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.
Wild Law and Order Theme Icon

When Jack London embarked to the Klondike in search of gold, he brought two seminal works with him, Milton's Paradise Lost, and Charles Darwin's On the Origin of the Species. The latter's influence is evidenced by the ways in which nature administers the law. When Buck attacks a man to defend John Thornton, the miners set up a mock court to settle this dispute on the frontier. That they set up their own councils demonstrates a different kind of justice at work in the Northland.

While "moral consideration” and reason operate in the Judge's courthouse in the Southland, Darwinian tenets, such as "survival of the fittest,” natural selection, and adaptation are actively enforced in London's Klondike. For example, most deaths in The Call of the Wild occur because the victim could not adapt to his/her environment. The dogs that Hal, Charles, and Mercedes acquire for their sled dog team are ill suited for work in the traces and for the Klondike's harsh environment, so they die. Similarly, Hal, Charles, and Mercedes perish because they cannot adapt to life in the Northland. Mercedes cannot part from her possessions, while Hal and Charles do not have the wherewithal to execute a successful trip across the Yukon, nor do they listen to the advice of experienced settlers, who warn them against traveling on thin ice. Consequently, Hal's ignorance leads his team to a treacherous patch of thin ice, while Mercedes' heavy articles weigh down the sled, causing the ice to cave beneath them. Because they do not adapt to nature's ways, they are neither fit, nor selected to survive.

In contrast, Buck excels and survives in the wild because he follows his instincts. Such distinctions underline the harsh and brutal character of nature's laws, which are codified in the law of club and fang—wild justice is served when the most adaptive survive, the strong thrive, the weak die, and those who disrespect nature's laws suffer nature's wrath. This order is reflected in the way that the sled dog team operates, like an organism within an ecosystem. The sled dog team is healthy and thrives in the wild under the direction of respectful owners like François and Perrault, but suffers under poor masters like Hal, Charles, and Mercedes. Similarly, the dogs work best in the traces when every dog knows his place within the natural order, but falls into some disorder when Buck upsets this balance by overthrowing Spitz. However, Buck is able to restore order on the team when he takes over because he knows how to play by nature's rules.

Wild Law and Order ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Wild Law and Order 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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Wild Law and Order 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 Wild Law and Order.
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

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.

So that was the way. No fair play. Once down, that was the end of you.

Related Characters: Buck, Curly
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, a dog named Curly approaches another dog in an attempt to be friendly. Instead of responding with friendliness, the dog attacks Curly and kills her. In this way, Buck learns one basic lesson of his new environment: there's no more politeness, no more fair play. Dogs who step out of line for any reason--even their own kindness--end up dead. Buck has lived in a world where kindness and gentleness was celebrated, but now he's come to the opposite kind of environment, where hard work and toughness are paramount. (Notice that the dog who's killed in this scene is a female, suggesting that the "real world" might be easier for males, with their supposedly more violent and aggressive instincts--a common, though inaccurate interpretation of Darwin's "survival of the fittest.")

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

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.

Chapter 4 Quotes

Dave resented being taken out, grunting and growling while the traces were unfastened, and whimpering brokenheartedly when he saw Sol-leks in the position he had held and served so long. For the pride of trace and trail was his, and sick, unto death, he could not bear that another dog should do his work.

Related Characters: Buck, Dave, Sol-leks
Related Symbols: The Traces
Page Number: 30
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Dave, one of the sled dogs who originally trained Buck in how to obey orders, collapses from exhaustion—he’s gotten so old that he can no longer be a successful sled dog. And yet Dave still wants to be a sled dog—he wants to keep his spot in the traces, to continue working for his human masters, right up to the moment when they end his life with a gunshot.

The passage is equal parts noble and disturbing: Dave is the very embodiment of the wolfish instinct to fight and survive. And yet in the end, even Dave’s instincts for survival end the same way: death. There’s a tragic futility to everything the dogs do—no matter how much power they attain within the ranks of the sled, they’re still the slaves of their human masters, forced to break their bodies pulling heavy loads thousands of miles.

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.

"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 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.