The Call of the Wild

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The Man-Dog relationship 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.
The Man-Dog relationship Theme Icon

In the harsh Klondike, man and sled dog develop intense bonds, coming to depend on each other in symbiotic ways in order to survive. For instance, sled dogs, like Buck provide transportation and labor to couriers like François and Perrault, who in turn care for their animals with food and protection. London portrays such bonds by demonstrating how Buck's owners shape his character and educate him in the ways of mastery.

At Judge Miller's insular estate Buck is a prized and pampered pet, allowed to have the run of the place as a glorified guard dog, who ceremoniously lies by the Judge's feet and accompanies his grandchildren on little hunting trips. Under François and Perrault's just and wise care, Buck becomes an exemplary working dog and fierce leader. Through John Thornton's love and respect, Buck transforms into a loyal companion.

That Buck changes so thoroughly under these human owners highlights not only the diversity of man-dog relationships, but also its evolutionary nature. For London, the kinship between man and dog is ever-changing, but also primeval, stretching back to the ancient times when caveman first hunted with wild wolves. It is also a relationship fraught by a deep-seated struggle "to master, or be mastered.” While men seek to domesticate Buck by shaping his identity, Buck struggles to reconcile his inner instincts with his devotion for his "ideal master,” John Thornton. This struggle for dominance is, for London, the crux of the man-dog relationship. It is a kinship that can be "ideal” through mutual love, respect, and justness, but because it has evolved into various symbiotic partnerships, it can hardly ever live up to its primeval legacy in which man and beast walk as co-dependent, but also autonomous equals.

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The Man-Dog relationship ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of The Man-Dog relationship 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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The Man-Dog relationship 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 The Man-Dog relationship.
Chapter 1 Quotes

He was beaten (he knew that); but he was not broken. He saw once for all, that he stood no chance against a man with a club. He learned the lesson, and in all his after life he never forgot it. That club was a revelation. It was his introduction to the reign of primitive lawÉ Again and again, as he looked at each brutal performance, the lesson was driven home to Buck: a man with a club was a lawgiver, a master to be obeyed, though not necessarily conciliated.

Related Characters: Buck, The man in the red sweater
Related Symbols: The Law of Club and Fang
Page Number: 6
Explanation and Analysis:

Buck has been kidnapped unexpectedly, and his new owners beat him with a heavy club, causing Buck great pain. Buck, who's been treated well for his entire life, isn't the least bit used to such acts of violence--he's literally never experienced them before.

The passage is important because it establishes the supremacy of violence and survival in the novel. The simple fact is that life (particularly in the Northland) is hard and full of pain--the only question, at least for Buck, is whether or not Buck will be able to overcome the pain and survive. London paints a harsh, Darwinian picture of the world, in which the strong (those who control the club) control the weak (Buck, who's been captured). Buck must learn to become more powerful and control his own environment--or he'll be killed.


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"Well, Buck, my boy," he went on in a genial voice, "we've had our little ruction, and the best thing we can do is to let it go at that. You've learned your place, and I know mine. Be a good dog and all 'll go well and the goose hang high. Be a bad dog, and I'll whale the stuffin' outa you. Understand?
Related Characters: The man in the red sweater (speaker), Buck
Related Symbols: The Law of Club and Fang
Page Number: 6
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the man who beats Buck expresses the basic law of survival that London has just shown us. The man has beaten Buck with a heavy club because Buck was being disobedient--Buck had just been kidnapped from his old home, and wasn't used to his new, harsh owners.

In essence, Buck has been living in a soft, dreamy world--a world in which there's infinite food and plentiful company. The real world, which Buck is just about to discover, is wild, dangerous, and full of violence. Buck has just discovered the basic law of the real world: know your place, or you'll be attacked for getting out of line. Buck, as a dog in a world of men, must learn to be obedient to his masters, or risk being beaten again.

One reason that London's novel--a novel about a dog--feels mature and insightful, rather than childish, is that London thinks that, on the most basic level, there's no difference between a dog and a human being. Both are just animals, trying to survive by adapting to their surroundings. Even a dog knows the law of the club--one must either master or be mastered.

Chapter 5 Quotes

In excess of their own misery, [Hal, Charles, and Mercedes] were callous to the suffering of their animals. Hal's theory, which he practiced on others, was that one must get hardened. He had started out preaching it to his sister and brother-in-law. Failing there, he hammered it into the dogs with a club.

Related Characters: Hal, Mercedes, Charles
Page Number: 38
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Buck has been passed to another set of owners, Hal, Charles, and Mercedes. These owners are foolish and incompetent—instead of treating their animals well, they burden them with horribly heavy loads that exhaust the dogs and break their bodies rapidly.

The new owners have a philosophy for how to control their animals: they believe that it’s best to be cruel and harsh to the dogs, in order to separate the strong from the weak and make them all get "hardened." Such a theory is a bastardization of Darwin’s survival of the fittest—much like Social Darwinism, the doctrine that was used to justify wealth inequality in human society. Hal and his co-owners don’t understand anything about taking care of dogs—but they disguise their own incompetence by claiming that they’re “teaching” their dogs a lesson. In political terms, Hal is an unjust ruler; even if London doesn’t see anything wrong with humans owning dogs, he insists that there’s a right and a wrong way to do so.

“They're lazy, I tell you, and you've got to whip them to get anything out of them. That's their way. You ask any one. Ask one of those men.”
Related Characters: Hal (speaker), Buck, The Insides
Page Number: 33
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Hal complains that his dogs are lazy for refusing to cross the frozen lake bearing their masters’ cargo. In order to make an example out of the dogs, Hal chooses to whip Buck.

Hal’s speech shows how out of touch he is with his own dogs, not to mention the realities of the world. Buck knows far better than Hal what’s going on: he’s not refusing to pull the cargo because he’s lazy, but because he knows that the cargo will break through the frozen river and kill him. Even here, Buck is a fundamentally self-interested animal; he won’t do anything that he senses will endanger himself. Hal, by contrast, looks like a fool—he claims that you can “ask anyone” how lazy the dogs are, when London’s book testifies to the fact that Buck isn’t the least bit lazy, and it's also presumed that the wiser dog owners around Hal would similarly disagree with Hal's methods.

"If you strike that dog again, I'll kill you," he at last managed to say in a choking voice.
Related Characters: John Thornton (speaker), Buck, Hal
Page Number: 41
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Hal is beating Buck for refusing to cross the frozen river. As Hal beats Buck, a worker, John Thornton, intervenes and threatens to kill Hal if he hurts Buck again. The emotion of the scene is palpable: John seems to be choking as he speaks, suggesting that he’s crying because of Hal’s cruelty.

How should we understand this scene—which, unlike everything else in the book, seems to put forth a morality based on compassion and sympathy? Perhaps the reason that London shows John behaving compassionately is that he wants to contrasts John’s behavior with that of the violent, irrational Hal. Hal is a man who simply doesn’t understand how nature works—he’s about to send a heavy cargo across a thin layer of ice. John is compassionate, but he’s also smart enough to see that Buck isn’t really being lazy at all—Buck just wants to survive. London suggests that even John’s compassion is based on the principle of survival of the fittest—John protects Buck because he recognizes that Buck is smart enough to avoid the ice, and because he respects Buck’s strength and intelligence.

Chapter 6 Quotes

Love, genuine passionate love, was his for the first time. This he had never experienced at Judge Miller'sÉ.With the Judge's sons, hunting and tramping, it had been a working partnership; with the Judge's grandsons, aÉpompous guardianshipÉ.with the Judge himself, a stately dignified friendship. But love that was feverish and burning, that was adoration, that was madness, it had taken John Thornton to arouse.

Related Characters: Buck, John Thornton, Judge Miller
Page Number: 42
Explanation and Analysis:

In Chapter Six, the novel changes directions abruptly. Buck has had many masters before, but only now does he have an ideal master—someone who genuinely loves him. London distinguishes sharply between the love Buck received in his old, luxurious lifestyle—such love, we’re told, wasn’t really based in respect or mutual appreciation. Here, however, Buck and his new owner, John, genuinely respect each other: they recognize that they’re both talented, intelligent beings, capable of surviving, and beyond that they truly enjoy each other's company.

In this passage, London outlines a kind of “ideal society.” London, a politically active thinker throughout his life, doesn’t believe that a society can ever be totally just unless the rulers and the people truly love each other: if they truly recognize each other’s abilities and work together. Buck thinks that he’s found an ideal society with John, as they work together to survive.

“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.