Study Guide

To Build a Fire Primitivity

By Jack London

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In "To Build a Fire," Jack London contrasts the main character's civilized sense of "judgment" against the wolf dog's more primitive "instinct" (13). While the man's judgment seems to draw on his personal experience, the wolf dog's instinct draws on the experience of every blood ancestor the animal has ever had, which is really saying something. The dog's primitive knowledge tells it to remain close to the fire on such a cold day, but the man's judgment leads him onward to the camp. The man's judgment therefore seems to fail him, while the dog's instinct and natural adaptation to the Yukon ensures its survival.

Questions About Primitivity

  1. How does Jack London distinguish primitive instinct from judgment throughout the story? What argument does he seem to be making by highlighting this distinction?
  2. In what types of situations does the narrator tend to talk about the differences between the man and the wolf dog?
  3. How does the dog's wolf ancestry contribute to its primitive awareness? Is there a human version of a wolf dog, or is following the advice of a more experienced old-timer the best we can hope for?
  4. Could having the wolf dog's instinct have saved the man, or was he doomed from the moment he set out in such cold weather?

Chew on This

Jack London's "To Build a Fire" suggests that humans would be better off if they acted like wild animals.

The narrator wants us to respect the wolf dog more than the man, which we totally do.

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