Individualism emphasizes the importance of human individuals in contrast to the social wholes, such as families, classes or societies to which they belong (Rubens, 2001). It tends to subject an individual to social realization. An individual may know, perhaps, what he should do or what he is obliged to do. This concept spread throughout nations influencing great minds such as Jack London1 as shown in his works.
The novel Call of the Wild presents the embodiment of Jack London in Buck asserting individualism as the only escape from social capitalism and materialism. He presents this assertion through symbols, figures of speech and a strong focus on the plot.
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The novel is about a dog named Buck, half St. Bernard and half Scotch Shepherd, who lives most of his life in a cozy farm owned by Judge Miller. He is the king and the top dog of the farm being the Judge’s most reliable companion. He meets Manuel, the Judge’s gardener who sells him in payment of Manuel’s debt from the Chinese lottery. Not used to such a harsh condition and treatment, he battles up for freedom.
Yet he is still a dog and a man is a man. In search for gold in Klondike2, two men namely Francois and Perrault buy him, seeing that he is not just an ordinary dog. Buck then dwells into the fierce toil and trace only finding savagery around and within him. He meets John Thornton, whom he considered his savior. Just by the time he felt secured, Thornton dies being attacked by the barbarous Yeehats. The urge then came to Buck and finally he answers the call of the wild, being free from the selfish civilized world of humans.
Individualism as the only escape from social capitalism and materialism
During the late 1800’s and early 1900s, the United States has faced political unrest and economic instability (Valmayor, 2001). Primarily, this was a result of America’s mismanagement and improper distribution of rights. It was during this time when London experienced poverty, experiencing the abyss of the poor. It was also during this time when he wrote the Call of the Wild, developing an atmosphere of individualism in his novel.
Symbols. The novel presents certain allegories which illustrate London’s struggle for dominance and freedom from laws and social bondage. Buck being the protagonist plays a major role in this assertion. Buck is no different from London nor is London different from Buck for Buck is London portrayed in the story.
According to Rothberg (2001), “In Buck, London endows all of the cunning and savageness that he feels not only in animals but in human beings as well.” This statement was further supported by Buck’s transformation throughout the flow of the story. Buck, at first, was a pampered dog living at Santa Clara Valley, on Judge Miller’s property. He was even considered the center-dog or the king during that time when he can do anything he pleases and go wherever he wants to go.
In 1876, London, same as Buck, lived a somehow well-to-do life. Though he was just an illegitimate child, he was still given the privilege to get what he desires and acquire all his needs (Rothberg, 2001). Paralleling London’s before-life, Buck had lost his father before he could actually stand on his feet. Moreover, Buck like London has been forced to leave his pampered life and dwell in the primeval.
One might question the vividness of London’s work on the description of the trail towards Klondike. The bitterness of cold and the chills caught from snow were both deeply felt. These were all fruits of London’s experiences upon searching gold at Klondike (Jacobs, 1997). Buck was also subjected to the same kind of trail – the harshness of the weather, the fierceness of cold and the savagery of hunger. From the essay written by Hugens (1998), he said:
Buck was bad at first, but eventually, he learned the way of trace and trail. Buck had to learn many things if he was to survive in this frigid land. He had to learn to sleep under the snow and to eat his food as fast as possible so as not to have it stolen. At about this point in the book, we see Buck start to go through a metamorphosis of sorts. He transforms from a house dog to a more primitive, savage version of his former self. Buck proceeded to lose all the fat in his body and replace it with muscle. Buck was no longer Judge Miller’s pet. He was a machine of survival and triumph.
In the same way as London, Buck gradually became fierce and brutal along his trail. He learned that “Mercy did not exist in the primordial life. It was misunderstood for fear and such misunderstanding made for death. Kill or be killed, eat or be eaten, was the law.” (Dawson et al., 2000) Buck journeyed and learned that he wouldn’t be a success if he would continue being under a lead-dog. He should be the lead dog. At the same time, he realized that his bondage with his pack made him weak and dependent and so he makes his own steps and decisions. It is deeply interwoven with London’s political adventure.
London became politically active in the early 1900s. He once was a candidate for being the mayor of Oakland; unfortunately, he only got 248 votes resulting in a loss. (Jacobs, 1997) This marked London’s downfall in terms of his career as a writer and as a politician. Yet London is still a part of a socialist group, the Socialist Labour Party. But by the year 1908, he resigns from the said group thinking that there’s no more action and power coming from the group and that’s when he decided to go on his own, continuing to write stories and promoting individualism (Fuller, 1999).
The point here is that London draws his inner feelings and desires in the character of Buck. This just proves that Buck is individualistic for he parallels London in every way. But what is more staggering is that they both ended up sacrificing social dependency. They magnified success through their independence.
On the other hand, London also made use of certain objects to exemplify his assertion. He presents the government-like structure in the form of a sled. The sled, being drawn by dogs, becomes the means of transportation towards Klondike. The sled normally is visualized as an ordinary carrier of goods, in the novel’s case, it’s also gold. In the Call of the Wild, London made use of this sled to satirize the government’s capability to move all by itself.
The sled assuming the form of a government cannot move or function without something or someone to pull it. As defined, individualism is a philosophy that a government and a society is an artificial device existing only for the sake of its members as individuals, and properly judged only according to criteria established by them (Bershaw, 1999). A government is just a government if it doesn’t have an individual to serve it.
Throughout the novel, the word “club” or even the “chain” were often used. London made sure to reiterate the oppressing law and the futility of justice. During the time of social capitalism and materialism in America, various socialist movements took form. Four main socialist groups were formed during that time namely the Political Revolutionist Party, Federal Socialist Party, Worker’s Revolutionary Union, and the Socialist Labour Party where London was once involved (Valmayor, 2001). Among these socialist groups, not one won their voices.
From that point, in general, members gradually resigned from their post and decided to move on their own including London. “Things were brought to an end” Miller (1999) said. As we can visualize a chain being put on a dog, we can see that the chain holds onto a single dog, not a mass of them. London probably made use of these symbols to present that a single dog or human can break the chain and attack the owner of the club.
Figures of Speech. London used not only symbols to make individualism clearer but he makes use of metaphorical statements as well. The structure of the pack was clear and was organized thoroughly. He made use of dogs that were of different personalities to solidify his idea. The point is that he made his pack or team the structure of the society. Spitz was the lead-dog or in man’s parlance, “top-dog.”
Buck is forced to meet and bow to the “the man with a club,” an almost clichï¿½ expression for power and authority. Buck leads the “wolf-pack,” to which he finally reverts, a predatory term still in use in our own day. The very fact that London deals with a “dog’s life” – humankind’s frequent comment on its own condition is that “It’s a dog’s life.” – indicates how thoroughgoing was his view (Rothberg, 2001). All these were clearly stated in the series of events seen in the novel.
It is quite obvious to say that dogs really personified humans in the novel. London developed his characters into somebody who thinks and functions as ordinary human beings. He also presents different emotion or personality in his novel. He presents fear through Pike, loyalty through Dave, womanhood in Curly and mischief in Sol-leks thus paralleling the situations and actions of the people of America.
Focus on the Plot. The plot or the sequence of events, from the exposition towards to resolution, presents a gradual reversion to type or atavism. The novel clearly points out every detail from the death of a minor character to the major ones. It is not just the characters that London focused on but also on the way he presented his plot. As stated by Kerry Jay (2003):
The Call of the Wild has a very interesting plot. It is centred around a St. Bernard and a Scotch Shepherd mix, named Buck. At home which was a large house in the sun, he ruled over all dogs. Buck was Judge Miller’s inseparable companion, until a man named Manuel, who was one of the gardener’s helpers, committed a treacherous act…
It all started there wherein Buck was sold by Manuel to pay for his gambling debts. However, what is the factors that made Buck retrogress and dwell into the individualistic way of thinking? First and foremost, Buck was carried on harshly by Manuel using a chain nearly choking Buck. At that point, Buck developed a sense of savageness and a sort of monstrosity. He was then beaten by a man in a red sweater, beaten until nearly impaired. He realized the difference between his past and present condition.
The fruits of the circumstances made him selfish. The continuous dominance of Spitz aroused his true being, being as tough as a wolf. With these, he decided to go on his own, to work on his own, never minding his comrades. And the last and final blow of John Thornton’s death made him realize that one could never rely on somebody for they are not always there. One should strive and free himself, and starve than feed himself.
The philosophy of individualism was indeed asserted in the novel. London made use of symbols to present his individualistic idea; moreover, he made use of metaphorical statements. He also made use of Buck to embody himself through the use of autobiographical elements. In the context of the novel, the series of events also supported this concept. The Call of the Wild is indeed a novel of struggle and triumph. It is a search for blood and power brought by inner peace and calmness. And as the urge comes along and when the power draws near, like Buck, would you answer the call of the wild?
- Jack London was born in San Francisco in 1876. He wrote numerous short stories, plays, novels and essays mostly dealing with the struggle for survival. His most notable books include Call of the Wild, White Fang and To Build a Fire which is considered to be an all-time classic. (Jacobs, 1997)
- The Klondike is in the vicinity of Dawson, where the Klondike and Yukon rivers meet. On August 17, 1896, alluvial gold was discovered in Bonanza Creek, a tributary of the Klondike River. When news of the discovery spread in mid-1897, a great gold rush began, and by late 1898, about 30,000 prospectors had entered the area. (Microsoft Encarta, 2005)
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