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The man’s rationality proved to be useless against the Klondike’s wilderness whereas the dog’s instinct helped him survive. Discuss with reference to ‘To Build a Fire’.


Jack London’s ‘To Build a Fire’ is a short story of an unnamed man and a dog in the Klondike region of the Yukon in north western Canada. It traces the man’s movement towards his death as he vainly attempts to travel across the Yukon trail in temperatures dropping to seventy-five degrees below zero. The dog, an inhabitant of natural surroundings, on the other hand survives. The man learns that at times human brain and technology is not as useful as the dog’s intuitive, ancestral understanding of how to stay alive in very cold weather. The story is a tragic reminder of mankind’s frailty in facing nature unaided by technology.
The unnamed man is the story’s central character. He is introduced as a newcomer in the Yukon land, a chechaquo, who undertakes a nine hour walk in brutaJJy cold weather to meet his companions at an old wining camp during his first winter in the Klondike.
According to the narrator the trouble with the man was that he was “without imagination.” The initial fact that it was fifty degrees below zero did not bother him to contemplate about life and death. He only considered it as cold-a mere inconvenience. The man was very indifferent towards nature’s power to overcome man. He believed that harsh Klondike’s winter could be easily taken care of by the use of mittens, ear-iiaps, warm moccasins, and thick socks.
In spite of all odds the man was determined to reach his destination in time. On his way to the camp, he spat and the spittle crackled in the air. With this he realised that it was much colder than fifty degrees. But the temperature did not matter. It did not discourage him. “He was bound for the old claim on the left fork of Henderson Creek, where the boys were already”.
At ten o’clock, the man reached Henderson Creek. Since he was covering four miles an hour, according to his calculations, he would have remixed the forks at half-past twelve. So he decided to celebrate by eating his lunch there. The only thing he gave importance to was his reasonable mltmlations. Not far a second, he was guided by his instincts, the dog and the only companion of the man, was a “big native husky”. A husky is adapted well to the harsh environment of the Yukon trail and is used as a sled-dog. The dog’s ancestors were aware of what harm the cold could do and the dog “had inherited the knowledge”.
The dog and the man had “no keen intimacy”. The former was simply a “toil slave” obedient to the “caresses of the whip-lash” and the “harsh and menacing sounds” of the threat of the whip-lash. The dog simply longed for a warm place near a tire and for food. He was dependent on humans for both so he had no choice but to obey the man. The dog “was not concerned in the welfare of the man”.
The dog was motivated by instinct and he knew that “it was not time for travelling”. The dog simply obeyed “the mysterious prompting that arose from the deep crypts of its being”. He longed for a tire and expected the man to go to the camp and seek fire. When the dog fell into a trap he knew what to do. He “made quick efforts to lick the ice off its legs”. Then he began to “bite out the ice that formed between the toes”. When the man wanted to kill him the dog instinct saved him as a result he “sidled away” frorh the man. After the dog realised the man was dead “he trotted up the trail in the direction of the camp he knew”. His instinct led him to the “other food-providers and tire-providers”.
On other hand, the man was too proud of human being’s capabilities. He was blind to man’s frailty as a creature of temperature and in general. At one moment he was regreth that he wasn’t wearing a nose-strap to prevent his cheeks from frost bite. But for him frosted cheeks were just painful, “that was all; they were never serious.”
He was “keenly observant’ which made him survived. He noticed the changes in the creek, the curves and the bends. And always he noted when: he placed his feet. He knew also that there were streams of water that came out from the hillsides and ran along under the snow and on top of the ice of the creek. He knew that even in the coldest weather these streams were never frozen, and he also knew their danger. the man was also very quick and alert. As soon as he felt the ice move under his feet, he jumped away suddenly.
The man’s peremptoriness and authoritativeness is observed in his behaviour towards his sole companion. When he wanted to check for the hidden pools under ice, “he compelled the dog to go on in front”. The narrator told us that there was no intimacy between the dog and the man. It was man’s conceit that resulted in his doom. He never bothered about life or death. He was sure of his abilities to reach the camp safely in time, but the nature controlled him.

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Dipendu Das

Dipendu Das

Author of Resonating Voices and Resounding Minds. A writer, poet, blogger and web developer. Administrator and Founder of ExamsTopper. Alumnus of Stepping Stone Model School, Alipurduar. Currently pursuing BA. LLB. (Hons.) at the prestigious NLU National University of Study and Research in Law (NUSRL), Ranchi. His work has been published in more than 21 nations around the globe.

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