To Build a Fire

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The dog Character Analysis

The man’s traveling companion is a wolf-like dog with a gray coat, an animal native to the area, and described as not so different from a wild wolf. The dog, unlike the man, does not want to travel on such a cold day, knowing instinctively that it ought to hide and wait out the bitter cold. The dog operates based on instinct. When its feet get wet, the dog quickly chews away the ice forming between his toes. It does not do this because it knows the consequences of frozen feet, but because its deep instinct instructs it to do so. Likewise, the dog relies on the man only because the man provides warmth and food. At the end of the story, once the dog smells death as he approaches the man’s body, the dog abandons the body to find other humans in the camp. The dog’s relationship with the man is shown to be impersonal and unemotional. The dog is incapable of caring about the man. His character, such as it is, is defined by instinct for survival.

The dog Quotes in To Build a Fire

The To Build a Fire quotes below are all either spoken by The dog or refer to The dog. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Instinctual Knowledge vs. Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Bantam Classics edition of To Build a Fire published in 1986.
To Build A Fire Quotes

The animal was depressed by the tremendous cold. It knew that it was no time for travelling. Its instinct told it a truer tale than was told to the man by the man's judgment.

Related Characters: The man, The dog
Page Number: 178
Explanation and Analysis:

The man’s traveling companion is a large native dog. As the pair walks, the dog waits for the man to stop and build a fire. The dog has learned from the past behavior of humans that they will build fires to survive in the severe cold, and the dog relies on human's fire-making ability as well. However, the dog has an ability that the man doesn’t possess, which is a natural instinct for survival. This quote introduces the differences between the man and the dog, which will be key throughout the story. The man continues to travel, while the dog wishes to stop and wait out the terrible cold. This quote presents the dog’s instinct as a type of valuable knowledge by stating that the dog “knows” this isn’t a good day to travel, and that this is a “truer tale” than what the man thinks.

The man’s judgment is based on capable survival skills, but little imagination. He believes in his ability to survive because he has in the past survived in very cold weather, and so he doesn’t consider the consequences of this even more extreme cold. In contrast, the dog doesn’t think about possibilities or survival skills. It simply “knows” because of its instinct that the cold is unsafe. These two types of knowledge and judgment appear in contrast throughout the story. This quote shows the value that the story as a whole places on the dog’s instinctual knowledge. The dog is presented as more aware and knowledgeable than the man, because it is more closely connected to nature.

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It made quick efforts to lick the ice off its legs, then dropped down in the snow and began to bite out the ice that had formed between the toes. This was a matter of instinct. To permit the ice to remain would mean sore feet. It did not know this. It merely obeyed the mysterious prompting that arose from the deep crypts of its being.

Related Characters: The dog
Page Number: 181
Explanation and Analysis:

The dog falls through the surface of the snow and into one of the concealed streams that aren’t frozen solid. It then stops to clean off the chunks of ice that form instantly on its legs and paws. This quote describes the dog’s motivation for these actions, which aren’t completed rationally or consciously, but instinctively. The dog doesn’t consider the outcome of having wet feet, as the man does later in the story, but the dog is aware that having wet feet should be immediately addressed. The dog’s way of knowing how to behave and the man’s way of knowing how to behave are placed in contrast with each other throughout the story.

London describes instinct in a variety of different ways. In this quote, it is stated that the dog “did not know” the outcome of leaving ice on its feet. Instead, the language describing the dog’s actions includes words like “mysterious” and “crypts” (hidden underground chambers), both of which emphasize that this type of instinctual knowledge seems foreign to the man and to the human author. Humans lack this powerful kind of instinct, or are unable to access and obey it, in the space of this short story. Therefore, the man is at a disadvantage compared to the dog.

On the other hand, there was no keen intimacy between the dog and the man. The one was the toil-slave of the other, and the only caresses it had ever received were the caresses of the whip-lash and of harsh and menacing throat-sounds that threatened the whip-lash. So the dog made no effort to communicate its apprehension to the man. It was not concerned in the welfare of the man; it was for its own sake that it yearned back toward the fire.

Related Characters: The man, The dog
Related Symbols: Fire
Page Number: 182
Explanation and Analysis:

When the man and the dog leave their fire after lunch, the dog senses that it is unsafe to continue walking on such a cold day. The dog whines and is reluctant to leave the fire, and while this behavior may seem to be an attempt to protect the man from the dangers of the cold, London explains here that the dog acts with only consideration for itself. The dog does not try to protect the man because there is no “keen intimacy,” or close connection, between the man and the dog. This may be partially because men and dogs are so different from each other, but this particular man/dog relationship is one with even less empathy or connection than most. The man does not treat the dog with kindness. He does not “caress” or pet the dog, and has used a whip-lash to hurt the dog in the past. The dog is described as the man’s “toil-slave,” which means he considers the dog a working animal, and not a companion or pet.

The difference between men and dogs more generally is shown in the man’s willingness to leave the fire and the dog’s unwillingness to leave. The two understand the world differently: one through rational thought and the other through instinct, respectively. The resolution of this story shows that the dog’s instincts were correct and that it was unsafe to travel in this weather.

And the man, as he beat and threshed with his arms and hands, felt a great surge of envy as he regarded the creature that was warm and secure in its natural covering.

Related Characters: The man, The dog
Page Number: 186
Explanation and Analysis:

The man tries to build a new fire after his first fire is smothered under falling snow. He claps his hands and tries to warm up his arms in order to be able hold the tools he needs for making his fire. He is quickly losing feeling in his limbs, a complication that prevents him from succeeding in doing the one thing that can help him recover. This quote describes the man’s emotional reaction as his body fails him: he is envious of the dog because its body is better prepared for the cold. This passage is significant because it shows that the man is beginning to see that his survival skills may not be sufficient in these conditions. Instead he considers, for the first time, the advantages the dog has in its natural state.

This quote describes the man’s realization of his own physical insufficiency as a “great surge of envy” directed at the dog. This character has already been established as an unimaginative man, and in this moment he can only think in terms of survival—his or the dog's.

The sight of the dog put a wild idea into his head. He remembered the tale of the man, caught in a blizzard, who killed a steer and crawled inside the carcass, and so was saved. He would kill the dog and bury his hands in the warm body until the numbness went out of them. Then he could build another fire.

Related Characters: The man, The dog
Page Number: 188
Explanation and Analysis:

The man’s hands have grown too numb to build a fire, but another idea occurs to him: killing the dog and using its body as a source of heat. This gruesome passage shows the man’s imaginative powers activating finally in the face of death—but too late. Whereas once he ignored the advice of the old man at Sulphur Creek, now he is willing to latch onto another overheard story as an idea for his survival. He sees the dog as his last hope, and this quote shows that he is more than willing to sacrifice the dog’s life for his own. The man is still in an emotional and mental place where he is fighting against death. This idea is described as “wild,” which emphasizes that the man is reaching for every possible way to survive, unwilling to give up.

The straight-forward descriptions and the tone of this passage presents a situation that is both gruesome and realistic. Author Jack London does not linger over this idea or play up its graphic nature. The style of the language is as practical as the man’s thinking. The man does not have any sentimental feelings about the dog, and likewise the passage states that he will “kill the dog” without dramatizing, judging, or sugar-coating this idea.

He realized that he could not kill the dog. There was no way to do it. With his helpess hands he could neither draw nor hold his sheath-knife nor throttle the animal.

Related Characters: The man, The dog
Page Number: 189
Explanation and Analysis:

The man tries to kill the dog, but is unable to hold a knife or to strangle the animal with his frozen hands and arms. This realization accompanies a new level of helplessness for the man. He has a plan for survival, but he cannot execute it. His body, and not his survival knowledge, has failed him at this point. Notably, his survival skills depended on human-made tools—a piece of flint and a knife—but he did not imagine situations in which he would be unable to use these tools. This quote highlights the difference between the man, who relies on tools to compensate for the failings of his body, and the dog, who is protected by its natural covering of fur. The outcome of this story is partially the fault of the man, who lacked the imagination to predict and prepare for it, and partially the result of factors outside the man’s control, such as his furless hands and arms.

This passage begins with the man realizing he cannot kill the dog, and then clarifies that this is because he physically cannot kill the dog. The man is not prevented from killing the dog because he cares about it or because he doesn't want to harm another creature. The structure of this passage lets the reader fully understand the man’s character and the seriousness of his situation. He is entirely consumed with his own survival at any cost, and he has just realized the likelihood of his death.

Later, the dog whined loudly. And still later it crept close to the man and caught the scent of death. This made the animal bristle and back away. A little longer it delayed, howling under the stars that leaped and danced and shone brightly in the cold sky. Then it turned and trotted up the trail in the direction of the camp it knew, where were the other food-providers and fire-providers.

Related Characters: The dog
Related Symbols: The Boys, Fire
Page Number: 192
Explanation and Analysis:

The story ends with the dog realizing that the man is dead and continuing on the trail to find the camp. This shift in focus from the man to the dog happens once the man has died and the silence from the man demonstrates his absence from the world and from the story. The dog’s understanding of death is different than a human’s would be. It catches the “scent of death” from the man and it “bristles” and “backs away.” This reaction seems to be an instinctual one to something the dog senses is negative and dangerous without understanding it. The dog waits for a while, but eventually continues on its way. This shows that the man is not unique in the dog’s mind, but equally valuable to any other human that is a source of food and fire. 

The dog’s indifference to the man’s death is echoed in the silent indifference of the natural world. Only in this final passage does London employ poetic language as he describes the stars that “leaped and danced and shone brightly in the cold sky.” In a story that uses description sparsely and practically, this metaphor about the stars stands out. The beauty of the natural world seems to mock the man who was killed by this extreme environment. The natural world is described as “cold,” both literally and metaphorically, for it is indifferent to the man’s struggle for survival and to his eventual fate.

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The dog Character Timeline in To Build a Fire

The timeline below shows where the character The dog appears in To Build a Fire. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
To Build A Fire
Instinctual Knowledge vs. Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
A large wolf dog accompanies the man. The dog is made anxious by the cold, knowing instinctively that in such weather it is safer... (full context)
Indifferent Nature Theme Icon
Both the fur of the dog and the facial hair of the man are frosted from their warm breath freezing. The... (full context)
Chance and Human Error Theme Icon
The Power of Imagination Theme Icon
The man and the dog walk along the frozen creek. The man is not a thinker and so he walks... (full context)
Instinctual Knowledge vs. Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
...water is indicated by a sunken area, but not always. At once patch, he sends the dog across first. The dog falls through the ice, but quickly crawls out on the other... (full context)
Instinctual Knowledge vs. Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
The Power of Imagination Theme Icon
...ready, he leans near to melt the ice from his ice. He eats his lunch. The dog lies near the fire. The man smokes his pipe, enjoying the brief break. (full context)
Instinctual Knowledge vs. Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Indifferent Nature Theme Icon
As the man continues his walk, the dog does not want to leave the fire behind. The dog knows this type of cold,... (full context)
Instinctual Knowledge vs. Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
...soon as he stops walking to build a fire, his extremities grow cold quickly. Like the dog , his blood wants to hide away from the cold, sinking to the central parts... (full context)
Fight for Survival vs. Acceptance of Death Theme Icon
...moves quickly and calmly, preparing a new foundation for a fire out in the open. The dog watches his activities. (full context)
Instinctual Knowledge vs. Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Indifferent Nature Theme Icon
...freeze more fully. He puts on his mittens and beats his hands. He looks at the dog , which is secure and safe because its natural body provides the protection it needs... (full context)
Fight for Survival vs. Acceptance of Death Theme Icon
Indifferent Nature Theme Icon
The dog is sitting across from the man and the sight of the dog inspires an idea.... (full context)
Instinctual Knowledge vs. Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Fight for Survival vs. Acceptance of Death Theme Icon
...feel his feet and looks down to make sure he is truly standing. He calls the dog again. When the dog comes, the man tries to grab it and is surprised again... (full context)
Fight for Survival vs. Acceptance of Death Theme Icon
Indifferent Nature Theme Icon
Throughout the man’s running and falling, the dog keeps pace with him. The man looks at the dog’s warm coat that provides safety... (full context)
Instinctual Knowledge vs. Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Indifferent Nature Theme Icon
...falls into a sleep that seems more restful than any other sleep he has experienced. The dog sits waiting. Evening arrives. The dog is surprised that the man sits in the snow... (full context)