ISC Echoes to build a fire question and answers Man’s rationality against dog’s instinct in “To Build a Fire”


To build a Fire : by Jack London

Question:  The man’s rationality proved to be useless against the Klondike’s wilderness whereas the dog’s instinct helped him survive. Discuss with reference to the short story ‘To Build a Fire’.

Answer :  ‘To Build a Fire’ written by Jack London is a story of an unnamed man and a dog in Klondike region of north western Canada.

      The story moves with the man’s movement towards his death as he vainly attempt to travel across the Yukon trail in temperature dropping to seventy five degrees below zero.

   The dog, an inhabitant of natural surroundings, on the other hand survives. The story tells that at times human brain and technology is not as useful as the dog’s intuitive, ancestral understanding of how to stay alive in very cold weather.

   The man was calculative. He was a man of reason. At ten O’clock, he reached Henderson Creek. Since he was covering four miles an hour, according to his calculations, he would have reached the forks at half – past twelve. The only thing he gave importance to was his reasonable calculations.  Not for a second, he was guided by his instinct.

    The man was “keenly observant”. He noticed the changes in the creek, the curves and the bends. He was always careful about where  he placed his feet. He knew that there were streams that
 ” ran along under the snow and on top of the ice of the creek.”
  He knew “They were traps ” as even in the coldest weather these streams were never frozen .

     The man was “without imagination” he underestimated the nature. The man was a newcomer to the Yukon region, he could not imagine how dangerous could be a cold weather in Klondike region.

    Without paying heed to the old timer’s advice that ” no man must travel alone in the Klondike after fifty below” he decided to travel alone in Yukon wilderness in extremely low temperature. This did not ” lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature.”

      He only consider it as cold –  a mere inconvenience. He believed that harsh Klondike’s winter could be easily taken care of by the use of mittens, ear- flaps, warm moccasins and thick socks.

     It was the man’s hubris that resulted in his room. He was sure of his abilities to reach the camp safely in time. He was too proud of human beings capabilities. He relied on technology and information gained from others, on logic and on tools ( matches and knife). This scientific or rational knowledge clouded the man’s instinctual knowledge and gave him confidence that he can overpower the nature by his capabilities.

    Because of this confidence, he ignored the dog’s instinctual knowledge that the weather is too cold to travel safely.

     This way the man was presented as separate from nature and distinct from his biological instinct for survival because he understand the world scientifically rather than instinctually.
      On the other hand the dog was a big  native husky dog, who was more or less a part of natural surroundings. The dog realised the danger of travelling in tremendous cold.

  “Its instinct told it a truer tale than was told to the man by the man’s judgement”.
      The dog though was a wolf dog, a half wild, thus closer to nature felt depressed by the cold.

  The dog was motivated by instinct. The dog’s ancestors were aware of what  harm the cold could do and the dog ” had inherited the knowledge “. 

     The dog longed for a fire and expected the man to go to the camp and seek fire.
     When the dog fell into a trap he knew what  to do. He ” made quick efforts to lick the ice off its legs.”   and      ” bite out the ice that formed between the toes”.

         When the man wanted to kill it, the dog instinct saved it as a result, it “sidled away” from the man.

    The man tried to use reason to get him past his difficulties but human rationality proved to be helpless against the Klondike’s “killing landscape”.

      The story presents the best example for Charles Darwin’s theory of ‘Survival of the fittest’  which proposes the idea that a species best adapted to its environment will be more likely survive than another species that is not so well adapted.

     The man was efficient, stronger, presumably smarter than the dog, yet the man was afflicted with hubris and thus he failed to overcome nature.

     The man and the dog both were required to battle nature to succeed but nature in the form of extreme cold defeated the man and he slowly froze to death.

   The man could not survive without fire the dog could. The dog was much closer to its ancestral way of being than the man was.  It appreciated technology like fire, but it was not a necessity for its survival.

        The man had lost the instinct that sustained the dog in Yukon region. The man ” felt a great surge of envy” on seeing the creature that was warm and secure in its natural covering. The man was not fit to survive in the cold, but the dog who seemed to be a lower animal, could stay alive.
       When the man met his end, the dog was concerned about its own survival. As soon as the dog sensed death, it moved in the direction of the camp where it would be given food and shelter.

      Its instinct were more powerful than the man’s intelligence in that setting and indeed the dog was the fittest to survive

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