62 pages 2 hours read

Jack London

The Call of the Wild

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1903

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Summary and Study Guide


Originally serialized in 1903, Jack London’s The Call of the Wild is an adventure story about Buck, a dog from the Santa Clara Valley who finds himself living the life of a sled dog in the Arctic wilderness. Through Buck’s adventure, the novel addresses what it takes to survive in the natural world, contemplates the connection of life and death, and demonstrates the power of respect and love. The Call of the Wild was immediately successful upon its release. It is considered a classic adventure novel and has been adapted for the screen several times.

Plot Summary

The story opens in the Santa Clara Valley in California. Buck, a large dog that is half St. Bernard and half shepherd dog, enjoys a pampered life on Judge Miller’s estate. Unbeknownst to Buck, gold has been discovered in the Arctic. There is an influx of men going to find fortune and an increase in the demand for sled dogs. One night, a farmhand takes Buck for a walk, then sells him to a stranger. Buck is unceremoniously thrown onto a cargo train, caged, and taken to Seattle. Buck’s eyes turn red with rage. Feeling a more violent version of himself awakening, he attacks anyone who comes near him. Buck is put under the care of a man in a red sweater, who uses a club to discipline him. Buck realizes that, in this new environment, men brandishing weapons will establish their mastery over him. Buck also befriends Curly, a kindhearted dog.

Buck and Curly are sold to two Canadian men, Perrault and François, who have been sent by their government to deliver goods and look for gold. Perrault and François are strict but also care for Buck, and Buck accepts them as his masters. Spitz, a fierce and cruel dog, leads their sled team. Without warning, Spitz lashes out at Curly and kills her. Buck never stops hating Spitz after Curly’s death. Buck meets two veteran sled dogs, Dave and Sol-leks, who teach him how to be an effective sled dog. Neither dog wants to fight for leadership, and both find their purpose lies with pulling sleds. Buck becomes an effective member of the sled team, growing stronger and allowing a primal version of himself to awaken. One day, while the dogs chase after a rabbit, Spitz attacks Buck. The two fight to the death. Spitz overpowers Buck at first, but Buck prevails and kills Spitz. After his victory, Buck asserts himself as the new leader of the sled team.

Buck whips his team into shape, and they become more efficient than ever before, completing their assignment in record time. Perrault and François get a new assignment and sell Buck and his team to a Scotsman. Grateful for Buck’s hard work, François hugs him before departing from Buck’s life forever. Buck continues to be an effective leader under the Scotsman’s care and finds the man is respectful toward the dogs. The weather worsens, and Dave becomes too weak to pull the sled, causing inner torment for the veteran sled dog. Dave becomes too weak to move and is shot, but the rest of the team presses onward. Despite the harsh Arctic environment, the group completes their assignment and arrives in another town, but they’re exhausted and need rest.

The Scotsman sells the team to two men and a woman from the Southland—Hal, Charles, and Mercedes. Inexperienced, Buck’s new masters refuse to let the dogs rest before they leave. At first, they have too much equipment. They begrudgingly lighten their load and buy more dogs, but traveling under their leadership is still difficult. They run out of food early, and the dogs begin to starve. Many dogs become too weak to work and are killed. Buck is on the brink of death, too. The team finds the camp of John Thornton, a veteran of the wild. John warns the team not to traverse the frozen lake nearby. Spring is here, and the ice is thawing, but Hal and Charles have no intention of heeding John’s advice. Buck is too weak to stand, and Hal beats him to get him back up. John threatens Hal to leave Buck alone, and the rest of the team leaves Buck behind. John takes care of Buck as the rest of the team attempts to cross the frozen lake. The ice breaks, and the rest of the team perishes.

Buck finds John to be his most caring and loving master yet, and he comes to love the man more than any human before. Buck regains his strength. He hears the wild calling to him again, beckoning him to abandon civilization, but Buck’s love for John motivates him to stay. While in a town, John wagers Buck can pull a thousand-pound load. The task is a great challenge, but Buck accomplishes the feat because he loves John. They win thousands of dollars, strengthening their bond even more. They set out again, in search of lost mines and cabins, and find a river rich in gold. Buck’s responsibilities lessen, and he spends more time away from camp, constantly hearing the call of the wild. He returns to camp and discovers the indigenous Yeehat tribe has attacked, and John is dead. Buck kills several Yeehats, and they flee. With no more connection to the civilized world, Buck embraces the wilderness. He joins a pack of wolves and becomes a feared legend amongst the Yeehats. Every year, Buck returns to John’s resting place to mourn him.