Knowledge Versus Instinct in Jack London’s Short Story To Build a Fire

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Knowledge Versus Instinct in Jack London’s Short Story to Build a Fire

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Table of Contents

  • Knowledge Vs. Instinct in To Build a Fire
  • The Fight for Survival Between Man and Animal in To Build a Fire
  • To Build a Fire: Natural Instincts Winning Over

Knowledge Vs. Instinct in To Build a Fire

In Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” he tells a story that compares a dog’s natural instinct versus a man’s knowledge which acts as his instinct. The story is based upon a man and his four legged companion walking several hours crossing the storm ridden tundra, in goal of meeting a few of his friends by a fire. The man is warned by others in the beginning that no one has successfully traveled by foot in such conditions, but he believed that his masculinity was more powerful than those who doubted him.

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The journey starts off powerful and confident for the man, although he is unfamiliar with this type of climate and its conditions. As his limbs start to fall victim to hypothermia, he makes several stops to build warmth. His confidence level sank as he was troubled building the fire, due to his conditions combined with inexperience. Once he finally got a fire started, it ceases and the man decided to continue his journey, with his dog reluctantly leaving the warmth only to obey the commands of his master.

For the man, things do not go very smoothly at all. Several times throughout the story the man displays his inexperience and cannot acknowledge his mere amount of natural instinct due to being preoccupied by egotistical beliefs. In the beginning he forgets to build the fire to warm him and his companion until he accidentally steps into a half frozen spring, consequently freezing all below his knees with ice cold water. Once he builds said fire, he makes a mistake of inexperience by doing so under a tree topped with snow which destroys his fire, which he cannot rebuild due to losing his matches by handling them with numb hands. He realizes that the man who warned him in the beginning was right, and that he had made a terrible choice.

The Fight for Survival Between Man and Animal in To Build a Fire

Once the man realizes he has no opportunity to warm himself, he attacks the dog to use his insides as warmth although he knew it would be impossible to kill it. The dog runs away and the man lies down. The dog watches the man to death, and gets closer to confirm. Once he does, he runs in the direction of the fire to where the man was headed, to find food and shelter.

Unlike the dog, the man was not capable of surviving. The dog had natural instinct on his side, along with being a different mammal. The dog had more fur for warmth, and other natural qualities that saved his life. For example, when the man built the first fire for a meal, the dog did not want to continue the trek, but rather stay where the fire was for warmth and to make shelter: “The dog dropped in again at his heels, with a tail drooping discouragement, as the man swung along the creek-bed” (London 1049) . In his next mistake, the man tried to send the dog into the icy spring first to check its stability, and the dog had the instinct to know better. When the man led them both into the spring the dog quickly chewed the ice off of his paws; an act of instinct deriving from experience. After the man attempted to kill the dog to use for warmth but once again failed, the dog realized the man had no chance at surviving and would only drag him to death with him. When the man tried to run to the camp in his final attempts at life, he failed. After watching the man die due to lack of the common sense needed to survive the tundra, the husky was able to run the distance because he was clearly faster than man, and more naturally inclined to survive the weather if there were no other option.

To Build a Fire: Natural Instincts Winning Over

Experience is a quality that the man did not possess, and unfortunately for him experience is what evolves natural instinct. Although the dog had better chances of survival, the dog’s instinct prevented him from the desire to participate in the trek from the start. The man should not have held himself superior to the dog in this situation, as the native husky was accustomed to the conditions that he was helplessly attempting to endure. With no experience, he had no other hope than to rest in the warmth with the dog.

It is clear that the man’s natural instincts were not as concise for this climate as the dog. Rather than trusting his knowledge, he should have followed the dog’s instinctual cues; or rather the voice in the beginning, a human alike himself but with more experience who told him that he would never endure the conditions. Unfortunately, the man in the story ignored all of the natural instinctual cues provided by both his own and the husky which caused him to ultimately lose his life along with his viciously protected dignity.

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