Jack London’s novel pitches man against nature in order to focus upon the ‘indomitable’ spirit of humanity when faced by the immense barrier of nature. This theme is explored in much literature reflecting the pioneer era – humans in small groups seeking to spread throughout America driven either by the idea of Manifest Destiny, by the deficiency model or simply by the ‘unawed’ requirement to explore and to push the boundaries of America in search of natural resources or simply to seek a place in which to settle and thrive – a pure American Dream. In this passage the two anonymous men, reduced to a state of being ‘not yet dead’, implying imminent death perhaps, have no names, since they represent in this passage all similar characters: the original pioneers who crossed the continent against all odds. The fact London is writing about a 20th century journey in such harsh conditions helps to stress the relative youth of the American continent. One in which mankind can be seen as intruding.
In the passage, the ‘Wild’ – personified to present as a character : the antagonist to the men and their dogs acts as a barrier to be overcome. From the outset the descriptions of a ‘Dark spruce forest’ which ‘frowned’ at the travellers suggests not just a place of danger and secrecy, but one with an emotion – hostility, seen in the frown and developed by the use of ‘ominous’ and culminating in the simile of the ‘laughter’ into a threatening and cruel character. One which enjoys the sense of suffering caused to the travellers. London is clear that this is an anti-pastoral landscape, one which offers the asyndetic triplet ‘desolation, lifeless, without movement’ in place of the life giving affirmation of nature found in other pioneer tales such as Huckleberry Finn, where Huck, alone on the raft is aware of the immensity of the river, yet finds this comforting. In London’s world, nature will be the setting in which mankind will find itself pushed to the extreme. In this world, water -a source of life, has itself been killed -‘frozen… to prevent it running to the sea’ and even the tress in this tricolon list are frozen to their ‘mighty hearts’ suggesting again, through this personification that this is no place for humans.
Into this world London brings his protagonists – the men and the dogs almost indistinguishable from one another. Indeed the men have bodies ‘covered with fur and soft tanned leather’ as though London is not describing clothing but rather, natural forms. As they travel through the hostile world in which trees are metaphorically ‘lean[ing] towards each other’ as though conspiring together, the men and dogs are barely distinguishable. Both are coated in ‘frost’ and even their breath has lost its life-giving gaseous form becoming ”spumes of vapour’ that formed in to ‘crystals of frost’. It is almost as if nature has planned this – the trees themselves have been ‘stripped’ of their frost layer – a verb connoting violence and disruption – so as to further inconvenience the pioneers ‘toiling’ through the woodland. London creates a reference chain of suffering with his repetition of the the verb ‘toiled’ along with the further idea of the travellers being ‘crushed’ by nature – a physical response imposed by the sheer size of the landscape in which they move.
London is clear however that the men are ‘defiant’. To stress this idea, he introduces twice paragraphs beginning ‘But…’. The placing of this contradictory conjunction serves to highlight their strength of will. As he writes this he begins to explore an idea which will later resonate in the world of the 1920s boom. Writing in 1906, we can see this text as a response to the boom and excess of the Gilded Age. London evidently feels that the boom and the relative tranquility of this time has weakened humanity. No more does he see the indomitable spirit of the pioneer in his American males. Indeed his point is clear: the Wild has a larger purpose: to crush ‘all the false ardours… and undue self-values’ of the modern world. Just as Mark Twain wrote in the 1890s of the ‘sham’ society of the South, here Jack London is writing of a world in which man is being purified by his suffering and removal from a degraded society in early 20th century America. he even provides an unconscious foreshadowing of the Space Race of the 1950s and 60s, in which America saw the conquest of the moon as proof positive of the power and superiority of American manhood. Indeed, compared to the complacent world of the business man sitting in his East Coast mansion, the need to be reminded of his insignificance – ‘finite and small’ – takes on a Wordsworthian sense of awe at the immensity of nature and also develops the philosophical outlook of such Romantics, that city dwelling has corrupted and softened mankind. London’s men are not softened. They challenge nature and take on its mantel. In the process they rediscover their ‘animality’ – they are described similarly to the dogs and have taken on their ‘clothing’; they are able to adapt nature to their needs by making snowshoes, yet they are in an ‘alien’ word – one which is so far from their ken that to survive it is to be reborn as a purer form of man. The man who is simply described as a man ‘whose toil was over’ suggesting life itself to be a struggle – has indeed been defeated. ‘The Wild’ is clearly personified as his murderer – the verbs ‘beaten down, conquered’ are those of an aggressor and an army – is being carried by his companions, presumably to a place of rest. London delays the revelation of his death by focusing on the ‘narrow oblong box’, not a ‘coffin’ as such and the reader, drawn in by this repeated description, is therefore forced to consider the power of the natural world and ultimately to admire the ‘frontier spirit’ of these men.
London’s message, perhaps is that these are the men who made America, not the men with ‘weak cunning and little wisdom’ who inhabit the land and are seen in characters from the Duke and Dauphin, through the Grangerfords until they find their natural descendants in the world of Tom Buchanan and Jay Gatsby. Possibly we need to wait until the Joad family on their Westward migration before such indomitable spirit and purity of heart is seen again in American Literature.