Table of Contents | Message Board | Downloadable/Printable Version
CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES
CHAPTER 5: The Toil of Trace and Trail
The team has traveled to reach Dawson to deliver the mail and are on the return journey to Skagway. Dead tired, the dogs have become weaker and thinner; in the last five months, they have traveled 2500 miles with only a few days of rest. Having lost thirty-five pounds, Buck is exhausted, but still manages the other dogs. When the team finally arrives at the end of their journey, they are literally on their last legs.
In Skagway, the dog team is sold cheaply to two men, Charles and Hal; Mercedes accompanies them, for she is Charles' wife and Hal's sister. The three of them are inexperienced in the Yukon; it is as if they have just emerged from a softer life, a reflection of the earlier Buck. The inept new owners do not understand that the dogs are too tired to go any further. They load the sled with all their belongings, including a tent, dirty dishes, and lots of clothes. With this heavy load, the exhausted team cannot pull the sled. Hal, believing that they are incompetent and stubborn, whips them brutally, even though Mercedes protests the cruel treatment. The dogs grow angry at the unfair treatment meted out to them, and the neighbors try to explain that the dogs are exhausted and that the runners of the sled are frozen in the snow. The kind-hearted citizens also tell Charles and Hal that they need to reduce the load in the sled by half.
Even though the load is reduced, the sled is still heavy, and the dogs have great difficulty pulling it. When they hit uneven ground, the sled overturns, largely because is has been improperly loaded. Mercedes still refuses to do away with her possessions on the sled. As a result, Charles and Hal buy six new dogs to help; but the new dogs are inexperienced and know nothing. With fourteen dogs in all, there will not be enough food to go around. In fact, the dog food is "half gone and the distance only quarter covered." Although they are initially well fed, they are soon starving. Unable to pull as well because of their hunger, the dogs are beaten unmercifully by Hal and Charles. Just as they are unable to work the dogs successfully, the three humans, who are always arguing, are also incapable of working themselves. They never master pitching tents or breaking camp, constantly losing valuable travel time, while eating into the food supply.
The dogs begin to die one by one. The first to go is Dub; then the six outside dogs die from misery and starvation. Then Billee, the good-natured dog, passes away. Soon only five dogs are left, and they feel beaten, especially when Mercedes demands to be pulled in the sled. Buck no longer tries to enforce discipline, for he is "blind with weakness, half the time." When the small team reaches the camp of John Thornton at the mouth of the White River, it is spring. The Arctic snow is melting, and at any moment the ice can break. As a result, John Thornton advises Charles and Hal against continuing. The two men, proud and inexperienced, do not listen to Thornton's advice. They consider him a fool and make preparations for their forward journey.
Initially, the members of the team refuse to take their places. When they are whipped, they all get to their feet, except Buck, who makes no effort to rise. It is the first time that Buck has not followed a command. Angered by Buck's refusal, Hal whips the dog unmercifully. Even then Buck refuses to obey; he has "made up his mind not to get up," even though he has a vague feeling of impending doom. Enduring the beating, he does not even feel the pain. Suddenly, without warning, Thornton springs up between the man and the dog. He throws down Hal and cuts Buck loose from the harness.
Buck is "too near dead" to be of use; as a result, Charles and Hal leave him behind. A little later, Thornton and Buck see the entire team, the sled, and the family being swallowed by the ground. A whole section of ice has given way, and the entire party has vanished in the yawning hole. Buck understands what has happened and licks the hand of John Thornton in gratitude.
In this chapter, London again shows how man must adapt to his environment if he is to survive. The six outside dogs die quickly because of lack of adaptability. In contrast, Buck survives and thrives because he has learned to adjust to the natural environment, proving he is one of the "fit".
Hal, Charles, and Mercedes are unable to survive in the wilderness. New to the Yukon, they refuse to shed their past. They overload the sled with unnecessary items, such as an abundance of dishes and clothes, and pack it poorly. They demand that the dogs travel onward even though they are exhausted and close to death. It is not surprising that the dogs cannot make the sled go forward. Even when the natives convince the three to off-load some of the supplies, the sled is still heavy for the exhausted dogs to pull. When they reach an uneven place in the snow, the sled overturns. The dogs are beaten for the error.
Hal, Charles, and Mercedes continue to make unwise decisions. They purchase six new dogs to help pull the sled, but the dogs are inexperienced and cause nothing but problems. They also consume large quantities of food so that half of the supply is gone before they have even traveled one quarter of the way. Before long the entire team is starving, and the six newcomers perish. Largely due to the efforts and leadership of Buck, the team reaches the camp of John Thornton. After a short rest, the men are ready to move on. Buck, however, refuses to be harnessed, which causes Hal to whip him brutally; Thornton comes to Buck's rescue, saving the dog and stating he is too close to death to go further. Thornton also advises Hal, Charles, and Mercedes not to travel forward, because spring has set in and the ice is melting. The men scoff at Thornton and move onward. Before they are even out of sight, they disappear beneath the ice, which has broken beneath the weight of the sled. The three humans are obviously NOT "fit," and perish as a result.