Buck is a dog who lived in the sunny Santa Clara Valley, in the house of Judge Miller. The house was a mansion set deep in green parks and lawns, with a wide verandah that enveloped the house. There were arbors of vineyards and orchards at the back; stables with many grooms and servants, neat housing quarters for them at the backyard; a pumping machine and a tank of water for the children of the household to swim and keep cool in the sunny forenoons.
At the time the story begins, Buck was four years old. He was a mix between a Saint Bernard and a sheep dog. He weighed 140 pounds and carried himself royally, and with dignity like an aristocrat. He was proud and egotistic like a country gentleman, and would not allow himself to be pampered. Hunting and the outdoors were his delight.
He had always lived and ruled his home even though there were many other dogs on the property. He felt superior to the housedogs, the hairless Mexican Yasbel and Japanese dog Toots who lived inside the house and were protected from any mishaps by the housemaids with their brooms and sticks, and the terriers who lived in the kennels. He had free reign of the property and often played with the Judge's grandchildren or sat in the Library at the Judge's feet.
It was 1897, the year of the Klondike gold rush and newspapers carried numerous stories of men who were in need of tough dogs that could work hard and weather the freezing climate. The gardener, Manuel, in the Judge's household recognized the value of Buck and plotted a plan that he thought would make him rich. One day when the Judge and the boys were away from the house, Manuel carried out his plan. He put the collar over Buck's neck and quietly led him into the woods. Buck thought that he was being taken for a walk and did not realize that he was being abducted. The pleasantry ended when Manuel handed the leash to some stranger, took money from him, and left. The stranger proceeded to put a rope around Buck's collar and began to pull him. Buck did not comprehend this treatment and started to growl. The stranger responded by pulling the rope tighter. Buck first bore this treatment quietly as he was used to trusting men, but he could not understand the reasoning behind it.
Shortly thereafter, the rope was again passed into other strange hands and he growled to show his displeasure. Buck's action resulted in the rope being tightened even more around his neck. At this point Buck sprang at the man, but the rope caused him to loose his footing and he was thrown to the ground midway. The tight noose around his neck made him choke and he was angry over the way he was being treated. Dazed from the fall and being unable to resist, he was thrown into a cage and put onto a train.
When he regained consciousness his tongue hurt and his throat felt sore. Suddenly he felt jerked as the train shrieked to a halt. When one of his captors arrived to check the cage, Buck bit his hand out of anger. When the conductor of the train became suspicious and questioned the man as to why the dog was angry, the man lied and told him that the dog was sick and he was taking him for treatment.
Buck was feeling very weak and the pain in his throat was unbearable. When he was finally taken off the train and taken out of the cage, he stood and faced his tormentors. His collar and rope were removed; however he was again flung back into the cage. Buck did not understand the meaning of all this and only sensed danger. Each time the door of his cage rattled, he thought that it was the Judge or the boys but instead it was only the strange man whom he had seen before.
In the morning, other men came to get him. Buck again showed his anger by growling and pushing against the bars but the men only laughed and poked a rod through the cage bars to annoy him even more. He grabbed the stick, but soon realized that they wanted just that, and decided to ignore them and let the crate be lifted into a wagon. His cage passed through many hands as he was carted from wagon to truck and finally unto a locomotive. Buck traveled for two days without food or water and developed a fever. It was at this point that he made a resolution …he would never allow a rope to be placed around his neck ever again.
The journey ended at Seattle, and the cage was hauled off to a high walled backyard. By now the civil dog Buck had changed into a raging animal, with bloodshot eyeballs; even the Judge would not have recognized him at this point.
A stout man wearing a red sweater appeared with a hatchet and club and Buck suspected him to be his next tormentor. He was 140 pounds of fury as he drew himself together for the spring at his new assailant. The man ignored his stance and calmly started opening the cage. All the other men scattered away and watched from a safe distance calling him the "red-eyed Devil".
When the door was open, Buck hurled himself wildly against the man. He was in mid-air with his jaws open when he received a shock that checked his body and made him fall on his side. He had never been struck by a club and did not realize what had happened. With a snarl that was a half bark and a howl, he once again launched into the air, and again the shock brought him crashing to the ground. He still did not realize what was happening and kept lunging at the man. Each time he charged, the club smashed down and broke the charge. At this point, the man gave him an extremely hard blow and he fell to the ground.
As Buck slowly regained consciousness but not his strength, he watched the man in red from where he lay. The man spoke in a cheerful tone, "Well, Buck my Boy, Let it go at that! You have learned your place and I know mine"! As he spoke, he patted Buck's head in a condescending manner. Buck recoiled at the touch but did not reveal his feelings. He even ate the food and water that the man brought him. drank eagerly and ate Buck's spirit was not broken, but he had learned that he must veil his emotions or else get struck with a club. It was his first introductory lesson on a primitive law, the law of the Club.
From that point on, life took on a different meaning for him. Instead of feeling discouraged, his experiences aroused all the hidden slyness within him. More and more dogs were arriving in crates and they were either submissive, or furious. Regardless of how they acted, they all encountered the same brutal treatment from the man in red. It drove home the same lesson. The man with the club is the lawgiver and master to obey. One dog that neither obeyed nor relented was killed in the struggle for mastery.
Many different men came and money passed hands. Buck wondered why dogs that went with the men never came back and he instinctively was glad that he was not selected. He soon realized that he was in a dog market and the fear of the future was strong within him.
One day two men arrived; a "little wizened man speaking broken English" and a "half-breed swarthy and black faced giant". They were French Canadian and were named Francois and Perrault. Francois called Buck the "damn bully" and selected him. That man knew that Buck was one in a thousand. Perrault thought, "one in ten thousand". The Canadian Government needed such animals for their dispatch services and was paying a high price for them. Buck and Curly, a good natured New Foundlander, were led away to a ship named the Narwhal, sailing northward across Queen Charlotte Sound to Alaska.
As the boat moved on its journey, Buck had seen the last of the warm south. Now Buck had two new masters. He had no love for them, but he grew to respect them. He quickly learned that Perrault and Francois were honest and calm, impartial in administering justice, and wise in the ways of Dogs.
Buck saw other dogs on the decks. Spitz was a big snow white that appeared to be friendly yet Buck was leery of him. The first time he met Buck, he stole from Buck's meal and Buck sprang to punish him. Francois's whip sang through the air reaching the culprit first. Because of this fairness, Francois rose in Buck's estimation. Dave was another dog. He was aloof and only wished to be left alone; he would make no advances nor receive any.
As the days passed, Buck could sense the chill in the climate as the North closed in. His first encounter with snow was hilarious to his new masters. On deck, Buck's feet sank into something white and mushy, like sand; more of it was falling through the air, and on him. He was curious and he began to lick it. It tasted like fire, but quickly the sensation was gone; he tried to catch some, but couldn't. He kept trying and the men laughed. It made him feel ashamed.
This chapter serves to introduce the protagonist, Buck and foreshadow his future life. He is inhumanely uprooted from his home and sold into a life of servitude. He has to learn to adjust from living in a civilized environment to a life in the wilderness.
It is interesting to note that London gives him human characteristics such as love, hate, ambition, revenge, loyalty, trust, and feelings of shame in order to develop the theme of the book as expressed by the poem at the beginning; every creature can easily fall back on "primitive instincts" when survival becomes an issue.
"Old longings nomadic leap,
Chafing at custom's chain;
Again from its brumal sleep
Wakens the ferine strain."