Man as Animal: Overcoming Ego and Navigating the Wilderness of Jack London in Isolation
This thesis juxtaposes three of Jack London’s novels – The Call of the Wild, The Sea-Wolf, and White Fang, written proximately and early in his career – to trace his developing thoughts on philosophy, morality, and human identity through the lens of animalism in the context of certain environmental influences. By analyzing the similarities between the settings of the three novels, namely their isolation and wilderness, in conjunction with the adaptive and evolutionary changes that its characters undergo (or fail to), one can see how London’s own ambivalence towards the nature of society is addressed and, ultimately, resolved.
The relationship between animal and human is not only limited to being present in London’s work, but rather is metatextually necessary to understand prior to engaging with it; the reader him-/herself takes on the role of the human and cultivates a relationship with the animal protagonist. This thesis establishes that any attempt to distance oneself from London’s canine protagonists stem from a psychological egocentrism that indulges the belief of human exceptionalism and supremacy.
In his first novel, London deconstructs this prejudice by aligning his audience with a domesticated dog thrust into the brutal world of the Yukon, which he adapts to by growing stronger, abandoning his morals, and achieving independence. His trajectory traces that of London’s idealized Darwinism, wherein the emasculating shackles of cultivated society are cast off in favour of atavism. This character arc is complicated by London’s human characterization of the same trope in The Sea-Wolf, wherein the protagonist is held back from succumbing to the primitive, nihilistic, Social Darwinist beliefs of his brutal counterpart by the feminizing influence of his romantic interest. The anomalous presence of a female character represents London’s concession to the intellectual aspects and indelible traces of civilized society. In White Fang, London incorporates both the dangers of domestication with his newfound appreciation for the camaraderie and inescapability of society, reconciling the two by settling his feral Northern wolf in a comfortable Californian home, yet tempering his subordination with a reminder of the necessity for physical strength and self-sufficiency.
Taken together, these novels lay out London’s intellectual journey through denunciation of the weakness of societal men, philosophical attempts at justification of Social Darwinism and nihilism, and resultant amalgamated acceptance of civilized life with the necessary experience and abilities rendered by a difficult adaptation to a primitive lifestyle for a time.