Write an essay in which you compare and contrast the dog's and the man's ability to survive in "To Build a Fire" by Jack London. 

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

At e-notes, the educators cannot do an assignment for the student. We can make suggestions and discuss the question.  My approach will be to give information that you can use to write your essay.

Jack London approaches his story “To Build a Fire” comparing man’s knowledge versus the dog’s instinct. The conflict for the protagonist is man versus nature. 

Nature has no intention of defeating or conquering the man.  Nature “is what it is” whether it is 100 degrees or seventy-five degrees below zero. This is the Yukon which is one of the coldest places on earth. It is the man’s choice to try to survive in a hostile environment that makes the conflict in this story.

The man will try to prove that he has the knowledge to survive the powerful force of nature. The external conflict places the man in the untenable position of walking many miles in extreme cold. London makes the point that the man is completely isolated. His only companion is a dog.  

"The Yukon lay a mile wide and hidden under three feet of ice...as far as his eye could see, it was unbroken white."

The man

The unnamed protagonist has no experience in this kind of cold.  In his arrogance, he ignores the warning of  an old timer  who told him not to go into this kind of cold by himself, but he believes that the old man is womanish and weak. The man thinks that he is quick and alert to the possibilities of disaster.  The author indicates that the man is not much of a thinker. 

“Empty as the man’s mind was of thoughts, he was keenly observant…The creek he knew was frozen to the bottom, but he knew there were springs that bubbled out form the hill sides…”

Sadly, his knowledge does him no good because he continually makes the mistakes that will lead to his doom:

  • Forgets to build the first fire to warm himself and the dog
  • He steps in one of the springs and wets himself up to his shins
  • He builds his fire under a tree and the snow falls from the branches puts out the fire
  • Loses all of his matches when he loses feeling in his hands

When his fire goes out, the man admits that the old timer may have known what he was talking about. One of his thoughts is to kill the dog and use his body’s internal warmth to unfreeze his hands.  This is impossible.   The man begins to face the truth: he is not going to make it.  Then, he knows for sure that the “old hoss” was right about his venture into the devastating cold.

The dog

The dog survives on instinct.  This is the difference between the man and the dog.  The dog is made for this kind of situation with his insulated fur that keeps his body and feet from freezing.  The dog knows that this trek is wrong.  Serving as the man’s foil, the dog observes the mistakes of the man and stands back and watches him. 

The dog’s pure instinct is necessary for survival.  As soon as the dog gets his feet wet, he begins to chew on his feet to get the ice off of them.  The dog thinks of the man in two ways: he is the fire and food provider.  Other than that, the man has not bothered to build a relationship with the dog.  When the man eats, he does not even provide food for the dog.

The dog removes himself from the reach of the man when he wants to kill it. After the man dies, the dog waits and observes the man.  Eventually, he goes to the man and catches the scent of death.  He backs away and turns toward the direction that will take him to the other food and fire providers. 

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To Build a Fire

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