A War Against Nature: Instinct in “To Build a Fire”

“But man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.” This quote by Rachael Carson evokes the internal struggle of man in his yearning to survive against the incessant onslaught of nature. “To Build a Fire” by Jack London expresses an existential crisis through the concept of Naturalism. To convey to readers that when man is at nature’s mercy, animalistic instinct is victorious over scientific technology, London juxtaposes the two types of knowledge and their evolution throughout the below-freezing hike endured by a man and his dog through the Yukon Trail by using setting, characterization, and imagery.

To begin, the setting in the story is vital to the significance of the work because it is an unrelenting and static antagonist. The details of imagery regarding setting in the story evince that the man and the dog are submissive to nature, and thus the characters must revert to their known means of survival. In the exposition, the author introduces the setting by describing the man, who “…turned aside from the main Yukon trail and climbed the high earth-bank, where a dim and little traveled trail led eastward through the fat spruce timberland” (London, 1). London expresses the extremity of the frigid weather by syntactically describing it as “…cold and grey, exceedingly cold and grey…” (1). Additionally, the author personifies the weather in such passages: “He was losing his battle with the frost. It was creeping into his body from all sides.” By putting an emphasis on the freezing temperature of the surrounding nature, London makes setting a catalyst for the theme of the triumphant knowledge of instinct. The characters are obligated to survive using the strategies that they have become accustomed to.

Next, meaningful characterization exhibits how each character reacts to the setting, with one reigning victory. The struggle between science and instinct becomes lucid, as the man symbolizes humankind and the dog represents animal instincts. This is inferred, as neither character is granted a name. As a technologically savvy human, the man relies on manmade means such as matches and thermal garb, including “…mittens, ear-flaps, warm moccasins, and thick socks” (1) against nature. Meanwhile, the dog “…merely obeyed the mysterious prompting that arose from the deep crystals of its being…” (3) by biting ice from between its toes and treasuring the man for his gift of fire. Additionally, the man’s tragic human flaw is that he is arrogant, and chooses not to heed the advice of those wiser and more experienced. Meanwhile, the dog followed instinct, for “…all its ancestry knew, and it had inherited the knowledge” (2). At the demise of the man in the denouement, characterization in the setting proves that the dog’s instinctual knowledge was more successful than the man’s artificial resources.

Finally, imagery in the story records realistic and relatable mortal tendencies, so as to gain sympathy from the audience and thus illustrate the meaning of the work as a whole. Each vivid image elicits a unique response from the reader so that the author is able to portray a specific theme. London contrasts the characters’ responses to the setting by evoking various senses, especially those of sight and sound. For instance, the author stimulates the sense of sight by describing the man as “…a warm-whiskered man, but the hair on his face did not protect the high cheek bones and the eager nose that thrust itself aggressively into the frosty air” (2). In another account, the man is conveyed with “…a crystal beard of the colour and solidity of amber” (2). Both picturesque scenes characterize the man in his setting, emphasizing his being entwined with the harsh nature surrounding. Also, when the man spat, “There was a sharp, explosive crackle that startled him” (1). Onomatopoeia in this passage manifests the extremity of the weather. Likewise, the dog is affected by the cold visually in that “The frozen moisture of its breathing had settled on its fur in a fine powder of frost, and especially were its jowls, muzzle, and eyelashes whitened by its crystaled breath” (2). All instances of imagery in the story illustrate that both the dog and the man are equally affected by the freezing snow, so each must revert to internal knowledge to survive. Imagery has significance in the falling action of the story as the “…dog whined loudly. And still later it crept close to the man and caught the scent of death” (10). This final scene provokes a powerful response in that it solidifies the theme that instinct proves victorious over man’s scientific technology.

Throughout “To Build a Fire,” setting, characterization, and imagery are used to convey the theme that when scientific and instinctual knowledge are juxtaposed in their success against nature, instinct will prevail. The meaning of the work is communicated through symbols of mankind’s behavior and of the innate knowledge of an animal that has been learned through generations. Setting is a vital component in the examination of the work, as it prompts conflict for the characters, who were forced to adapt the only way they knew how. Similarly, characterization proved to be a critical and compelling ingredient in analyzing the author’s purpose, as London differentiated the varying ways in which the man and the dog reacted to the setting. Furthermore, imagery helped to gain sympathy from the audience and to reinforce London’s theme. “To Build a Fire” by Jack London offers society an insightful reflection upon the often-abandoned lesson that instinct is a valuable, wise, and sometimes necessary solution to conflict. Had the man in the story trusted the instinct of his own being, he might have survived the battle versus nature. However, it is mankind’s tragic flaw that we are plagued by arrogance, and thus London evokes the consequence of such an overwhelming trait. Despite all of the scientific technology that the man carried with him, London begs the question as to whether it was the dog who proved more prepared and evolved in its humbleness, as “Its instinct told it a truer tale than was told to the man by the man’s judgment” (2). The dog in “To Build a Fire” unknowingly reminds the reader to trust innate, instinct-given gifts.

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