Book: Call of the Wild / White Fang
Author: Jack London
Year Published: 1903 and 1906 respectively
Rating: ☻☻☻☻☺ (4 of 5)
The last book to come up in my Book Queue was a back-to-back printing of The Call of the Wild and White Fang by Jack London. Both of these extremely engaging pieces deal with the intersection of man and the wild, eventually leading to the inevitable struggle between that instinctive drive for survival and the necessity of adaptation to new and ever-changing surroundings.
The Call of the Wild was the shorter of the two books and presented first in this edition. I remember early on when my elementary school would host a book fair where, for a reasonable price, students could purchase books – usually in connection with funding the school’s library collection. The Call of the Wild was one such purchase I made. That was ages ago, and even though I’m sure I was able to finish the book, I don’t think there’s any way I could have taken out of it then what I do now. The Call of the Wild is the story of one dog’s journey from civilization to the wilderness as he passes through the hands of several different men, each of different demeanor. Buck, the main character, is a family dog, kidnapped and sold as a sled dog. He is beaten into submission and learns his place in a struggle for supremacy within the sled team that is almost as fierce as the battle of survival in the wild. Through much suffering, Buck attains that supremacy only to have his newly perfect world shattered at the hands of careless and lazy masters. At the brink of death he finds himself rescued by love and nursed back to health. He learns again, through love, what life can be when one is not tethered by the demands of a rapidly progressing society. In the end, that bond between man and dog is broken as Buck is finally given freedom to embrace his deepest instinct and run wild in the untamed wilderness.
London’s command of the details of the Klondike gold rush set a stage of bleakness and despair through much of the novel. I continuously found myself turning the story in to a social commentary without making an effort. It brings into question the true benefits of man’s progress. If you take the dog and make him a human worker instead, chained and driven to his knees before the gears and levers of progress, you reduce him to his base instincts. That man becomes more animal than man, because he is a slave to his need to survive, to be fed and sheltered. Buck’s work eventually does become his life, but in the end he is driven to the brink of death by the greed and stupidity of those who wield the whip above him. Love saves him, but in the end is taken away from him by the base instincts of man in the from of savage natives. In the end, all any of us have is the desire to run free, to not be tied down to mortality – we seek the speed to escape the shadow of death and run forever through the wild until the trail ends.
London’s writing style is masterful. I found that I often was remembering more of the story as I progressed than I normally did when reading. I read the book in short bursts, but London’s imagery was enough to engrave those moments like photographs in my memory – easily recovered and studied and applied in reflection of the current chapter I was reading.
Where The Call of the Wild is a story of the civilized animal descending back down the ladder to the wilderness, White Fang is a story of a creature of the wild being brought into a civilized world. In a way, its almost an anti-thesis of the first book. At the end of The Call of the Wild, you feel elation when Buck leaves man behind and joins his kind in the never-ending hunt. It was escape for him and his ultimate freedom. White Fang offers the opposite ending but one is no less elated with the final chapter than with the former’s ending.
The second book starts with man as the hunted, reduced to prey, and toppled low from his lofty position at the top of the food chain. Two men are transporting a dead body through the wilderness with a team of sled dogs when they are beset by a clever she-wolf and her pack. The pack picks off the dogs one by one and eventually manages to bring the two men to the gaping jaws of death most horrible. It’s interesting to notice how regardless of their own safety, the men are still concerned with the safety of the body they carry with them. Man is so obsessed with the preservation of its dead that it becomes death in this act. In the wild, the dead would have been eaten and provided sustenance to those that still lived; here, two men have their lives placed in the fire to transport a husk of what used to be a man. That portion of the story immediately had me hooked.
There are plenty of authors that can weave social commentary into their fiction, but rarely have I read such a seamless marriage of fiction and commentary as this.
My take on the message behind White Fang: This story was written right in the middle of the Industrial Revolution, a time when progress was becoming invasive to rural areas that did not know the bite of the steel pick or the scream of the locomotive. In a way, man was taming man and breaking the habits of the past to make way for civilization. London’s suggestion is that it takes understanding and love to build trust. You can make parallels between each phase of the wolf-dog’s life and a way that man mistreats man for the sake of greed and the need for power over lesser beings.
Again, at the end of the book we are given a final conflict where the tables have turned. The wild man vs. the tame dog. In The Call of the Wild, it was natives against the invading white man. The resolution of both conflicts is the final release of each canine into his final destination – for Buck, the wild; for White Fang, the civilized world.