Intellect vs. Instinct in “To Build a Fire” by Jack London
Intellect vs. Instinct in “To Build a Fire” by Jack London
The ignorance of the main character in To Build a Fire by Jack London is what ultimately causes his failure. He has never experienced cold like that of the Yukon Trail but is confidant, regardless, that he will reach his goal of meeting his friends at the campsite. It is the man’s determination to follow his intellect rather than his instinct that reveals his ignorance.
The man begins his journey relying on flawed intellect. He illogically treks through snow, wetting his boots and feet, and must dry them before they succumb to frostbite. When the dog’s feet get wet, it instinctively licks and bites at the ice that forms between its toes. The man helps the dog, briefly removing his mitten in the numbing cold. The man does not take the same precautions, he continuously ignores his instinct.
The man’s second accident occurs when he proceeds to build a fire under a snow covered tree, which begins to melt and blots the fire out. Logic is eluding him and his confidence begins to dwindle, as his journey quickly turns to failure. The old man never learns from his mistakes, and his failures compound. London writes that this second mistake was his “own fault or, rather, his mistake.” Here London is showing his beliefs as a naturalist. Had this second problem been his “fault” the author would be condemning his protagonist much more strongly; however, he calls this a mistake, a much softer term, suggesting that the man should not be held liable for his actions. Had he anticipated that lighting a fire under a frost-covered tree would cause the heavy ice to melt and fall, yet still done it, only then would he be held liable.
The man’s mind begins to run wild with thoughts of insecurity and death when the second fire fails. He recollects the story of a man who kills a steer to stay warm and envisions himself killing his dog and crawling into the carcass to warm up so he can build a fire to save himself. London writes, “a certain fear of death, dull and oppressive, came to him.” Had the man been following his instinct instead of attempting to survive on his (obviously flawed) intellect throughout the story, he may have survived. The dog “experienced a vague but menacing apprehension”(921) that the man coldly did not allow himself to also experience.
The man’s dog uses his instincts to survive the cold. “The dog did not know anything about thermometers. Possibly in it’s brain there was no sharp consciousness of a condition of very cold such as was in the man’s brain. But the brute had it’s instincts” writes London. The dog, who has an innate understanding of the cold, tries to burrow under the snow for warmth. He even senses the danger of remaining with the man who would kill the dog in order to bury his hands in it’s warm carcass, and escapes him by snarling and growling. When the animal leaves for the campsite he is showing that animals are not afraid of injuring their pride. The dog knows he needs fire and food.
The story is a struggle of nature versus man, and throughout the story nature succeeds. The frigid arctic environment will yield nothing to the man. The tone of the story is as frigid and frightening as the setting the man has found himself in, the reader is just as unaccustomed to the cold as the old man and London’s vivid and descriptive language serve as a tool to shock the reader into realizing just how dire the man’s situation is. The cold becomes a character, fighting the man and foiling him at every turn. London emphasizes the importance of having a respect and a knowledge of the world that was surrounding the man, writing that “the man did not know the cold. Possibly all the generations of his ancestry did not know the cold, of cold one hundred and seven degrees below freezing point. But the Dog knew; all it’s ancestry knew, and it had inherited that knowledge.” (London, 924) Here we see London’s position as a naturalist taking shape in his writing.
Ideally, in a successful naturalist story, the dire cold situation would have brought out the man’s most basic natural instincts. The story repeats that the man is not thinking of material things in the arctic “once in awhile the thought reiterated itself that it was very cold and he had never experienced such cold.” This is probably to emphasize that when one is experiencing such extremes of nature, the extreme is what takes over, and the mind almost shuts down to anything except the nature around them.
“Empty as the man’s mind was of thoughts, he was keenly observant, and he noticed changes in the creeks, the curves and bends and timbre jams, and always he sharply noted where he placed his feet. Here, the man is learning from his prior mistakes and letting himself be led by the cold, earlier when he was thinking of his goal and not of his feet, he found himself with freezing toes. Now, after time in the Yukon, he has found a respect for the cold. Although, this respect is not enough to drive him to the next campsite, London is unforgiving of the man’s original eubrice in taking on the cold, and does not seem to want to allow him to succeed.
Eventually the man’s focus had to turn from his own goal, reaching the riches of the Yukon Trail, to survival, and fighting the frostbite that is slowly overtaking his body. However, the man refuses to consider the consequences of his actions, even when his life is threatened by the accidents: “And all the time, in his consciousness, was the knowledge that each instant his feet were freezing. This thought tended to put him in a panic, but he fought against it and kept calm” (923). Had the man allowed his instinct to take over here, he may have succeeded, but his rationality is his greatest enemy. The man also lacks foresight, “He drove the thought of his freezing feet, and nose, and cheeks, out of his mind, devoting his whole soul to the matches” (922). He should not be focusing on the matches when frostbite is obviously overtaking his body because once he does light a fire, he still has these other obstacles to tackle. He never acknowledges, and perhaps never sees, that he should have been valuing survival over wealth from the very beginning.
It is unclear whether the end of the story is a message fromt he author that the old man should not have given up, and allowed himself to die, or continued to fight the cold. It is only when he is certain of his death that he acknowledges the wise words of the man at the campsite who told him not to attempt the trek. “You were right, old hoss, you were right” he says to himself, drifting into a comfortable sleep that one can only interpret as death. The message seems to be that giving up was the correct thing to do, because in allowing himself to die he is finally escaping from his pride and ignorance, and praising the words of the wise traveler. His self realization allows himself to be seen as a simile, a chicken with it’s head cut off running around in vain trying to save himself. It is when he decides that all is lost, and realizes he was wrong to set out that he is finally comfortable, the tragedy is that his comfort is in death.
The traveler’s struggle with the tremendous cold is apparent, but he never admits that his plight is his own fault. “He cursed his luck aloud” (London, 923) notice he speaks of luck, and not of a lack-of-common sense. Repeatedly warned of the dangers, he still singularly set out to locate timber and travel to the next campsite. His stubbornness is foolish. His confidence, merely arrogance, draws attention to an even more concerning internal conflict: The story is a fatal example of the human inclination to sometimes allow determination to drown out our intuitive voice.