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Literature / The Call of the Wild

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"Thornton grabbed the man's arm before the lash could land on Buck's back. 'If you strike that dog again,' Thornton said flatly, 'I'll kill you.'"
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The Call of the Wild is a 1903 novel by Jack London. The plot revolves around a dog named Buck and how his primal instincts return as he serves as a sled dog in the Yukon during the Klondike gold rush. It's usually considered his best novel, and he followed it with a Spiritual Successor called White Fang, a longer and even darker story about a wolf being domesticated and eventually sent to live in San Francisco. Because the protagonist is a dog, it is often mistaken for a kid's book. The dark tone and gritty violence make it decidedly not. The novel has had a lot of adaptations over the years, usually focusing on the human characters more than the dogs.

Adaptions include:


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The Call of the Wild provides examples of the following tropes:

  • The Ace: Buck is strong, intelligent, bold, clever, patient and just about whatever else he needs to be. By the end of the story he's a legend in Alaska.
  • Anyone Can Die: The death toll in dogs and men grows quite high throughout the story.
  • Artistic License – Animal Care: More like Artistic License: Animal Everything. While some details are accurate (such as the tendency of one-eyed animals to snap at anyone approaching them from the blind side, and the bone-deep drive and eagerness of true sled-dog breeds to work until they drop) Jack London's depiction of training techniques and dog behavior is infamously inaccurate.
    • While there is little doubt that the brutally abusive "law of club and fang" tactics he describes as standard procedure were used by some people, they're not only unnecessary but profoundly stupid. Beating, shouting, and whipping dogs accomplishes one thing—creating a reactive, unstable dog that hates and fears you. Steady, consistent, humane treatment will always produce better results.
    • Wolf packs have no such thing as an "alpha" in the way portrayed in the novel; they are close-knit familial groups consisting of parents and several generations of that breeding pair's offspring, generally have very little internal conflict, and do not operate on a dominance-based system any animal could "take over" by force. For that matter, while dogs do form complicated social dynamics, they never operate in the clear-cut pecking order portrayed by London's work.
    • While any dog in a high-stress situation will bite if it feels threatened, Buck is ready to kill the moment his crate is opened solely because he has been stolen from his owner. If a dog actively tries to kill the nearest stranger the moment it's placed in an unfamiliar situation, that dog is beyond help and would realistically have been put down years ago due to its instability, not allowed to wander free in close contact with children.
    • Huskies are no more aggressive and have no more "wolf blood" than any other dog just because Jack London happened not to like the way they look. In fact, they have been selectively bred to work in large groups of other dogs in a sled team, and are therefore much less likely than other breeds to display the vicious, unstable behavior by which he characterizes them.
  • Bears Are Bad News: When Buck starts becoming a wild dog, he fights a black bear going mad from mosquitoes pestering it. It's a hard fight, but Buck manages to kill the bear in the end.
  • Berserk Button:
    • The book has a grizzled older sledding dog named Sol-Leks, with one blind eye. Buck, the mutt protagonist of the novel, takes a nasty bite when he approaches Sol-leks from his blind side and is careful never to do it again. Animals that are partially blind really will lash out of things that approach from their blind side.
    • God have mercy on your soul if you hurt John Thornton in front of Buck, as evidenced by Black Burton and the Yeehats.
  • Big Damn Heroes: John Thornton saves Buck from certain death by beating up the guy who was whipping him.
    • Buck in turn saves him twice in return. One time, a brute named Black Burton punches John for trying to be a peacekeeper in a fight only to be rewarded by a torn throat from Buck. A little while later, John falls into a fast-moving river, and Buck jumps into the water to save him.
  • Bittersweet Ending: John Thornton, the only man Buck was truly devoted to, is dead. But Buck is able to find a new pack in the forests of the Yukon.
  • Book-Ends: When published with White Fang. Amusingly, it works no matter which order you read them in — if you start with Call of the Wild (written & published first), the book ends are set in human homes, while starting with White Fang has the book ends in the forest.
  • Comic Trio: Hal, Charles, and Mercedes. At least, they're comic until their inexperience starts to endanger their lives and those of their dogs. Eventually they drive their sled onto thin ice despite a warning, killing themselves and all their remaining dogs.
  • Cool Old Guy: Sol-leks is mentioned to be old and hates being approached by his blind side. When it comes to pulling the sled, he is very dedicated to his job, a way of thinking he has in common with Dave.
  • Crapsack World: Just surviving in Alaska means you have to be a bastard, whether you're a dog or a man.
  • Death by Newbery Medal: John Thornton dies.
  • Death World: Alaska is a frozen wasteland where just daily survival is a horrible struggle for both humans and animals, beset at all sides by hostile wildlife, savage natives and dangerous climate.
  • Eaten Alive: All dogs that lose a fight.
  • Everyone Is Armed: Set in the Klondike gold rush, a nearly lawless wilderness where hunting for game and defending against predators (animal and human) means virtually everyone goes armed.
  • Family-Unfriendly Violence: All over the place.
  • Foreshadowing: When Buck comes upon an elk late in the story, he notices that it has an arrow sticking in it's body. This is the only hint at all that there are in fact Indians in the area.
  • Grim Up North
  • Handicapped Badass: Sol-Leks may be blind in one eye, but that doesn't make him any weaker. Buck learns this the hard way.
  • Hanlon's Razor: Hal, Charles, and Mercedes are merely ignorant, not malicious. However, they ultimately cause more misery and harm to Buck and his team than any of his former owners.
  • Injun Country: John Thornton wanders into it while mining for gold. Sure enough, he and his partner are killed by a passing band of Yeehats.
  • Insult of Endearment: A borderline example, for whenever John Thornton pets Buck and cuddles with him, he lavishes him with curse words and insults like "You ugly old monster". But Buck enjoys this and sees this as a loving (yet strange) gesture.
  • Kick the Dog: Starve the dog, overwork the dog, beat the dog...
  • Klingon Promotion: Subverted, Buck expects to be made lead dog after killing Spitz, but Pierre tries to put the more experienced Sol-Leks in front instead. Buck eventually gets his wish after making it clear that he won't accept any other position. And at the end Buck takes over a wolf pack by killing a few of the wolves.
  • The Leader: Buck becomes the alpha of a wolf pack.
  • The Load: Merecedes stands out, even compared to her idiot companions, for sheer uselessness. She also insists on riding the sled, becoming this trope in the literal sense.
  • Lemony Narrator
  • Mercy Kill: Dogs which are too tired or hurt to work get this treatment.
  • Might Makes Right: The "law of club and fang".
  • Noble Savage: Buck becomes the canine equivalent of this at the end of the book.
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown:
    • Buck slaughters almost every Yeehat in the village after they kill John Thornton and his companions. In fact, he gets so angry that he dodges every arrow from the hunters and makes thems kill each other by accident.
    • This is also the way of a dog fight. When two dogs fight, the other dogs circle around and then collapse on whichever dog goes down first.
  • Polar Opposite Twins: Billee and Joe. Billee is a good-natured fellow, while Joe is vicious and ruthless.
  • The Power of Love: Buck's relationship with John Thornton. It enables him to accomplish some awesome things.
  • Rated M for Manly: Rated D for Dogly ?
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Buck goes on one after John Thornton is killed by the Yeehats, attacking their camp and killing several of them.
  • Sacrificial Lamb: Curly is killed by a pack of huskies early on, providing Buck with a harsh lesson in survival. Also an example of Kill the Cutie.
  • The Savage Indian: The Yeehats.
  • Sled Dogs Through the Snow: Buck started out as a sled dog in the Klondike Gold Rush, before escaping into the wild.
  • Stray Animal Story: Call of the Wild is most likely the Ur-Example. It's about a dog named Buck who escapes into the wild.
  • This Is My Human: Buck thinks of himself as the Judge's "steward", if nothing else, and thinks of the Judge's children as the Judge's property (and thus beneath himself). He realizes the error in his thinking after he's stolen and beaten into submission as a sled dog.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Hal, Charles, and Mercedes. Though they are completely inexperienced and unsuited for the icy wilds of the North, they refuse to take the advice of more experienced explorers and try to make it their way. This gets them killed.
  • Took a Level in Badass: Buck goes from a pampered pooch to a Living Legend in the north.
  • Undying Loyalty: Buck to John Thornton. He's so loyal that he obeys an order to jump off a cliff, just because John said it (John grabs him in time).
  • We Hardly Knew Ye: We only knew Curly for a bit, and she's killed off rather quickly.
  • White Hair, Black Heart: Spitz is the canine equivalent of this. He is described as having snow-white fur, and has a rather cruel temperament.
  • World of Badass
  • Xenofiction

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