Call of the Wild: On Men and Civilization

I’ve never said this before but Call of the Wild by Jack London is probably, seriously, one of the best novels I’ve ever read in my adult life. It ranks so high up, easily top 3.

Now with that out of the way, I can say that there are some parts of this book that taught me and disturbed me a lot at the same time. The biggest, and probably the most significant one, was during the early part of the story, where a dog was trying to be kind to another dog—which was much more seasoned, and wilder than her, in a sense—and seeing her kindness, civility was paid with violence immediately. Why?

In the word of Buck himself:

So that was the way. No fair play. Once down, that was the end of you.

Those simple three sentences hold deeper meaning in my opinion, and some of them are easy to digest: this is the wild. They are animals. Being kind and sympathetic would mean showing weaknesses, and the wild don’t like weaknesses. Going into the wild would mean shedding the virtues of civilization and back into the ages of self-protecting, constant vigilance, staying strong, and never going down nor giving up.

Once down, that was the end of you.

And these principles ring true for almost the whole first arc of the novel. Buck grew stronger. Buck learned the rules, knowing his surroundings, who his enemies are, and how to take them down. Not just that, he even went ahead and became the alpha of his sled dog crew. It all has the feels of an ultra-masculine story, and for a while, it seemed like the novel would be consistent in this direction.

However, the second and third arcs showed pretty different things. This time, instead of Buck conflicting against nature or against the other dogs, he was faced with two kinds of humans: a more posh, civilized type, and the other one is someone who’s been living those two realms––both wild and civil.

Man with dogsled team hauling moose meat, circa 1897-1903

To be honest, reading the second arc was actually kind of painful for me: I can feel the frustrations Buck and probably the other dogs had, having three civilized humans whose civility slowly and consistently degraded over time leading them along an excruciating journey in which the destination would be more pain, or even worse, death––which was, unfortunately for the other dogs and those three humans, actually the fate that befell them in the end.

That right there, I paused and tried to digest it. For both animals and humans, civility was posed as a threat in the wild. However, the difference is, for animals, civility could cause them danger from outside threats, while for humans, civility could cause them danger from inside. Indeed, seeing (or reading) three civilized people having their civility degraded bit by bit because of harsh situations, and turning into each other for the slightest of problems, felt like a reflection of what’s been happening in the world these days, and it hurt a little. It hurt, even more, when I realized that, had those men refused to cling desperately to the civilization (in their case, lots and lots of luggage) that they had, they could probably survive the wild easily.

Illustration of Buck and Thornton from the novel

Those two parts hit me hard, but I wasn’t prepared for the last arc, where Buck found John Thornton.

At last, Buck found love and warmth, something he hadn’t even had during his previous lives in the wild and within the civilization. What’s more, his new life seemed to be resemble some kind of balance between the wild and the civilization: Thornton brought him on adventures, going to new lands and seeking golds, all while still being within the circle of civility of mankind. At the same time, the wild kept calling for Buck, and at one point, they even had an emissary––a wild wolf, with whom Buck spent a lot of time running and playing together––and again, Buck is within a crossroads.

I expected some kind of turning point where Buck would choose between answering the call of the wild or staying with John Thornton, under the warmth of love and hearth for the rest of his life. Unfortunate for Thornton, he and his friends were murdered by the natives Yeehats. In a rage, Buck killed some of them and after that, he was alone. No more human ties, nothing.

In the end, Buck found the wolf pack in which the wild wolf he often played with was a part of. He thus decided to follow the call of the wild, and be part of them, leaving the civilization behind. And thus that was the part that hit me quite hard: twice, Buck left the civilization: once was by force and once was by decision. However, on both of them, humans––men––played big part in it.

Men were the ones trying to keep the civilization in him and men were also the ones destroying it, forcing him to be back to the pack, wild, savage life where, of course, comfort is lacking, but it’s something that really belongs to him by nature.

Makes me wonder if that’s also the road many of us would have had to take in near future.

Landschaft mit Gebirgssee, Morgen

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