The Call of the Wild
by Jack London
Buck is such an endearing fellow. Er…dog. But that’s a good point – it’s easy to forget he’s not a person. You know, aside from the whole dragging a sled through the frozen North business. That’s because we’re in his head – sort of. We never see dialogue-style quotations around Buck’s thoughts, so this isn’t quite Homeward Bound. But Buck is personified in a Lassie sort of way. He has emotions, desires, motivations, the works. Which is why we can empathize with him as our main character even though he’s got four legs.
So who is Buck, really? What kind of dog is he? Aside from his physical prowess, Buck is distinguished by his ability to learn and adapt. He goes from being the new kid on the block to the head of the sled team, ousting another alpha dog on the way. By the end of the story he’s a force to be reckoned with. Of course, the most fascinating part of Buck is his struggle with The Big Question: would I rather kill things with my bare teeth and hunt in the wild, or live in comfort with a person that loves me? We’ve all asked ourselves the very same question. And, unlike most of us, Buck opts for the first option.
Why? Buck does so because he feels an intense connection to some former, primitive version of himself. I was born for this, he thinks to himself as he hunts down prey under the stars. London wants us to marvel at Buck’s muscular body and the fact that he could probably bench press Spitz. His point is that Buck was made to be a wild animal.
Speaking of strength and bodies in general, Buck goes through an amazing physical transformation in The Call of the Wild that ends up being a great way to analyze his character arc in the broader sense. Buck is no squirt to begin with; part of the reason he’s stolen from his ranch is that he’s a physically impressive dog. But he’s no Rocky yet, and the transformation process is not all that pleasant. Buck suffers physically in order to gain what ultimately becomes physical dominance. Buck's "glossy coat" gets significantly less glossy, and he ends up run-down, beat-up, torn sideways, and generally deteriorating in every other direction in between. Then he meets Thornton and physically bounces back.
How does this reflect character arc in the broader sense? At first, Buck doubts that the wild is the right place for him. (And by "doubt" we mean he hates getting beaten with a club and nearly starved to death.) This corresponds experience to his physical deterioration. This seems like bad news bears for Buck. Then he gets stronger and tougher, represented by the fact that he no longer needs the shoes that Perrault and François made for him to wear. Similarly, he is adapting emotionally to his new surroundings. Then things take a turn for the worse in the "suspense" stage of the novel: Buck suffers under the horrible oversight of Mercedes and Co., and loses faith while he loses physical abilities. At last, he is saved emotionally and physically by Thornton. See the pattern?