The Call of the Wild is told from the perspective of Buck, a German Shepherd-St. Bernard mix who has been born and raised in Southern California, but because of his strength and obedience, he is sold to be part of Alaskan dog teams. It is a story of how Buck survived the North, the abuse and mistreatment of his owners; and the challenges of his competitors. Buck quickly learns to respect the law of ‘Club and Fang” – the intimidating brutality of sled-drivers and the fierce rivalry for food and dominance among the dogs. He steals meat, the first act of transition from the constructed civilization of the South to the more primitive but fundamental nature of the North:
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. It marked, further, the decay or going to pieces of his moral nature, a vain thing and a handicap in the ruthless struggle for existence. It was all well enough in the Southland, under the law of love and fellowship, to respect private property and personal feelings; but in the Northland, under the law of club and fang, whoso took such things into account was a fool, and in so far as he observed them he would fail to prosper.
‘His development (or retrogression) was rapid”, writes London. “His muscles became as hard as iron and he grew callous to ordinary pain”.
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. It was no task for him to learn to fight with cut and slash and the quick wolf snap.
In this manner had fought forgotten ancestors. They quickened the old life within him, and the old tricks which they had stamped into the heredity of the breed were his tricks. They came to him without effort or discovery, as though they had been his always. And when, on the still cold nights, he pointed his nose at a star and howled long and wolf-like, it was his ancestors, dead and dust, pointing nose at star and howling down through the centuries and through him. And his cadences were their cadences, the cadences which voiced their woe and what to them was the meaning of the stiffness, and the cold, and dark.He is a dog of unusual intelligence, strength, and courage; and his reputation spreads through Alaska. He is a leader, loyal to owners who treat him well, obedient, yet savage enough to protect his position and status. He has become both the dog of man and an animal of the wild.
Later during his time in the North, he is cut loose from his traces and begins to explore the forest.
The blood-longing became stronger than ever before. He was a killer, a thing that preyed, living on the things that lived, unaided, alone, by virtue of his own strength and prowess, surviving triumphantly in a hostile environment where only the strong survived…
A carnivorous animal living on a straight meat diet, he was in full flower, at the high tide of his life, over-spilling with vigor and virility… Every part, brain and body, nerve tissue and fiber, was keyed to the most exquisite pitch; and between all the parts there was a perfect equilibrium or adjustment.
To sights and sounds and events which required action, he responded with lightning-like rapidity. Quickly as a husky dog could leap to defend from attack or to attack, he could leap twice as quickly. He saw the movement, or heard sound, and responded in less time than another dog required to compass the mere seeing or hearing. He perceived and determined and responded in the same instant. In point of fact the three actions of perceiving, determining, and responding were sequential; but so infinitesimal were the intervals of time between them that they appeared simultaneous.
His muscles were surcharged with vitality, and snapped into play sharply, like steel springs. Life streamed through him in splendid flood, glad and rampant, until it seemed that it would burst him asunder in sheer ecstasy and pour forth generously over the world.When Buck finds that Indians have attacked his camp and killed his master, Buck tracks them and savagely kills them.
At times, when he paused to contemplate the carcasses of the Yeehats, he forgot the pain of it; and at such times he was aware of a great pride in himself,—a pride greater than any he had yet experienced. He had killed man, the noblest game of all, and he had killed in the face of the law of club and fang. He sniffed the bodies curiously. They had died so easily. It was harder to kill a husky dog than them. They were no match at all, were it not for their arrows and spears and clubs. Thenceforward he would be unafraid of them except when they bore in their hands their arrows, spears, and clubs.His transformation complete, Buck heeds the call of the wild and returns to the forest.
While London said that he did not set out to write a parable and comment on the human condition, he admitted that the parallels were clear. The story of Buck is nothing if not the embodiment of the American Dream, escaping from the entangling complexity of modern life to an unencumbered natural state.
More important are the influences of Darwin and Nietzsche. Buck is a Nietzschean Superman whose indomitable will, rejection of good and evil and the morality of the Southland enable him to rule the North. His slaughter of the Yeehats is not just retribution and revenge, but a brutal, willful savagery and the final portal to the wild. Buck is also a perfect example of Darwinian evolution and the survival of the fittest. Buck combines both evolutionary superiority and the unique character of animal will.
There is something even more compelling about the story of Buck – his aggressiveness, and male dominance. There is a completeness and perfection in the male character of Buck – he has no feminine side – and his will is male, one unmistakably virile, potent, and forceful. While many men may publically disavow any such characteristics as primitive evolutionary throwbacks, privately they feel that they have capitulated their maleness, accommodated women far too much, and become neutered. It is one thing to support women’s equality of opportunity and enterprise, another thing to feel emasculated by their insistent claims of emotional and intellectual superiority.
August Strindberg’s The Father is a story of female dominance. Laura, angry and frustrated at her weak and indecisive husband who hides behind social propriety and laws which favor men, emasculates him. She uses women’s ultimate power – their exclusive knowledge about paternity – to sow doubts of infidelity; and, Iago-like, drives him to madness. In a chilling summary statement of her dismissal of her husband and dismissiveness of all men, she says:
Now you have fulfilled your function as an unfortunately necessary father and breadwinner, you are not needed any longer and you must go. You must go, since you have realized that my intellect is as strong as my will, and since you will not stay and acknowledge it.
There are some men who for reasons of political stature within the progressive community, are very vocal about their support for women who for too long have been deprived of their civil if not human rights. They don’t complain about their loss of masculinity because they are convinced that social equality is so important a goal that they are willing to subsume their sexual identity within the movement.
There are others who have simply been caught in the grinder, who lose out to more ambitious, smart, and opportunistic women, and can only lick their wounds.
For most men, the ascendancy of women is simply a matter of social evolution and the result of prosperity. Without women’s full participation in the economy, the American economic engine would sputter. Accept this new, more visible and significant female character, deal with it, and move on.
Yet few men are totally happy with this new social configuration. It is not that they resent women per se or wish to deprive them of their newfound liberation. It is just that maleness has been devalued in the process. The most male traits of aggression, sexual pursuit, and violent self-protective behavior have been hammered smooth, tinkered with, and evened out.
This, of course, is a matter of perception. No one can accuse Wall Street investment bankers, Donald Trump commercial real estate moguls, Hollywood studio owners, military colonels, or K Street lawyers of being sissified.
Yet these Nietzschean Supermen are few and far between. They are the exception rather than the rule. Most men feel sexually enfeebled, socially constrained, and neutered both by modern society and defiant women – and have to put up with it.
Which is why The Call of the Wild resonates so loudly with men. Buck is the uber-male - wild, untamed, ferocious, indomitable and dominant. Men are supposed to be like Buck but have been corralled, harnessed, stabled, and shod.