‘To Build a Fire,’ recognized as one of the most powerful short stories by Jack London, narrates the tale of an unnamed man who undertakes the task of negotiating nine miles through Yukon in Alaska. This happens on a fiercely cold winter morning when there is no sun, and he knows the temperature is 50 degrees below freezing point. He embarks on this mission alone, except for the company of a dog, against the advice of an old timer from Sulphur Creek. What ensues is a saga of relentless human struggle against the savagery of nature, in which the man finally succumbs to his own follies, despite the high intellectual capabilities and the faculties of knowledge he claims. On the contrary, the dog, which has no endowments at par with humans, survives by its pure instinct. The savageness of nature is an often repeated theme in most of London’s works, and this story also conforms to the same parameters. However, what makes To Build a Fire so unique is the manner in which London integrates the thread of the conflict between knowledge and instinct into the fabric of this wonderful story.
The author so deftly foreshadows the man’s doom by hinting at the vanity of his knowledge at the onset of the story itself. He portrays the protagonist as a person who was “quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances.” (London) In the same vein, London offers hints about the man’s character, accentuating the element of knowledge that leads him to bask in the glory of his purported ability to take the challenge of traversing a land where the temperature has fallen fifty degrees below freezing point. However, in the lines that follow, the writer again provides his audience a clue that his knowledge does not enable the protagonist “to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man’s frailty in general, able only to live within certain narrow limits of heat and cold; and from there on it did not lead him to the conjectural field of immortality and man’s place in the universe.” (London) On the other hand, London introduces the dog as “depressed by the tremendous cold,” and he further states that “Its instinct told it a truer tale than was told to the man by the man’s judgment.” (London) Thus, the author makes a strong statement of the conflict between knowledge and instinct and subtly conveys a message to the readers that the latter commands an edge over the former.
In another episode in the story, London reinforces the conflict between knowledge and instinct when he illustrates the difference between the man who possesses intellect but fails to recognize the realities in nature, and the animal without any such faculty, still survives the pitfalls by virtue of its instinct. When the pair is crossing the creek, the writer indicates that the man understands that “the coldest snaps never froze these springs, and he knew likewise their danger.” (London) To avoid a hidden trap of cold water flowing beneath a brittle layer of snow and ice, the man forces the dog to walk ahead, so that if the surface breaks it will warn him and he can save himself from getting his feet wet. Hesitantly, the dog moves on, and does sink its legs in water. But it immediately responded and “began to bite out the ice that had formed between the toes. This was a matter of instinct.” (London) On the other hand, the man, relying on his knowledge, “removed the mitten from his right hand and helped tear out the ice-particles.” This thoughtless action triggers his fall to doom and by creating such a situation, London aptly communicates to his audience the conflict between knowledge, which is a virtue of man, and instinct that safeguards the animal. Similarly, when the man encounters the same fate, it begins to spell a disaster.
London reserves the most impactful aspect of the conflict between knowledge and instinct for a befitting finale, where he displays his dexterity by illustrating the man’s relentless yearning to survive. Besides instilling hope, his knowledge offers him avenues to seek rescue, albeit by resorting to the meanest of possibilities. The man, by his intellect, knows that blood is warm, and by dipping his hands in fresh blood, he can remove the numbness in his fingers. With the faculties of knowledge and intellect, his need to carry himself forth compels him to embark on a nasty means. He decides to slit the dog’s belly and dip his hands in its blood to receive warmth so that he can straighten his numb fingers. He beckons the dog but the animal smells danger due to its instincts, and when the man crawls towards it, his “unusual posture again excites suspicion, and the animal sidled mincingly away.” (London) Ironically, the animal survives, by its instinct, whereas the man, with all his knowledge, finally remains beneath the tree, to die in the merciless cold.
The central theme of Jack London’s story, To Build a Fire, can be perceived as nature’s savagery and man’s inability, despite all the faculties that nature has so liberally endowed upon humans, to withstand or survive its fury. But the most essential element that a human being can glean from its profoundness is a reality that despite the pretensions of people of being well endowed in the matters of intelligence, culture and civilization, what matters ultimately is one’s basic instinct, which is the primary tool that nature provided, counts more than all the abilities that humans have developed themselves. By portraying such a conflict between gained knowledge and inherent instinct, London seems to promulgate the idea that what nature has endowed humans with is more significant in the matter of survival than what humans derived themselves through grooming and practice. The entire story revolves around this theme of conflict between knowledge and instinct, represented respectively by a man and an animal. Its poignancy stems from the fact that while the former proves to be infirm, the latter endures.
On a subtler level, the author also hints at a fact that what one gleans through experience will always surpass the knowledge one gains superficially through the process of learning. There can be no better way to prove it other than by means of juxtaposing a dog and a man in a situation, where the man with a lot of purposes in his mind attains none of his goals, whereas the dog with no objectives other than its natural feeling of being loyal to its master, survives the pitfalls. While the man never meets the boys on the base camp, or no one else for that matter, the dog will still serve another master with all the characteristics of the servitude that is its basic trait, and with no expectations. Finally, what transpires is the simple fact that it will survive for a reason because the guiding factor for the animal is the basic instinct which it has derived from nature. Without the entourage of knowledge, intellect and cultural enforcements, it gets elevated to the simple position of existing in a natural world with the only faculty of instinct.
London, Jack. To Build a Fire. The Norton Anthology, American Literature. 7th Ed. Vol. C, 1865-1914.