How is instinct an important concept in the story "To Build a Fire"?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Instinct is such an important concept in Jack London's "To Build a Fire" because it is the difference between life and death under the extreme conditions of the Yukon Territory.

The man in Jack London's story represents any person who finds himself unprepared for a new environment. While the word instinct is more often applied to animals than humans, Jack London perceived man in the Darwinian sense. That is, man's behavior was determined by heredity and environment.

In London's story, the man is unprepared for his environment; furthermore, he does not listen to the warnings of the older man from Sulfur Creek when told how cold it could become in the country. Because he "lacks imagination" he pays no attention and, instead, allows his greed to prod him onward to Henderson Creek where others await him to begin work on a claim. Accompanying him is a dog, whose instincts tell him that it is too cold to be out in the weather; consequently, there is "no keen intimacy between the dog and the man" as is often the case. Furthermore, while the dog knows that man usually provides fire, when the man fails at making a fire and dies, the dog catches the scent of death and instinctively knows to back away and return to the camp where he is sure to find "the other food providers and fire providers."


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