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People often feel that their own opinions and ideas are better than those around them. In “To Build a Fire”, Jack London illustrates a man who has a lot of pride in himself. Because of this elevated sense of pride, the man has an inflated ego. In the story, the man travels through the unbearably cold Yukon with only his dog as company. The man faces many obstacles that he has to overcome in order to successfully make it to camp. However, he solely utilizes his own judgement when faced with these hardships. Additionally, he seemingly ignores the instincts of the dog and further progresses into the depths of the Yukon. In “To Build a Fire”, Jack London juxtaposes instinct and human thought to foreshadow the death of the man and emphasize the power of nature. This contradiction demonstrates the superiority of instinct over knowledge which further exemplifies how humans must respect nature.

The arrogance of judgement is portrayed through the actions of the man in his experiences in the Yukon. The fact that it is fifty degrees below zero outside “did not lead [the man] to meditate his frailty” (London 1). The man simply sees the temperature as a number and not something pushing his limits of life. This demonstrates his ignorance as he does not truly grasp the power that nature holds. The man goes on to bash the old-timer from Sulphur Creek and explain that “any man who [is] a man [can] travel alone” (7). He says this in spite of the old timer who believes that “no man must travel alone in the Klondike after fifty below” (7). The man’s pride in his own knowledge and abilities leads him to think that he is more powerful than the wild and will be able to face its power on his own.

Jack London further demonstrates the weaknesses of man’s thought through comparison with the dog’s instinct. While beginning the journey through the Yukon, the dog “[experiences] a vague but menacing apprehension” because “it [knows] that it [is] no time to travel” (2). The dog inherently experiences instinct and illustrates its uneasiness regarding traveling in the harsh temperatures. This scene foreshadows the tragic events that follow because of the severe conditions. Similarly, when potentially walking over ice, the dog “[hangs] back until the man [shoves] it forward” (4). Again, the dog’s hesitation exemplifies how an animal’s instinct is powerful. The dog “merely [obeys] the mysterious prompting that [arises] from the crypts of its being” (4). The dog has no natural thought; however, it is interconnected with the wild and therefore understands the danger. The man, in contrast, has been far removed from nature and as a result has lost instinct and relies on his intellect. The dog’s instinct juxtaposes the man’s intellect and emphasizes the intrinsic power of instinct in nature and specifically instinct’s power over knowledge.

The contradiction between intellect and instinct foreshadows the downfalls of knowledge resulting in the ultimate defeat of the man. The man “[laughs] at [the old-timer]” (5) when the old-timer explains how cold the Yukon truly gets. The man demonstrates the true arrogance of his own capabilities when he laughs about this matter. All of the dog’s “ancestry knew” about the strength of the cold in the Yukon; however, “all the generations of [the man’s] ancestry had been ignorant of the cold” (5). The dog, connected to nature through his generations past, understands the truth and demonstrates his inherited instinct through hesitation on the journey. The man illustrates his disconnectedness from the wild through his arrogance to the temperatures. After the man falls through the ice and is unable to make a fire, he realizes that “the old-timer on Sulphur Creek was right” (9). Only once the man is literally plunged into nature, he is forced to stop ignoring its power. All of the events portraying the man’s ignorant knowledge foreshadow his death. The man dies knowing that he was too prideful and that nature has a strength no human can overpower. In the end the dog’s instinct reigns as it knows to leave the man and find the others. The juxtaposition between instinct and knowledge further epitomizes the power of instinct because of its connectedness to nature.

With the use of contradiction and foreshadowing, Jack London demonstrates the dominance of instinct in comparison to intellect while in the wild. Ultimately, London exemplifies the importance of humans respecting nature. Through his portrayal of the unforgiving wild, London is able to describe how humans cannot be ignorant to the power of nature. The wild is able to, in a sense, kill those who do not respect its power just as it does with the man in “To Build a Fire”. Even though this story was written before major environmental events and global warming, it can still be read as a commentary on these things. This short story demonstrates that humans must respect and protect nature or there will be harsh consequences. People need to truly understand the strength of nature and advocate to protect it at all costs. Without nature, there is no man. Therefore, people must highlight and respect nature and the world will be a better place.


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