Summary and Analysis
Chapter 5 - The Toil of Trace and Trail
This chapter begins thirty days after the dogs have made the long pull back to Skagway, after having successfully delivered the mail to Dawson. By now, Buck has lost over thirty-five pounds, and he is not alone in his suffering; in fact, all of the dogs are in a wretched state. They are all overworked, they have sore paws, they are plagued with injuries, and, in general, they are exhausted — dead tired. Furthermore, there is "no power of recuperation left, no reserve strength to call upon." In this chapter, we discover that in the last five months they have traveled twenty-five thousand miles with only five days' rest.
The drivers expect a long recuperation period, but because of the droves of people who have arrived in the great North, the mail is arriving at a rapid pace, necessitating constant mail runs. Worthless or tired and weak dogs, London tells us, are "gotten rid of." Thus, before the team is fully rested, two men from the States buy them — "harness and all, for a song" — meaning that they were bought very cheaply. The two men are Hal and Charles. Charles, the older, is middle-aged with watery eyes and a fiercely uptwisted light mustache. Hal is younger, probably nineteen or twenty, and he carries a gun and a hunting knife — a detail which London includes to emphasize Hal's callousness and his potential evil. The two men are accompanied by Mercedes, who is Charles's wife and Hal's sister. London never tells the reader exactly why these people have come to the great North; instead, they seem to be here only to illustrate another aspect of the type of life that Buck has had to become accustomed to if he is to adjust to all aspects of this new and primitive existence. Until this event, Buck's masters have all known critical ways of coping with the North — that is, they know how to drive, how to survive, and how to treat the team. Now, however, Buck is confronted with inept people who cannot cope with the violence of the wilderness and the great North. Consequently, we will now see how Buck responds and adjusts to human ineptitude.
The first example of Buck's new masters' ineptitude is the tent, which is awkwardly assembled. In addition, the dishes are packed unwashed, and no one has any concept as to how to load and pack the sled. Furthermore, when the three attempt to leave, the dogs are unable to budge the sled; ignorantly, Hal assumes that this is merely incompetence on the part of the dogs, and he beats them severely, lashing them viciously with his whip. A man from a neighboring tent attempts to defend the dogs, claiming that "they are plumb tuckered out," and another incensed onlooker tells the three that the sled runners are frozen fast in the snow; this is the reason why the dogs cannot budge the sled. Here again is more proof of the trio's ineptitude — and what is far worse is their basic ignorance of the techniques of dealing with the conditions of the great North. Throughout the beatings of the dogs, Mercedes objects strongly, but at the same time, she is resentful of the fact that some of the things which she has packed must be tossed off the sled. During the course of this trip, we will discover why Mercedes changes as drastically as she does; eventually, however, her present concern for the dogs will be replaced by a concern for only herself.
The sled's runners are finally freed from the frozen snow, but the dogs still have to struggle with all their might in order to pull the sled even a short distance, and when the path becomes uneven, the sled overturns and spills most of the load, which, as we know, has been improperly loaded. Once the dogs are freed from the excess weight, they flee without heeding the calls of their "new masters." Buck and his comrades look upon these people with a great deal of suspicion.
Later, when Mercedes refuses to cast away as much of her possessions as the onlookers advocated, Charles and Hal decide to buy six extra dogs, now making a total of fourteen dogs pulling the sled. The extra dogs, of course, require more food proportionately, and this factor increases the load which the dogs must pull. As the days go by, London says, it becomes apparent, even to Buck, that "they were slack in all things, without order or discipline."
For example, it takes them an unduly long time to pitch the camp at nighttime, and the morning is always well underway before they are able to break camp. This delay not only is cutting into the distance which they need to cover each day, but it is also eating into the food supply that is supposed to last them throughout the trip. Added to these difficulties is the fact that Mercedes steals extra food and gives it to the dogs on the sly. This is also complicated by the fact that when the dogs do not pull the sled fast enough, Hal beats them severely, further sapping their strength. Arguments among the three people occur constantly; not only "did they not know how to work the dogs, they did not know how to work themselves." When Hal, taking stock of the food supply, discovers that the food is half gone and that they have traversed only one-fourth of the way, he cuts down on the dogs' rations so badly that it weakens all of the dogs, especially the new dogs, who are not accustomed to the severities of the dogsled and the elements.
By this time, Hal, Charles, and Mercedes are too irritable and miserable to even quarrel with one another. In addition, the dogs begin dying off one by one, until only five experienced dogs remain. Apparently, no one seems to be concerned, for in the dissension among the three people, all consideration for the dogs has faded away and even though Mercedes weighs only one hundred and twenty pounds, she demands to ride on the sled, which increases the burden of the already weakened, starving, and suffering dogs.
At a place called "the Five Fingers," the dog food gives out completely, but the men are able to trade a revolver for some frozen, dried horsehide, which the dogs find irritating and indigestible.
Hal continues to beat the dogs, and those that are left can hardly pull the sled, especially with the additional weight of Mercedes on it. The fierce winter has now given away to spring, but there is no food, and as the last reserve strength of the dogs fades, they arrive at John Thornton's camp.
Thornton is an experienced man of the North, and he immediately perceives that Hal has achieved all of his boastful tasks only by one ploy — by severely punishing the dogs. Thus, when it is time to leave Thornton's camp, Buck, who has always been able to somehow summon an extra measure of strength, simply refuses to move. Instinctively, he knows that with the coming of spring that these inept new "masters" do not know how to cope with the dangers that the melting snow and ice will present. London says: "It seemed that Buck sensed disaster close at hand, out there ahead on the ice." Therefore, despite the tremendous blows administered by Hal, Buck refuses to move, and, ultimately, John Thornton, "convulsed with rage" at Hal's merciless stupidity, steps between Hal and Buck, and he threatens Hal's life if he strikes Buck again. Hitting Hal's knuckles with his ax handle, Thornton knocks Hal's knife loose and uses it to cut Buck loose from his harness. Meanwhile, Hal and Charles are too busy with Mercedes to retaliate against Thornton, and, before long, Buck raises his head just in time to see the other four dogs — Pike, Solleks, Joe, and Teek — limping and staggering across the thawing ice. As Buck and Thornton watch, they see a yawning hole in the middle of a patch of ice, and then a whole section of the ice gives way, and all of them — dogs and humans — disappear.
In this chapter, London shows three inexperienced people from the Southland, confronted by entirely different circumstances in the great North, and he shows their inability to adjust to such extremely diverse circumstances. Each of the three, Mercedes especially, tries to bring too much of "civilization" with them into this extremely uncivilized country. London has nothing but contempt for these inept wanderers of the North, who have no business being there. In contrast, John Thornton has a great deal of compassion for the dogs who pull the sled, but even he shows very little compassion for these ignorant people of the South. Even Buck knows, by instinct, that the ice will not hold up, yet these people of so-called civilized intelligence will not — and seemingly cannot — learn how to survive in the harsh North. In other words, as London has constantly suggested, Buck's primitive instincts have taught him the means of survival against overwhelming odds, whereas these three humans succumb to the harsh vicissitudes of the Northland. Hal, Charles, and Mercedes are destroyed, finally, by their own stupidity.