Trouble is brewing in California. Gold has been discovered in the Arctic, and everyone is rushing to the Northland, looking to cash in on the find. Men are looking for big dogs strong enough to toil endlessly and withstand the bitter cold. Enter Buck, one such dog, and the main character of Jack London's tale. Buck lives in the home of Judge Miller in Santa Clara Valley. The house is large and spacious, and the grounds are beautifully laid out with orchards and gardens. For his entire life, Buck has lived here in splendor. Other dogs are present, but Buck is above them all. Buck is the king of his domain, believing himself the benign master of everyone, including his humans. He is neither a house-dog nor a kennel dog but goes where he wishes. The whole realm belongs to him. He escorts the Judge's daughters on walks; he hunts with his sons, carries his grandchildren on his back. A mix of St. Bernard and Scotch Shepard, Buck weighs only 140 pounds. He is not as large as his father was, but he carries himself like a king. Hunting and walking keep him fit, and he rejoices in sport and play.
Unknown to Buck, he is in danger. Manuel, a gardener's helper, has amassed a large gambling debt. His salary can barely support his large family, and there is little left to help him. One night, when the Judge and his sons are gone Manuel takes the unsuspecting Buck on a walk. They arrive at a flag station where a man is waiting for them. Money changes hands, and Manuel ties a stout rope around Buck's neck. When the stranger tries to take the rope, Buck growls, and the rope tightens, cutting off his breath. He flies violently at the man, only to be choked repeatedly. Despite his fury, Buck is thrown into the baggage car of the train. He has another struggle with the man, biting his hand quite badly. The man tells the conductor that Buck is being taken to San Francisco in order to cure his "fits." Later that night the kidnapper complains about the job to a saloonkeeper , insisting that he wouldn't do it again for a thousand dollars, much less the fifty that he was paid. Buck was fitted with a brass collar and thrown into a cage. Throughout the night, he wonders why he is there. His pride is wounded, and he wants the Judge to come for him.
The cage is switched to an express train that will reach Seattle in two days . Occasionally Buck is harassed by men who poke sticks at him through his cage. he is given nothing to eat or drink, and his discomfort only augments his wrath. He vows never to let another rope be placed upon him. When the train is unloaded, a man in a red sweater approaches the crate, as four other men look on. The man carries a hatchet and a club; first, he uses the hatchet to break open Buck's crate. Anxious to loose his pent up fury, Buck leaps at him and is struck by a club, a new and horrible experience. Mad fury drives Buck, but each time he rushes the man, he is struck again, until he is beaten and bloodied. At last he can no longer rise. The red sweater genially tells him to mind his place, pats his head, and provides him with meat and water. Buck is beaten, not broken . He has learned not to fight a club. Other dogs arrive and undergo the same process. Buck respects the red sweater, but he is too proud to seek the man's affection, as other dogs do. Men arrive who take the dogs away. A Canadian man named Perrault catches sight of Buck and believes he is one in a thousand. He purchases him, along with Curly, a good-natured Newfoundland. he takes them to a ship, where they are turned over to Francois, another swarthy French-Canadian. Here, there are two other dogs: A white one, who is treacherously friendly, and Dave, who seems completely disinterested in everything around him. The boat ends its journey and Buck steps into a colder climate. He sees his first snow, and he does not understand what it is.
The reader is immediately introduced to a primary tension in London's tale: The juxtaposition and interchange between the human and the animal. The first sentence of the chapter, "Buck did not read the newspapers," is ambiguous. It is also notable because it is repeated just a few lines later. Between the two instances where this sentence appears, London repeatedly plays with the reader's conceptions regarding dogs and people. Initially reading, One would assume that the Buck refers to a person. When London reveals that Buck is a dog, his illiteracy becomes logical. But, London continues to play with the concept of humanness when he describes Buck as a ruler, "king over all creeping, crawling, flying things of Judge Miller's place, humans included." Placing a dog above humans might seem laughable, but the author writes in such a simple, matter-of-fact tone that we are forced to take him seriously. He provides us with an account of Buck's relatives, much as one might do when introducing friends in the late nineteenth century. Buck lives the life of a "sated aristocrat," and he is egotistical as "country gentlemen" tend to be. He maintains a sleek figure through exercise, the same kinds of exercise that his humans engage in. It is also important to notice the class of society with which this dog is associated. The reader should not equate Buck with people in general, but rather with aristocrats, descendants of kings and queens. The success of the tale depends on the audience's ability to feel sympathy for Buck without losing their awe of him.
Judge Miller's house, the home of Buck's youth, is manicured perfection. His existence is "sun-kissed." But right before the kidnapping, London takes care to include aspects of Buck that seem oddly at variance with his idyllic life. First of all, he is a mixed breed. The dignity of his position is marred by his lack of pedigree. His love of exercise hardens his muscles, and "the cold-tubbing races, the love of water had been a tonic and a health preserver." This is no delicate creature who sits prettily. The other dogs, a Japanese pug and a Mexican hairless, are exotic, ornamental breeds, inadequate companions for a dog of Buck's strength and caliber. He much prefers to hunt and amble with the Judge's offspring.
Despite the beauty of his surroundings and the idyllic nature of his lifestyle, Buck's world begins to seem a little lonely. The reader might wonder whether Buck can truly be happy with no dogs for suitable companions. Once he is ripped away from his former life, Buck's royal carriage and manner almost instantly disappear as his cruder instincts for pain and toil begin to surface. His first encounters with the kidnapper reveal that Buck's instinct for self-preservation has not been tempered by his protected lifestyle. Buck, who has always cared for and protected his humans, knows immediately that this is a person whom he can and should bite to protect himself. With this transformation, London suggests that Buck slips too easily into the role of aggressor to have been entirely tame in the first place.
One of Buck's most remarkable traits is his control over his emotions. He experiences sensations and transforms them into cold, logical responses. This is not to say that he acts without passion and fire; rather, his unbridled fury during confrontations illustrates the passionate nature flowing through his veins. At first, the reader observes an utter lack of analyzing on Buck's part: he does not think before he acts. Buck is like a child. The people in his life have never betrayed him, so he has grown used to a state of passive trust. As Buck sits in his crate, overtaken by his fury, he is coming to terms with a new state-of-being. Buck must grow up very quickly, for he no longer has Judge Miller to protect him.
Buck's confrontation with the man in the red sweater is a turning point for him. At this moment he learns the lesson of primitive law. He is not broken, but "the facts of life took on a fiercer aspectÂhe faced it with all the latent cunning of his nature aroused." London has now made it clear that primitive law does not refer merely to the law of dogs. It is the same law that punishes Manuel for his "fath in a system," and leads him into enormous debt. In the world governed by the law of the primitive, the traditional system of justice, law and order is subverted. Humans no longer exist in friendly relation to each other or to their dogs; they are either allies or enemies. The ruthlessness that has been exhibited thus far by men poses a slightly ironic question: can individuals who behave so barbarously be called humans? Dogs and people appear to have switched places. Francois is called a "half-breed" who Buck can only respect grudgingly. The dog who steals a piece of Buck's dinner is a sneaky "fellow." As the story continues, the line between men and dogs will get even more blurry. Buck is left in a place with landscape and weather that is utterly strange to him. He must rise up to the challenge if he is to survive.