The Call of the Wild

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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 Pursuit of Mastery Theme Icon

The dog eat dog world of the Klondike awakens within Buck a "dominant primordial beast” that drives him to "master, or be mastered.” Buck chooses "to master” by overthrowing Spitz and asserting his rightful place as lead dog on François and Perrault's team. Domination is Buck's aim and he achieves it. Mastery, however, is not just a relentless struggle for power and dominance. London describes Buck's pursuit "to master” as a learning process. Buck "masters,” or comes to dominate his fellow dogs by learning, or mastering, survival skills. He "receives instruction” from the other sled dogs about how to work in the traces and learns "lessons,” like burying himself in the snow to keep warm, or deferring to man's authority when that man wields a heavy club.

The pursuit of mastery is not just limited to the canine world; it's active in the human one, as well. Buck's human owners parallel Buck's drive to dominate through their attempts to tame the wild, both animals and nature, alike. Buck's various owners exert mastery over canines by exchanging these animals like commodities, disciplining them and charting their course across the Klondike. Meanwhile, miners, such as John Thornton, carve through the earth so that they can harvest gold, while pioneers such as Hal, Charles, and Mercedes try to settle the Klondike by imposing their worldly possessions upon it.

Man's will "to master” nature stifles Buck's own innate drive to dominate. While Buck masters other dogs, man masters him. Buck is not able to fully assert his mastery until he flagrantly defies the law of club and fang by attacking the Yeehats. In doing so, Buck willfully overturns man's dominance over dog, but also gains autonomy. Free from man's mastery, he is able to roam nature freely as the leader of a wild wolf pack. Buck has not only mastered the ways of the wild, but his own fate.

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The Pursuit of Mastery ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of The Pursuit of Mastery 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 Pursuit of Mastery 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 Pursuit of Mastery.
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 2 Quotes

Buck had been purposefully placed between Dave and Sol-leks so that he might receive instruction. Apt scholar that he was, they were equally apt teachers, never allowing him to linger long in error, and enforcing their teaching with their sharp teethÉand ere the day was done, so well had he mastered his work.

Related Characters: Buck, Dave, Sol-leks
Page Number: 12
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Buck learns how to be a sled dog. He's taken through a crash course in running, pulling, and turning--and surprisingly, he turns out to be an excellent student, quickly mastering the basic lessons he's taught.

It's worth noting that Buck learns his lessons quickly because he's taught by Dave, an experienced dog who bites and barks whenever Buck messes up. London anticipates the psychology of "negative reinforcement" and B.F. Skinner's conditioning treatments--the best way to learn, as far as he's concerned, is through the threat of pain. Sure enough, Buck masters his skills in less than a day, thanks--it's implied--to Dave and Sol-leks.

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.

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.

The insidious revolt led by Buck had destroyed the solidarity of the team. It no longer was as one dog leaping in the traces.

Related Characters: Buck
Related Symbols: The Traces
Page Number: 21
Explanation and Analysis:

In this fascinating section, Buck begins a subtle "revolt" against Spitz, the top dog of the sled team. Buck notices that Spitz has attacked a weaker dog named Pike. Buck cleverly defends Pike from Spitz's aggression, building loyalty between Pike (and, by extension, the other weak dogs who are afraid of Spitz) and Buck.

Buck, in short, is a good politician--he knows how to rise to power. Instead of attacking Spitz directly, he builds up a coalition against Spitz, undermining Spitz's power-base. Buck, to use some Marxist language, is the bourgeois politician, building up solidarity with the proletariat in order to defeat the social elite. While it may seem odd that a dog is playing the part of a politician, London doesn't think so at all--the path to power is almost as instinctive as survival itself.

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

At a bound Buck took up the duties of leadership, and where judgment was required, and quick thinking and quick acting he showed himself superior even of Spitz, of whom Franois had never seen an equal.

Related Characters: Buck, Spitz, François
Page Number: 26
Explanation and Analysis:

Buck is now the pack leader--the lord of the other dogs. Buck has defeated his rival, Spitz, by proving himself to be a stronger and savvier animal. Buck's victory over Spitz is surprising to Francois, the human master of the dogs, because Francois had never seen a dog stronger than Spitz.

The passage is important because it clarifies why, exactly, Buck defeated Spitz. At times, Buck seemed like a sleazy politician, manipulating the other dogs against Spitz in order to defeat him. But here, it becomes clear that the better dog has won: Buck defeated Spitz not because he was sneaky but because he was stronger and faster. In the end, Darwin is right: the fitter animal always survives.

Chapter 5 Quotes
“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.

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.