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Buck, the dog hero and protagonist of the novel, begins life as a sated aristocrat. Proud and self-assured, he lives in a big house in the sun-kissed Santa Clara Valley in California. Although he is pampered by his master, Judge Miller, and his sons, he is more than a mere housedog. Buck keeps his large body lean and strong by hunting with the judge and by exercising in the outdoors. Because of his tremendous size and ability, he is stolen and sold to become a sled dog in the Yukon.
On the journey to Alaska, Buck experiences restriction for the first time in his life. He is tied, caged, and beaten, bringing out the fierceness in him. The trip also teaches him the law of the club. If he does not obey, he will be hurt. When he finally arrives in the Klondike, he must quickly learn to adapt or perish. He soon knows that if he does not follow the directions given by the driver of the sled, he will be whipped; as a result, he soon becomes a valuable member of the dog team. He also learns the law of the fang; if he does not attack, he will be attacked. He watches Curly, a dog that is friendly to him, being viciously attacked by a Husky. Once Spitz is able to get Curly down, all the other dogs move in for the kill. Buck is determined that he will never go down. He also realizes that in the wild, there is not fair play; it is every dog or man for himself.
Buck rapidly casts off his past aristocratic ways. He learns how to burrow underneath the snow in order to stay warm and sleep. He learns how to steal food and eat all kinds of things he would never have touched before. He learns how to be a member of a dog team, laboring harder than he has ever labored in his life. Physically, he becomes stronger and more able. The more hardy he becomes, the more he adapts to the naturalistic environment that surrounds him. The primordial beast is strong in him, and the "instincts once dead became alive again."
Spitz is a constant nuisance to Buck and his worst enemy. Buck cannot forget how he is responsible for Curly's death; he also resents that Spitz is the leader of the team and must be followed. Even though Spitz torments Buck on a regular basis, Buck wisely does not rise to the taunts. Then one day Spitz steals Buck's resting-place; he can no longer hold his anger in check. He attacks Spitz, and the fight is vicious. Francois and Perrault have to break it up before both dogs are dead. Even though the first battle is ended, the skirmishes between the enemies continue.
One day the dogs are all chasing a rabbit, making a great sport of it. Spitz takes a shortcut and kills the rabbit for himself. Buck is infuriated and attacks Spitz with a vengeance; again the fighting is fierce. When Spitz is about to get the better of him, Buck calls upon his intelligence and imagination. Instead of going for the throat, he breaks Spitz's two front legs, causing him to go down. The other dogs quickly come in for the final kill. With Spitz out of the way, Buck fights for and wins the position of leadership of the dog team. He proves himself worthy, for the sled goes faster and further each day than ever before.
When Francois and Perrault's trip is completed, they sell the team to a Scotch Half-breed. Although this new master understands the Yukon and is fair to the animals, he pushes Buck and the other dogs unmercifully. Although several of the dogs perish on the trip, Buck survives, even though he is exhausted and loses weight. When the Scotch Half-breed is through with Buck and the team, he sells them to Charles, Hal, and Mercedes, three inexperienced adventurers. They overload the sled and do not take enough food; as a result, most of the dogs die, but Buck survives from sheer determination. When he arrive at the camp of John Thornton, the exhausted Buck refuses to go onward. As a result, he is brutally beaten until Thornton intervenes. The party departs without Buck; before they are out of sight, they sink beneath the ice, which has melted so much that it cannot bear the weight of the sled. Buck licks his new master's hand as if to say thanks for sparing him from such an end.
Thornton is extremely kind and generous with Buck, who learns the meaning of real love for the first time. Buck is totally loyal to this new mater who has saved his life and nursed him back to health. As a result, he will do anything for Thornton; he saves his life on two different occasions and pulls a sled packed with over a thousand pounds so that Thornton can win a bet. Although Buck loves his master dearly, he has a yearning to leave civilization behind and contemplates returning to his roots, living with the wolves. As time passes, he spends more and more time in the woods, even getting acquainted with a timber wolf. Only his devotion to Thornton stands in the way of his following his natural instincts. Because of the lessons he has learned as a sled dog, Buck is totally prepared to survive in the wilderness. As a result, when Thornton is killed by Indians, Buck can finally answer the call of the wild.
Francois and Perrault
Francois and Perrault are Buck's first owners in Alaska. They are experienced dog sled drivers who know and understand the hardships of travelling in the Yukon. Because life in the Arctic is hard, they also have to be hard, disciplining the dogs to obedience. From them, Buck learns the law of the whip and how to survive in the harsh natural world. He recognizes that Francois and Perrault are fair masters, caring for the animals. They make sure the dog team has rest and food. Francois also shows his kindness by fashioning small moccasins for Buck's tender feet. Although he cannot love Francois and Perrault, he does appreciate and respect them.
John Thornton is the person in the novel who teaches Buck the true meaning of love. After rescuing Buck from an unmerciful beating at the hand of Hal, he nurses the dog back to health, treating him almost like a child and expecting nothing in return. In appreciation, Buck becomes devoted to his kind master. Twice during the novel, he saves Thornton's life; he also wins an important bet for his master by pulling over a thousand pounds in the sled.
Thornton is experienced and knowledgeable in the ways of the wild. With few provisions, he can travel long distances. He hunts his dinner in the course of the day's travel. He is never afraid to go into strange, uncharted territory and is invigorated by the adventure of it. He protects himself and his dogs by careful planning. He also allows Buck to have the freedom that he needs to explore the woods.
Thornton becomes the symbol of humanity and humaneness in the novel. Even though he is adept in the wilderness, he is kind and gentle, devoid of hate and anger. He teaches that life does not have to be ruled by the club and the fang; it can also be ruled by love. It is symbolic and ironic that his kind man is brutally murdered by another human being. Buck is infuriated at the act and viciously attacks the Indians who have killed Thornton. He feels proud to have avenged his master's death. He also never forgets Thornton. Although Buck answers the call of the wild, leaving civilization behind, he never forgets this gentle master. Every year Buck comes to Thornton's grave and gives a long painful howl in remembrance of the man who saved him and taught him to love.
Charles, Hal and Mercedes
This trio portrays a negative aspect of humanity. When the going is good, they are kind and civilized. When something is not to their liking, they show their true nature, which is selfish and cruel. Although they have physically left civilization in search of gold, they cannot leave its trappings. They cling to their tents, dishes, and clothes, which will serve no useful purpose in the wild; instead, the extra weight slows the journey and exhausts the dogs.
London is careful to show that at first Mercedes is kind and thoughtful. She tries to stop Hal and Charles from beating the dogs. But when the going gets rough, she thinks only of herself, trying to control things. What the three of them fail to understand is that man cannot control nature. Proud and sure of themselves, they refuse to listen to the advice of the natives. When John Thornton tell them it is foolish to continue their journey in the spring because of the dangers caused by melting snow and ice, all three of them laugh at him. Ironically, before Hal, Charles, and Mercedes travel out of Thornton's sight, they sink beneath the melting ice. In the end, they are symbols for the civilized man who cannot or will not adapt to the natural world.