life, he's been living in luxury. Now that he's forced to work hard for his dinner, however, Buck can no longer rely on dependable masters. Instead, Buck has to rely on his instincts--instincts that are buried deep in his DNA, thanks to thousands of years of wolfish ancestry. Buck has an innate instinct to fight, to thieve, and above all, to survive. Thus London portrays him as not so much progressing, but "devolving"--returning to his original, natural state.

Buck is a survivor, first and foremost. He was initially disoriented and frightened by his new environment, but instead of giving up, he used his instincts to regain his confidence. Now, Buck seems surprisingly at ease among the other sled-dogs--he's given into his survival instincts.

Chapter 3 Quotes

The dominant primordial beast was strong in Buck, and under the fierce conditions of the trail it grew and grew.

Related Characters: Buck
Page Number: 15
Explanation and Analysis:

London is fond of beginning each one of his chapters with a quick "recap" of the chapter before--London was a serial novelist for much of his life, and needed to remind his readers what had happened in the story the previous week. Here, London shows us that the "primordial beast"--i.e., the aggregate of thousands of years of wolfish behavior--has taken over in Buck's consciousness. Buck has had experiences at a luxurious house, but these experiences don't shape his behavior remotely as much as his instincts. In effect, London is saying that a dog's behavior--and perhaps, a human's, too--is more instinct than education. Buck has to learn to adapt to his environment, but at the end of the day, he obeys one law and one law alone--the law of the club and fang. Survival is his highest priority, and everything else is a detail.

It was inevitable that the clash for leadership should come. Buck wanted it. He wanted it because it was his nature, because he had been gripped tight by that nameless, incomprehensible pride of the trail and trace—that pride which holds dogs in the toil to the last gasp, which lure them to die joyfully in the harness, and breaks their hearts if they cut out of the harness.

Related Characters: Buck
Related Symbols: The Traces
Page Number: 19
Explanation and Analysis:

In this section, we see that Buck is developing a rivalry with another dog, Spitz. Like Buck, Spitz is strong and dangerous, and feels a natural instinct to be top dog in the "traces" (harness of the sled). There can only be one leader among the animals, though--thus, a clash between Buck and Spitz is inevitable.

What's the difference between Buck and Spitz? Nothing, perhaps--they're both just dogs trying to survive and master their environment. One gets the sense that London could have told his story from the perspective of any one of the dogs pulling the sled. Buck's story is particularly interesting, though, in that Buck spends the majority of his life in luxury--thus, by telling the story from Buck's point of view, London shows how strong a dog's instincts are, to the point where they overshadow its literal experiences. In the end, though, Buck and Spitz are just two dogs trying to gain power--because it's their nature.

There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot riseÉand it came to Buck, leading the pack, sounding the old wolf-cry, straining after the food that was alive and that fled swiftly before him through the moonlight. He was sounding the deeps of his nature, and of the parts of his nature that were deeper than he, going back into the womb of Time. He was mastered by the sheer surging of life, the tidal wave of beingÉ

Related Characters: Buck
Page Number: 22-23
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Buck has just defeated Spitz, his rival for power. Buck is a less talented and experienced fighter than Spitz, but he's successfully built loyalty between himself and the other dogs, allowing him to defeat Spitz at the last minute. Buck savors the feeling of dominance he gets from being the new pack leader.

The feeling of power Buck gets in this passage is every bit as basic as the laws of survival itself: over thousands of years, wolves have learned to vie for power over other wolves, because power is surely the best way to ensure plentiful food and shelter. Buck, one could say, is an especially powerful and power-hungry dog--he's extraordinary in the ambition he projects. As a result, he makes a good hero.

Buck stood and looked on, the successful champion, the dominant primordial beast who had made his kill and found it good.

Related Characters: Buck
Page Number: 24
Explanation and Analysis:

Buck has just defeated Spitz, his rival for power among the sled dogs. In this passage, London reinforces Buck's victory by describing the sense of power and control that Buck feels immediately afterwards.

In a way, the passage conveys two victories simultaneously. the first victory is obvious: Buck's victory over Spitz. The second victory is subtler yet more important: the victory of Buck's savage instincts over his own domestication. Though Buck has been living a life of luxury for many years now, his strong, aggressive instincts come out quickly and exhilaratingly. Here, Buck is finally committed to his new life--a life of constant danger and fighting. Such a life might seem horrible, but Buck savors the constant, aggressive competition.

Chapter 4 Quotes

Far more potent were the memories of his heredity that gave things he had never seen before a seeming familiarity; the instincts (which were but the memories of his ancestors become habits) which had lapsed in later days, and still later, in hum, quickened and become alive again.

Related Characters: Buck
Page Number: 28
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Buck moves still further into the realm of instinct and heredity. Buck has had plenty of memories, but as he proceeds with being a sled dog, he begins to think more about his ancestral memories—i.e., the experiences of the millions of wolves from whom he’s descended.

The passage offers an interesting definition of instinct: memories that have evolved into habits. Over the course of thousands or even millions of years, wolves have accumulated certain experiences that they pass down to their offspring: instincts for survival, fighting, and endurance. Buck, we know by now, is a particularly distinguished inheritor of such instincts: he feels the influence of his wolf ancestors particularly strongly.

Chapter 5 Quotes

[Buck] had made up his mind not to get up. He had a vague feeling of impending doomÉ.What of the thin and rotten ice he had felt under his feet all day, it seemed that he sensed disaster close at hand, out there ahead on the ice where his master was trying to drive.

Related Characters: Buck
Page Number: 40
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene from the end of the chapter, Buck refuses to cooperate with his tyrannical owners. The owners want Buck and the other dogs to carry a heavy load over thin ice—in other words, they want the dogs to defy the laws of nature, in a suicidal attempt to transport their own heavy cargo. Buck, knowing full-well that he won’t survive the trek across the frozen lake (because of an instinctual "sense"), refuses to get up, and the other dogs follow his example.

Chapter 5 is important because it shows that London doesn’t just believe that the world is a brutal, violent place. Even if it’s dogs’ fate to pull sleds for humans, there’s a big difference between a just and an unjust master. Buck’s current owners’ tyranny, unlike that of their predecessors, is simply discordant with nature—it violates the natural order. As a result, Buck, listening to his natural instincts, refuses to play along. London’s novel doesn’t have any morality beyond the natural order of the universe—and yet here, he judges Hal and the other owners for violating such a natural order.

Chapter 6 Quotes
“As you love me, Buck. As you love me.”
Related Characters: John Thornton (speaker), Buck
Page Number: 50
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Buck prepares for a wager that will make his master, John, rich. Buck has been sent to move a thousand-pound sled—if he succeeds, John will win a lot of money. As John prepares Buck for the wager, he tells Buck to succeed if Buck loves him.

The passage is interesting because it shows the strengths and weaknesses of John and Buck’s relationship. Buck sincerely loves and even worships John, protecting him from danger and making him lots of money. The relationship is strong because John and Buck seem to genuinely respect each other—like the citizens of an ideal society, they recognize their partners’ strengths. And yet the relationship between John and Buck is totally unequal—as the quote suggests, Buck probably “loves” John more than John loves Buck. John is still very much the boss, even when Buck does all the real work.

Chapter 7 Quotes

He had killed man, the noblest game of all, and he had killed in the face of the law of club and fang.

Related Characters: Buck, The Yeehats
Related Symbols: The Law of Club and Fang
Page Number: 60
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Buck finally steps out of line and breaks the natural order, the "law of club and fang." He suspects that a group of Yeehats has killed his previous master, John. Buck, who loved John intensely, is overcome with hatred, and he attacks the Yeehats, killing some of them. Buck has never before killed a human being—he’s always been trained to obey humans at all costs, and to accept their mastery. Paradoxically, it was Buck’s love for another human being that led him to kill these humans.

Buck seems to be overcoming his natural subservience to humanity. He’s appreciated some of his previous masters, but at the end of the day, they needed him more than he needed them. Buck has been trained to obey because of the threat of violence, and because of the sense of a natural hierarchy. But now, Buck is free to be his own master—to live among other wolves instead of being exploited by humans.

It was the call, the many-noted call, sounding more luringly and compellingly than ever before. And as never before he was ready to obey. John Thornton was dead. The last tie was broken. Man and the claims of man no longer bound him.

Related Characters: Buck, John Thornton
Related Symbols: The Call
Page Number: 61
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of the novel, London is at his most romantic and his most political. Over the course of the novel, Buck has had many different masters: metaphorical tyrants, oligarchs, democrats, etc.—some Buck has hated, others he’s loved. And yet every leader Buck ever had stole his own labor from him: Buck’s leaders imprisoned him, forcing him to work for little to no reward.

Now that Buck has no human master, he’s free to live in a utopian society of wolves. After years of having his labors stolen from him, he finally controls what he does and where he goes. In the past, Buck hungered for a human master, but now, he can get by without one. Notice that had Buck been sent into the wild immediately after leaving the Judge’s house, he would never have been happy there—he would have wanted to return home right away, and probably would have died. But because of the gradual evolution (or devolution) of Buck’s situation over the course of the novel, Buck is finally prepared to be his own master.