When Buck, a dog from Southern California, is kidnapped to work as a sled dog at the height of the Alaskan gold rush, his instincts are gradually awakened, and his ties to human civilization are broken. Buck is a large dog with a warm coat and a caring owner (Judge Miller) who begins his life in Santa Clara, California at the end of the 19th century. His size and warm coat of fur prove dangerous when Judge Miller's gardener, desperate for a few extra dollars, kidnaps Buck and sells him as a sled dog. Dogs like Buck are in high demand, as the Alaskan gold rush is in full swing and dog sleds are the primary form of transportation.
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Though distrust and anger initially render him violent and takes away his appetite, a dog-breaker known merely as the "man in the red sweater" teaches him greater caution and self-control through repeated beatings. The breaker then sends him further north. During his time in Alaska, Buck has three different owners or sets of owners.
With Francois and Perrault, Buck learns his role as a sled-dog and learns some basics of survival in the north. Though he does not love them, he respects and trusts his masters, and they trust and respect him. Buck also meets his arch-enemy, Spitz, the team's ferocious lead dog. Their rivalry ends - as all such canine rivalries in this setting ended - in a fight to the death, which Buck wins. Buck subsequently insists on taking Spitz's position as lead dog, contrary to Francois and Perrault's initial intentions.
With Hal, Mercedes, and Charles, Buck learns what it is to have masters he neither trusts nor respects. The three are city folks who know nothing of the harsh realities of life in the north, and unlike Buck or his first set of masters, they are unable to adapt. They don't recognize the dogs' needs, nor do they know how to take care of themselves in such an environment. They eventually stumble into the camp of John Thorton, who will become Buck's final master. Thorton saves Buck's life when he stops one of Buck's current masters from clubbing him to death. Buck remains with Thorton while Hal, Mercedes, Charles, in their ignorance, attempt a river crossing across thin ice and are swept to their deaths with their remaining dogs.
Buck loves his final owner greatly and is extremely loyal and obedient to Thorton, even though he by now has no moral qualms about stealing from others or exerting his dominance over them. His adoration of Thorton causes him to save Thorton's life on three occasions. Once, he pulls Thorton from a raging river. Another time, he attacks a man who threatened Thorton in a town bar. The last time, he freed and pulled a sled 100 yards with 1000 pounds on it, winning a bet that allows Thorton to pay off debts and search for gold in more distant regions. Thorton finds gold successfully, but eventually draws the attention of the Yeehat Indian tribe. The Yeehats kill Thorton and his human colleagues while Buck is off hunting for himself. (Buck has gradually allowed his instincts to surface more and more.) Buck returns and discovers his master's death and is crushed. He becomes a terror to the Yeehats and stays at the camp for some time to mourn. He then leaves to live completely in the wild, feeling his last ties with humans have been severed. He nonetheless returns every year to howl at the moon at the site where Thorton died.
Best part of story, including ending:
Buck becomes increasingly independent throughout the story, yet he was capable of great love for his final master. It also shows a lot about the importance of adaptation and about people's varying abilities to adapt to different situations.
Best scene in story:
I like the final scene, where Buck returns to howl at the moon to mourn for Thorton. Many people like the scene where he pulls the 1000 pound sled because it is so dramatic.
Opinion about the main character:
I like Buck's independence.