Who's A Good Human? You Are! Yes, You Are!
We're not going to mince words: we give Thornton five Milkbones on a five Milkbone scale.
This guy is great. Not only does he probably look like a cross between Paul Bunyan and the Brawny paper towel dude, but he's perhaps the greatest fictional dog owner ever. (He saves Buck from certain death a few times...and Buck returns the favor.) Thornton's a frontiersman's frontiersman, a bro of few words, and would make even Hawkeye from The Last of the Mohicans look like a bit of yuppie.
Yeah. We're a little in awe of him:
John Thornton asked little of man or nature. He was unafraid of the wild. With a handful of salt and a rifle he could plunge into the wilderness and fare wherever he pleased and as long as he pleased. Being in no haste, Indian fashion, he hunted his dinner in the course of the day's travel; and if he failed to find it, like the Indian, he kept on traveling, secure in the knowledge that sooner or later he would come to it. So, on this great journey into the East, straight meat was the bill of fare, ammunition and tools principally made up the load on the sled, and the time-card was drawn upon the limitless future. (7.3)
You read that right: Thornton only needs a handful of salt and a rifle to survive. We were thinking we did pretty good during that forty-eight hour blackout—it was tough, guys: we had to eat all our ice cream before it melted.
But who is Thornton, besides awesome?
He's one of the main human characters in the book, and, while he's important in the life of Buck, we don't know much about his personal history. In one sense, Thornton's role in the story is to help us learn more about Buck—Thornton’s there so we can understand this mysterious call of the wild and why Buck feels torn about whether to stay with humans or go into the wild.
Thornton is both the greatest thing that’s ever happened to Buck and the one thing holding back from his true destiny as a wild dog pack leader. One the one hand, Buck is devoted to Thornton in a way that he's not devoted to anyone or anything else:
Love, genuine passionate love, was his for the first time. This he had never experienced at Judge Miller's down in the sun-kissed Santa Clara Valley. With the Judge's sons, hunting and tramping, it had been a working partnership; with the Judge's grandsons, a sort of pompous guardianship; and with the Judge himself, a stately and dignified friendship. But love that was feverish and burning, that was adoration, that was madness, it had taken John Thornton to arouse. (6.3)
On the other hand, Thornton's presence is preventing Buck from going off into the wild and answering "the call" that he hears so often:
Deep in the forest a call was sounding, and as often as he heard this call, mysteriously thrilling and luring, he felt compelled to turn his back upon the fire and the beaten earth around it, and to plunge into the forest, and on and on, he knew not where or why; nor did he wonder where or why, the call sounding imperiously, deep in the forest. But as often as he gained the soft unbroken earth and the green shade, the love for John Thornton drew him back to the fire again. (6.11)
But Thornton's struck down in his mountain-manliest prime, and Buck's freed to answer the call of the wild and go find some new bros. Buck might be shedding dog-tears over Thornton's death, but he's finally able to go run with his wolf pack.Thornton's Timeline