Study Guide

To Build a Fire Primitivity

By Jack London


At the man's heels trotted a dog, a big native husky, the proper wolf dog, gray-coated and without any visible or temperamental difference from its brother the wild wolf. The animal […] knew that it was no time for traveling. Its instinct told it a truer tale than the man's judgment. (6)

The dog is not fully domesticated, which means that it's a lot closer to wild than say, a golden retriever. This isn't some dog to walk down the street on a leash. This thing might do what you want it if you crack a whip enough times, but it's not going to be your buddy. More importantly, the dog's primitive instincts give it an awareness of the wilderness that is superior or "more truthful" than the man's fancy-pants sense of judgment.

The dog did not know anything about thermometers. Possibly in its brain there was no sharp consciousness of a condition of very cold such as in the man's brain. But the brute had its instinct. (6)

The dog's instinct goes beyond the measurements of human thermometers, which are basically just something we've made up to communicate coldness to one another. From instinct's point of view, there's nothing really true about the measurements of thermometers. They are simply an arbitrary, meaningless way of talking about coldness, which pretty much speaks for itself when your spit freezes midair.

[The dog] experienced a vague but menacing apprehension that subdued it and made it slink along at the man's heels, and that made it question eagerly every unwonted movement of the man as if expecting him to go into camp or to seek shelter somewhere and build a fire. The dog had learned fire, and it wanted fire, or else to burrow under the snow and cuddle its warmth away from the air. (6)

Even though the dog relies mostly on instinct, it's still capable of learning from its experiences. For example, the dog probably wasn't born liking fire, but after being with the man for a while, it has learned that fire can make it comfortable on such a cold day.

Once, coming around a bend [in the creek], he shied abruptly, like a startled horse, curved away from the place where he had been walking, and retreated several paces back along the trail. (11)

This quote probably comes closer than any other to suggesting that the man has an awareness of his surroundings that might sometimes resemble animal instinct. The comparison with a horse is very telling here, for it is really the only exception to the clear line that the narrator draws between human judgment and animal instinct.

Usually the snow above the hidden pools had a sunken, candied appearance that advertised the danger. Once again, however, he had a close call; and once, suspecting danger, he compelled the dog to go on in front. (13)

The narrator shows here that our man is actually a pretty clever dude. He makes the dog go ahead of him at this moment; but it is important to remember that after he has had his lunch, the man neglects to take the same precaution, and ends up breaking through the ice himself. Perhaps if he'd used the dog the whole way down the creek, he might have avoided the event that would lead to his death.

[The dog] dropped down in the snow and began to bite out the ice that had formed between [its] 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. But the man knew, having reached a judgment on the subject, and he removed the mitten from his right hand and helped to tear out the ice particles. (13)

The dog and the man realize that they need to get the ice off the dog's feet. The dog knows this because of the primitive instincts that speak "from the deep crypts of its being" and the man knows this because he has "reached a judgment on the subject." Even the man is capable of learning what to do in such a situation, while the wolf dog has inherited this knowledge from its instinct, which for London is a deeper form of awareness than human judgment—and certainly a more reliable one.

The dog was disappointed [that the man was leaving] and yearned back toward the fire. This man did not know cold. Possibly all the generations of his ancestry had been ignorant of cold, of real cold, of cold one hundred and seven degrees below freezing point. But the dog knew; all its ancestry knew, and it had inherited the knowledge. (16)

Instinct is specifically a kind of primitive knowledge that gets passed down from generation to generation in a species. It's a DNA thing (not that they knew what DNA was back then). The man has lost his instincts when it comes to dealing with the cold because too many generations of his ancestors have lived in more comfortable temperatures. The dog, though, has inherited this knowledge from its ancestors right up until the present day.

The blood of his body recoiled before [the cold]. The blood was alive, like the dog, and like the dog it wanted to hide away and cover itself up from the fearful cold. (20)

There is something in the man that is similar to the dog's instinct, which expresses itself in his (the man's) very blood when he's pushed to extremes.

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