Paper Topic: Exploring the themes of animal death and the search for the wild in London’s “The Call of the Wild”

     For my final paper I intend to write about the instances of animal death and the search for the wild from an animal perspective in Jack London’s The Call of the Wild. The plan is to relate animal death to the search for the wild as Buck’s eventual killing of his rival, Spitz, is an integral step in his transition from being a domestic animal to being a truly wild animal. I decided upon this topic because this was my favorite book when I was a child and I have been hoping to study it in an academic setting. Given that I’m one semester away from graduating, that probably isn’t going to happen and I would like to gain a deeper appreciation of the text from an ecocritical perspective. I feel this is a good choice in relevance to the class because on of our recurring themes this semester is the search for nature–the search for the wild–and how nature/the wild is defined or depicted by each author. The Call of the Wild is the best example of a protagonists search for the wild that I can think of; it is the central focus of the novel. Some may consider the fact that the protagonist is a dog to be problematic but I disagree. Buck is a humanized character by virtue of his story being told by a human from a human perspective.

    London’s book depicts the experiences of a dog (Buck) after his being sold by one of the workers on the judge’s (Buck’s master’s) estate to be shipped up to Alaska for use as a sled dog during the Alaskan gold rush. He is “broken” and taught “the law of club and fang” by which he learns of savagery–from an animal perspective (and indeed from a human’s as well) it is curious to think of the need to get in touch with one’s own savagery in a search for true wilderness. As if to truly find the wilderness one must find the wild within oneself–to become wilderness (which is essentially what happens to Buck at the end of the novel). Accordingly, Garrard’s chapter on wilderness will be applied heavily potentially with the intent of pointing out the problem with the definition/conceptualization of wilderness being looked at from an entirely human perspective. Looking at wilderness from an animal perspective is a fresh perspective from what we have discussed and I believe that it will allow one to approach an idealization of nature better than looking at it through human thought and perception. Also, the implications of animal death in this particular novel are unique, functioning almost as a sort of rite of passage or rather an integral step in discarding the domestic perspective–to escape humanity one must become truly inhumane.

[Oh, and before any naysayers naysay that it has to be a novel from the 19th century, I have already had this topic pre-approved by the instructor]

Possible Questions:

How is animal death employed in this text? What are the different meanings produced by the different contexts?

How does animal death relate to a search for the wild both within oneself and from an exterior perspective?

How is Buck defined by his domesticity and how does he come to be defined by his wildness? (in step-by-step)

How is wilderness defined by this text? How does the character come to be defined by wilderness?

What is it exactly to become wild and how is this essential to the search for wilderness?

10 responses to this post.

  1. I havent read The Call of the Wild, but i think this sounds like a really interesting paper. I like your question about what it means to become wild and how it is essential to the search for wilderness. To build off of this I would pose the question of defining wild in the text and how its been defined in the texts we have read in class.

  2. Posted by bhough on October 27, 2011 at 10:57 am

    I haven’t read the book either, but I really like the ideas you’re looking into. I find this question most interesting:

    What is it exactly to become wild and how is this essential to the search for wilderness?

    Building off of this, and statements you made in your topic introduction, I think you could look into the dichotomy of wild vs. tamed and animal vs. human. While Buck is clearly a dog, you say he is a humanized character, and I think it would be very interesting to look into how London continues the hutmanization throughout Buck’s journey, even when he is in rough or wild situations. Looking into this idea could add an extra layer to your argument; does portraying Buck as a humanized character, even when he is savagely killing other animals, have implications towards London’s readership?

  3. Let’s not forget that we are supposed to be adding questions as well!

  4. Posted by al002 on October 27, 2011 at 4:37 pm

    Your topic I find very interesting and as you said we have not discussed animal death and its implications from an animal’s perspective, very cool. The question I found most interesting was “4. How is wilderness defined by this text? How does the character come to be defined by wilderness?” and I like the idea proposed above about connecting it to texts we’ve read in class. A question I suggest would be (not sure what number to label it):

    6. How does the humanization of the animal becoming ‘wild’ translate into man becoming ‘wild’?

  5. Posted by kwalley on October 28, 2011 at 1:41 pm

    This was also one of my favorite books growing up and I think this is a very well thought out topic and one that will also be interesting to write about. I especially like your third question and think that is one that will set your paper apart. Another question to consider might be:

    7. Is there a coming of age moment for Buck (you mention killing Spitz as a step but is there an actual defining moment)? Is it self-realization or something else that leads to Buck’s eventual wildness?

  6. I read “The Call of the Wild” a few years ago, going off of what I remember I would be most interested in your second question, just because I think it might be good to narrow your focus on animal deaths and the way they relate to Buck’s personal journey.

    If I remember correctly, there was a bit in the novel where Buck kills a group of Indians who killed one of his former masters. Going off of that, you might consider a question like:

    8. How does animal death relate to the relationship between the human characters and nature? How are humans humanized or dehumanized by the how “wild” they are?

  7. Posted by bharta1 on October 28, 2011 at 8:53 pm

    Yes! I’m a huge fan of Jack London so I’m already fan of your paper idea! What a good topic too. I think, from the perspective of Buck, there is a really cool aspect of exploration for what wilderness can be, essentially because buck is not human. I haven’t read Call of the Wild, but going into the idea of wilderness through the eyes of a canine is very, very cool, and in a way, another way of “thinking” wilderness. The whole idea of what is difficult about wilderness is that our epistomological functions literally separate us from nature. Our cerebral cortex is the thing separating us from it. It’s our latest development of the brain, and this aperture holds everything in database of relations, where as a dog can get into a wilderness state.

    Your last question is really good. What is it exactly to become wild and how is this essential to the search for wilderness? To add or sharpen this, can animals and humans have a different type of wilderness or must it be one monadic structure or category (which already seems contrary to the idea of wilderness) and what does it take for a human to be wild?

  8. I like your topic. Call of the Wild is a classic! Something else to explore is
    10) could the main character be considered bio-regionalist to the wild?

  9. Though I haven’t read the book, I get the jist from your explanation. I particularly liked that the film presents the animal’s perspective and I think your question 3 has potential to be a great paper topic.

    11.) In the shift from domesticity to the wild does Buck lose any vital part of his identity? if so, was that loss necessary in assimilating to his new environment? Does Buck retain parts of himself despite the major shift in his life.

    Also, this is kind of random, but what about when humans are forced to shift from civilization to wilderness? like if someone loses everything and becomes a bum in the woods (like the bum by the lake we discussed in class) or even the other way around like when someone is released from a psychiatric care facility/prison and forced to REassimilate into society…

    How is Buck defined by his domesticity and how does he come to be defined by his wildness? (in step-by-step)

  10. I like your second question the most because it helps to connect your two critical lenses, animal death and wildness. I don’t have much to add because you’ve fleshed out your critical questions and the parameters of your project quite well. Here’s one question to make sure you link this turn-of-the-century text to the work we’ve done in this class:

    12. How does London’s definition of wildness compare with prominent 19th-century writers? Do you see him as coming out of a certain literary tradition regarding his treatment of wilderness/wildness, or is this a shift from what we’ve seen in American literature thus far? Or perhaps both?

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