Like Martin Eden, Buck spends much of the novel as an exploited worker, carrying sleds of supplies across the Klondike. And like Martin Eden, he seeks to dominate his arena, but even through struggle and eventually success Buck can only be a high-ranking servant. Many of the sled dogs are killed or left for dead when they become to exhausted to continue the treks. Individualism fails for both Martin Eden and Buck. None of Buck’s struggles for domination, none of his assertive resistance can defeat the “law of club and fang.” Unlike Martin Eden, who found salvation only in suicide, Buck is able to return to a primitive equality by joining a wolf pack. This is the equivalent of Martin Eden joining with his socialist friends – but of course Martin Eden rejected that choice.
This is the reading I would like to propose for The Call of the Wild, the next text in my adventure through Jack London’s writings. When I last read London’s works 4 years ago, I read a greater ambivalence about individualism and community than I am seeing now. I used to see The Call of the Wild as a text calling for radical individualism, reflected in Buck’s rejection of the human world. But now, I see the harsh brutality of the capitalist machine that Buck was drawn into. Like the East Enders in People of the Abyss, like the maritime workers London drank with in John Barleycorn, and like poor Martin Eden, Buck spends much of the novel facing exploitation. As an animal, Buck is subjected to even worse torture and brutality and indifference. Owners mock him, starve him, smash him with clubs, murder his companions at will, and encourage violence among the sled dogs. As the recent fire in a Bangladesh textile factory shows, workers around the world today are seen as less than human and are allowed to die for profit. Let’s not delude ourselves. We are Buck except for some slight protections governments feel fit to bestow on us. And but for genetic luck, we would be one of the billions of animals tortured, raped, murdered, dissembled and eaten/worn/discarded.
The plot is well-known and straightforward. Buck is owned by a gambler and drunkard who has to sell him to pay off some debts. After being disciplined into submission with the “law of the club,” Buck joins a sled team. Buck rises to dominance within the sled team by defeating Spitz in a battle to the death. After a brutal mail run, Buck and his team were hungry and worn down. Some had died or been killed. Unable to make the return trip, the team is sold to some naive newcomers, who seem good-hearted but end up misusing the dogs when frustration brought on by their ill-planning and ill-experience overwhelms them. Buck is eventually adopted by John Thornton, who is the one human who sees beyond Buck’s material utility. Buck becomes more wild as he fights to defend Thornton. It is at this time that Buck begins fraternizing with wolves. When Thornton died, Buck joins the wolf pack.
The humans early in the book are all odious, symbolizing the cynical, experienced, iron-hearted capitalists of industrial America. They willingly discard and kill and exploit. Charles, Hal, and Mercedes, the greenhorns are more complex. They lack the experience to properly manage the team. They overfeed the team and are forced to starve them when the food runs out. Despite their good intentions and comparable warm-hardheartedness, when things got hard for them they abuse of the animals increased. “In excess of their own misery they were callous to the suffering of the animals. Hal’s theory, which he practices on others, was that one must get hardened.” (54) London is clear that in practice the suffering of the team was worse under the inexperienced than under the professional exploiters. With these characters we have the liberals. They want to do good. They are softer and less cynical. But their good intentions cause as much harm as self-aware exploiters. They mismanage resources and weep over their crimes as well as their own suffering. We are surrounded by people like Charles, Hal and Mercedes. These are the people who consume organic crops harvested by exploited immigrant workers. These are the people who sponsor children in “developing” countries but own clothes sewn by slaves. These are the people who proudly eat at Chipotle for its “locally-grown” vegetables, indifferent to the suffering of animals and workers in the slaughterhouse or the low-pay and scientific-managed regulation of the workers behind the counter. These are the Obama voters who looked the other way at Guantanamo Bay, the destruction of unions, drone strikes, and forty years of stagnant wages. John Thornton sees through them and knows who they are. As should we.
John Thornton is their to make money, but he is the only one who seems to manage this without exploiting others. Contrasted with the other characters, Thornton is the anarchist. He works to liberate Buck. Buck and Thornton work together and protect each other. But rather than rehabilitating humanity, this brings Buck closer to the “wild.” It is under Thornton that Buck has the freedom to encounter the wolf pack that will eventually lead to his liberation.
Who is Thornton for us? My guess is that for London, Thornton is the socialist. We will want to read him differently, but in any case he emerges as an authentic liberator. It is nice to imagine that each of us through will or self-direction can free ourselves from dependency and slavery. In reality, these struggles more often parallel the struggles between Buck and Spitz. My guess is that we need to create Thornton for ourselves first. He will not be waiting for us at a prospecting camp.