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
Instinctual Knowledge vs. Scientific Knowledge Quotes in To Build a Fire
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.