To Build a Fire

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Instinctual Knowledge vs. Scientific Knowledge Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Instinctual Knowledge vs. Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Chance and Human Error Theme Icon
Fight for Survival vs. Acceptance of Death Theme Icon
The Power of Imagination Theme Icon
Indifferent Nature Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in To Build a Fire, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Instinctual Knowledge vs. Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon

Jack London’s short story is an example of Naturalism, a literary movement that focuses on the realism of human experiences, and often engages with the broad theme of “man versus nature.” London’s unique take on this larger literary idea is through the topic of knowledge. Two types of knowledge are discussed throughout the short story: instinctual knowledge and scientific knowledge. The first is associated with the dog and the second with the man. These two figures represent a larger distinction between nature and humans. The dog cannot understand or reason, but his instincts direct his survival throughout the story. The man, on the other hand, relies on information gained from others, on logic, and on tools and technologies (matches and a knife). This scientific or rational knowledge clouds the man’s instinctual knowledge, and gives him confidence in his ability to protect himself from the natural elements with the resource of fire. Because of this confidence, he ignores the dog’s instinctual knowledge that the weather is too cold to safely travel. In this way, the man is presented as separate from nature, and distant from his biological instinct for survival, because he understands the world scientifically rather than instinctually. Ultimately, the conclusion of the story shows a triumph of instinctual knowledge and trust in one’s nature over confidence in logic and reason, as do other Naturalist texts.

Instinctual Knowledge vs. Scientific Knowledge ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Instinctual Knowledge vs. Scientific Knowledge appears in each chapter of To Build a Fire. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Instinctual Knowledge vs. Scientific Knowledge Quotes in To Build a Fire

Below you will find the important quotes in To Build a Fire related to the theme of Instinctual Knowledge vs. Scientific Knowledge.
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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The creek he knew was frozen clear to the bottom,—no creek could contain water in that arctic winter,—but he knew also that there were springs that bubbled out from the hillsides and ran along under the snow and on top the ice of the creek. He knew that the coldest snaps never froze these springs, and he knew likewise their danger.

Related Characters: The man
Page Number: 180
Explanation and Analysis:

The man and the dog are following the frozen creek, and even through the creek is frozen solid, the man proceeds cautiously. This quote introduces the reason for the man’s wariness: springs bubbling up on both sides of the river may not be frozen even in the coldest weather. These present risky areas where the man could fall through and get wet. Although the man lacks imagination, he possesses strong survival skills and is aware that getting wet will rapidly lead to frostbite and possible death. London introduces the possibility of such creeks early in the story, foreshadowing the threat that will appear later.

The way the springs are described can also be taken as a metaphor for the human condition more generally. First, the creek is described as frozen solid, and it seems impossible that any water could be flowing in this weather. But the springs which well up around the stable and frozen ice and flow under the snow are concealed, and could surprise a traveler suddenly. While the man is aware of the possibility of this danger, and seems to believe that because he knows that the springs could surprise him that he will be able to avoid them, it turns out that his knowledge is of little use to him later in the story. Similarly, surprises often occur in human lives, and some things are outside of human control. Diligence, carefulness, and skill are all important, but the story makes it clear that the world is bigger and more random than any person can comprehend, and so no person should consider himself fully in control of his situation.

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.

He knew there must be no failure. When it is seventy-five below zero, a man must not fail in his first attempt to build a fire—that is, if his feet are wet. If his feet are dry, and he fails, he can run along the trail for half a mile and restore his circulation. But the circulation of wet and freezing feet cannot be restored by running when it is seventy-five below. No matter how fast he runs, the wet feet will freeze the harder.

Related Characters: The man
Related Symbols: Fire
Page Number: 184
Explanation and Analysis:

After the man falls through a running stream and gets his feet wet, he immediately begins to build a fire. He knows that he is in a risky situation because he must successfully build a fire on his first attempt. This quote also foreshadows the man’s later failure to build a fire, and his failure to warm his body up by running. When the man fails to build a fire and when he tries to run, later in the story, we understands the consequences of these actions as they unfold because of the information revealed here.

The man knows the consequences of failing to build a fire and he thinks about these consequences as he works. The man (who, we remember, is "unimaginative") primarily considers mistakes he could make, and not chance events that could hurt him. He doesn’t accept failure because he is confident in his own survival skills. Because of his confidence, he doesn’t think about aspects of his dangerous situation that might be beyond his control, despite the fact that falling through the snow into the running stream was a chance event that occurred even though he was prepared for this possibility.

He remembered the advice of the old-timer on Sulphur Creek, and smiled. The old-timer had been very serious in laying down the law that no man must travel alone in the Klondike after fifty below. Well, here he was; he had had the accident; he was alone; and he had saved himself. Those old-timers were rather womanish, some of them, he thought. All a man had to do was to keep his head, and he was all right. Any man who was a man could travel alone.

Related Characters: The man
Related Symbols: The Old Man at Sulphur Creek
Page Number: 184
Explanation and Analysis:

After the man has successfully built a fire, he congratulations himself on his survival skills. His extensive self-praise in this quote is a familiar literary idea of "hubris," or “pride that comes before a fall.” Because he is so certain of his success in this moment, it hints to the reader that a failure will follow. The man is proud of his survival skills because he feels they have triumphed over the old-fashioned advice he received from the man at Sulphur Creek.

In this passage, the man at Sulphur Creek is belittled in a variety of ways. He is referred to as an “old-timer,” which the man believes means his advice and thinking is outdated. The man also describes him as “womanish,” and describes his own survival skills as true manliness. The man obviously considers it an insult to other men to compare them to women, and to be “womanish” in this passage is to be unnecessarily fearful or timid.

The man also demonstrates his lack of imagination yet again because he doesn’t consider that his fire might still fail. The following events show that the man was too quick to praise himself because he did not consider the risks that were still present. Another person might not relax until reaching the base camp, but the man does not imagine the risks that are still present in his situation.

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.