The four-line poem that begins the novel summarizes the essential theme of the entire work. As noted in the section at the end of this study guide, entitled “Critical Theories,” we see that London is writing in a certain literary tradition and under the influence of a literary philosophy called Naturalism. The concepts of Naturalism are summarized in these first four opening lines — that is, within every individual, however civilized, there lies deep within a “ferine strain,” which means that there is a “primitive beast” within each of us that can emerge at any particular moment, and it will emerge more quickly in periods of extreme stress. The “brumal sleep” refers to these forces that are hibernating and which will, at the proper moment, awaken and assume their bestial qualities.
In conjunction with the above ideas, London will use Buck, the enormous, extraordinarily powerful dog, as an anthropomorphic example of similar qualities for all of humankind. (Anthropomorphic simply means attributing human qualities to an animal.) For example, throughout the novel, Buck will be seen to possess various types of qualities that are traditionally attributed only to human beings. In one instance, we will see him possessing such qualities as loyalty, love, revenge, ambition, and other qualities usually associated with human beings. Other qualities will also be pointed out as we progress through the novel.
To emphasize his essential theme, London has the dog Buck being born on a large estate in the Southland (Santa Clara Valley, California). Buck does not know that there is a “yellow metal” recently discovered in the Far North and that strong, powerful dogs are desperately needed and will bring a rather large price. While Buck is a very large dog — his father was a huge Saint Bernard and his mother was a Scotch shepherd — Buck has lived a comfortable life of ease in very civilized surroundings. London writes that Buck “had lived the life of a sated aristocrat.” Buck’s master was the gentle and kind Judge Miller, the epitome of a highly civilized society. The fact that London chooses the Judge for Buck’s master strongly underscores the fact that we are to be aware of civilization’s laws, its customs, and all of the machinations of order.
Having established Buck, then, as a product of civilization, London will, as his chapter title “Into the Primitive” indicates, now show the contrast between Buck, the civilized dog, and the dog he becomes when be is suddenly thrust into a life completely different. This change comes about because one of Judge Miller’s servants, Manuel, has amassed significant gambling debts and in order to repay the debts, Manuel sells Buck to some traders dealing in dognapping. These dogs will later be sold to gold prospectors in the North. We must always remember the contrast that London is utilizing in this novel: Buck comes not only from civilization, but also from a life of unusual ease and comfort, where all of his food is provided for him; he is not accustomed to killing in order to eat. In fact, “over this great demesne [Judge Miller’s estate] Buck ruled.” Later in the North, Buck will also rule, in effect, as the “king” of the dogsled group, but he will have to fight — literally fight for his life — in order to have the right to rule over the other dogs.
Buck’s gigantic size makes him a special prize for the dognappers. While Manuel receives only $50 for his part of the transaction, Buck will later bring a price of $300, and later on, he will bring even larger sums. In Chapter 6, for instance, $1200 will be offered as a buying price for Buck.
At present, Buck is a trusting dog, and he has no idea what fate holds for him; therefore, he has no inkling of Manuel’s treachery: “he had learned to trust in men he knew, and to give them credit for a wisdom that outreached his own.” But now that Buck is tied by the throat by strangers and is treated violently, he becomes enraged, and in his “unbridled anger,” he closes his jaws on the hand of the man who is holding him, and Buck does not let go until he is tied around the throat so tightly that his senses are choked out of him and he collapses.
Eventually, Buck regains consciousness, but every time he resists his tormenters, he is thrown down and choked repeatedly. He is totally confused by the meaning of such brutality from these strange men and is “oppressed by the vague sense of impending calamity.”
As the men gradually proceed to file off Judge Miller’s heavy brass collar from Buck’s neck, we realize that these men are filing off the last vestige of civilization. Afterward, Buck is thrown into a cage. It is ironic that in civilization, Buck was free to roam, but now, taken from his familiar surroundings, he is brutally flung into a cage. Buck’s reaction is to become more and more ferocious, as he attempts time and again, unsuccessfully, to break out of the bars. For two days and two nights, Buck neither eats nor drinks; his eyes become bloodshot and, finally, he is “metamorphosed into a raging fiend.” By the time that the train carrying Buck reaches Seattle, he is so changed, says London, that not even Judge Miller would recognize him.
At Seattle, Buck is delivered into the hands of a “stout man with a red sweater and a club.” To this man, Buck seems to be hardly a dog; the man calls Buck a “truly red-eyed devil,” and again and again, Buck attempts to attack the man in the red sweater; as a result, Buck is taught the first law of primitive society — that is, a man with a club in his hand is more powerful than a single dog. London refers to this “lesson” as the “law of the club.” Significantly, the man in the red sweater finally admits that Buck is indeed a powerful and great adversary. Once Buck has learned that the “law of the club” is a law that he must obey, he allows the man in the red sweater to bring him water to drink and food to eat; he even eats the food from the man’s hand. It is obvious that Buck knows that he is beaten, but, as London tells us, Buck is not broken: he was beaten (he knew that), “but he was not broken.” To Buck, the man with the club, a kind of “cave man” figure, represents the potential for the primitive element in all of us. The red of his sweater hearkens us to recall Buck’s blood-red eyes and also the blood which Buck is covered with after his beating, as well as the red blood of raw meat. Red, therefore, serves as a symbol of savagery.
Even though Buck recognizes that a man with a club is a master to be obeyed, yet Buck does not do what some dogs do — that is, he does not fawn upon the man-master, but then neither does Buck struggle for mastery for so long that he is killed in the struggle — as some dogs actually do. Buck is always able to judge just how far to resist before giving up. This is how he learns to deal with the man in the red sweater, and throughout the rest of the novel, Buck will always remember the man with the red sweater, for this is his introduction to the “law of the club” and to the laws of the primitive world.
Buck is next sold to a man named Perrault, a Frenchman, who recognizes Buck as “one in ten thousand,” as he puts it. In fact, Perrault buys two dogs — Buck (for $300.00) and another dog, Curly, a “good-natured Newfoundland.” Perrault then takes both dogs aboard a ship, the Narwhal, where Buck encounters Perrault’s partner, Francois. Buck “speedily learned that Perrault and Francois were fair men, calm and impartial in administering justice” and, most important, “too wise in the ways of dogs to be fooled by dogs.” Throughout the novel, Buck will constantly evaluate his human owners in terms of their competence. Furthermore, he will never resent hard work — if it is administered with impartiality.
Buck soon discovers that there are other dogs below deck, and after an indeterminate length of time, they all dock in a northern port, and there Buck encounters something entirely new: he discovers “white stuff that was falling through the air.” This is his first encounter with snow. At first, it puzzles him, but when some onlookers laugh at him, he feels ashamed. Here is another example of London’s use of anthropomorphism: Buck is endowed with the human qualities of shame and embarrassment. Furthermore, the snow represents Buck’s first encounter with an element of nature that he will have to contend with for the rest of his life.
In general, then, this chapter has taken Buck from the ease and comfort of civilization through his first encounter with the law of the primitive, when he was being beaten with a club, to his arrival somewhere in the Far North, and his true geographical entry into “the primitive.”