Monday, February 11, 2013

The Call of the Wild by Jack London

Buck did not read the newspapers, or 
he would have known that trouble was 
brewing,  not alone for himself,  but for 
every tide-water dog, strong of muscle 
and with warm, long hair, from Puget 
Sound to San Diego.
Opening to 
The Call of the Wild
by Jack London
While I discussed Jack London's The Call of the Wild a few weeks ago in a Sunday Salon post, I find that I still have a couple of things I'd like to say about the book.  The last of my three English classes is finishing it this week, which will make the fourth time I've 'read' it this year for a life time total of 12.  I've found a couple of new things this time around.

First, I just want to say how wonderful the last two chapters are; some of the best writing I've read in a while.  Frankly, I never realized Jack London had it in him.  I think the first five chapters are good, but they seem like writing exercises, little warm-ups the author went through to get ready for the big finish in chapter six and seven.  If you've never read the book before and are short on time, just skip to chapter six and go from there.

In the books final chapters Buck meets John Thornton who rescues him from the ill-fated Hal, Charles and Mercedes who immediately lead the rest of the dogs to their deaths when the frozen river cracks open beneath their feet.  Buck is so far gone is so far gone at this point that no one but a man like John Thornton could have seen that the wonderful animal that once was Buck is still worth saving.

Which brings me to point two.  Standing in front of my third period class listening to the book-on-tape finish the final pages, I realized that John Thornton is Jack London.  Look at their names.

John Thornton
Jack London

Jack is a familiar form of John.  Thornton echoes the name London.  Why did I never see this before? I thought.  It's so obvious.  (London's real name was John Griffith London.)  John Thornton is Jack London's ideal man; he is the human manifestation of Buck. Thornton lives alone in the wilderness, surviving on his own strength and wits.  He is a compassionate man but not a sentimental one. He saves Buck because he sees the wonderful dog still surviving terrible mistreatment at the hands of incompetent humans, but he makes no effort to save the rest of the team or to convince their owners to turn back.

Afterwards, Buck becomes devoted to Thornton, who becomes just as devoted to Buck, but theirs is not a fawning relationship. Neither ever becomes overly physical they way most people are with the dogs they love, the way I am with mine.  They're more like brothers, physical but with a respectful distance.  Thornton seems able to read people as well as Buck reads dogs, and to measure them by a similar yardstick.  He is a leader among men the same way that Buck is a leader among dogs.  Neither has any patience for fools.

In the book's final pages, Thornton and his partners take their dogs and head out into the wilderness to search for a lost gold mine.  They take little in the way of supplies, intending to live of the land by hunting for their food.  The men and dogs together are in a sense already a pack of wolves, moving through the wilderness, hunting for food, surviving over a year and half without ever coming into contact with another group of humans.

All of which leads me to suspect that in John Thornton, Jack London is able to insert an idealized version of himself into his novel.  He is the creator of the fictional Buck.  He is the one who has written him into what looks like a fatal situation.  So he inserts himself in the form of John Thornton to rescue Buck from oblivion.  He then goes on to show how he would have treated an animal as wonderful as Buck.  I can easily see Jack London's desire to live like John Thornton and Buck do.

My students liked the idea though one of them remarked that if Jack London is writing himself into the book it's kind of odd that he kills himself off in the end.  But I think that even that ending, at the hands of a savage tribe would have been Jack London's preferred end.

I only had to read the book 11 times to realize this.  


Sandy Nawrot said...

I find it dear that you realized this after so many reads, and then finding it is like a finding a treasure! But seriously James, if dogs die, I cannot read it. I am too emotionally unstable for dead dogs.

annieb said...

I read this book (finally, at 69 years old) solely based on your last review. You were right--it was so, so good. The volume I have has five short stories by London as well and I am working through them. I am certainly not the target audience for the book and like Sandy I have a very difficult time with dogs dying or being abused, but this book is worth the discomfort. I think you said London was a highly underrated author and I couldn't agree more. Thanks for the introduction.

C.B. James said...

I'm pleased, and relieved, to know you liked it annieb, and Sandy should probably skip it. Wikipedia, or some such source, says dog fighting was very popular in 1903, when the book was written, so I guess the books violence would have appealed to the general reading public of the time. I'm glad to say that we've changed quite a bit since then.

Still, the good parts of Call of the Wild are excellent.

Bybee said...

Martin Eden is also Jack London...kind of a superman version.

Diane Challenor said...

I read Call of the Wild several years ago. I enjoyed your blog, it gave me a window back into that wonderful book. Thank you for taking the time to blog about it.