Jack London's "To Build A Fire"; Inferiority of Intellect

Essay by sandgirl1973University, Bachelor's February 2004

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On the surface, Jack London's "To Build A Fire" is the tale of a traveler making his way through the Yukon on a severely cold day. The consequence is expectantly tragic but a deeper revelation can be discerned from this symbolic tale: Although man's use of intelligence makes him superior above other animals, it is his abandon to instinct that at times makes him inferior.

The traveler starts out on an ominous and oppressively cold morning. He is an inexperienced newcomer to the unforgiving region. An old timer has warned him that the weather is unsuitable for traveling alone. The traveler, due to arrogance and the prospect of finding timber, has chosen to ignore the warning. Accompanied by his dog, a native husky, the traveler is determined to make it to the next campsite by day's end. London's ability to communicate the environment along with the severity of the climate to the reader is superb: "Day had broken cold and grey, exceedingly cold and grey...

The Yukon lay a mile wide and hidden under three feet of ice...As he turned to go on, he spat speculatively. There was a sharp, explosive crackle that startled him. He spat again... before it could fall to the snow, the spittle crackled." As man and dog travel, they appear tortured by the cold. The dog's coat is covered with a fine powder of frost. The man, his breathing labored, is also covered with frost; his facial hair encrusted with frozen tobacco juice.

It is a little past noon when the man makes his first mistake: Crossing a frozen creek, he cracks through the ice, wetting himself halfway to his knees. Building a fire to dry out his wet clothing is imperative and the man quickly moves to higher, drier ground. In the process of...