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Intelligence versus Instinct
The ability to regulate one’s personal environment, many of us have taken certain technologies such as a heating and air conditioning for granted, just a turn of a dial and within two degrees be in a comfort zone. This luxury of controlling a comfortable temperature is often overlooked due to the fact that it is so simple to do. This simplicity is implied in the Jack London’s short story “To Build a Fire”, published in 1908, where the main character does not use intellect which is the cause of his own downfall. Unlike his canine companion which uses its artic bred knowledge to survive the severe weather of the Alaskan Yukon. Since the man in this story remains anonymous throughout the piece it lets the reader know that the author intended to allow this character to represent mankind. The narrator is the character in this story and is oblivious to what is about to occur from his actions, but we the readers get a 3rd person omniscient perspective.
We humans have been known for our intellect and ingenuity, using and making tools and clothes that can help protect against the weather, but both of these attributes fail the man, because he lacks the ability to apply the knowledge of how to deal with the new environment that he was being placed in, he then is not capable of seeing the consequences of his actions. In humans this is a common flaw, but the husky in this story knows of how every decision that it makes has a consequence that it must answer for. If the man in the story were to incorporate his intellect he definitely would have seen that such an attempt of walking alone in the Tundra is utter suicide.
Jack London is a really good author when it comes describing the landscape, partially due to the fact that he actually lived in this region. The setting of this story is described as “cold and gray, exceedingly cold and gray” (Norton 1057). The author does a really good job in foreshadowing in the title and first two lines of the story that this story is going to end with the character dying. Another example to help exemplify this is “the man turned aside from the main Yukon trail and climbed the high-earth bank, where a dim and little-travelled trail led eastward through the fat spruce timberland. It was a steep bank, and he paused for breath at the top, excusing the act to himself by looking at his watch.” (Norton 1057).
When it states that the man has turned to climb the unsafe path it is described as “dim”, showing that he now has little hope of making it alive. The Yukon is already against him, the temperature is too cold, the ground is to steep, and the “little-travelled trail” runs through a thick spruce forest. Mental alarms should have been going off in this man’s head, he should have turned around and gotten back onto the main trail, the reader already sees the progression of the man’s lack of applying his intellect leading to his downfall. The only smart thing that he does is when he feels his feet start to freeze and panics he fights it and calms down.
The facts in this story are obvious and the readers should be able to tell that they are being plugged into the story for a purpose, which is if these are known then they are to be heeded. “He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances. Fifty degrees below zero meant eighty-odd degrees of frost. Such fact impressed him as being cold uncomfortable, and that was all. It did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty in general, able only to live within narrow limits of heat and cold; and from there on it did not lead him to the conjectural field of immortality and man’s place in the universe” (Norton 1057-58). By stating the narrator, the man, did not heed the fact that of it being only fifty below he failed to remember that it was only going to get colder. The readers of this piece probably get enraged when the narrator misses this huge warning.
It is true that the narrator had intellect but did not use it appropriately, which shows that he has a weak instinct. The husky on the other hand has a superior instinct and is better suited to this environment than the man is, though man is more evolved. The author gives physical descriptions of both the dog and the narrator the man having red facial hair that did not protect him from the cold while the husky being a husky has a thick fur coat that evolved that way for their survival. Though the dog could not tell what the temperature know that traveling should not have be done on such a cold day, this is being acknowledge from an animal that can easily endure this frigid cold.
The husky’s instinct is for survival, man’s rationale must make the man take action for survival thus making the husky needing no communication between brain and body. The dog bites at he frosted feet as soon as they become compromised, while the man continues on before he build an adequate fire for rectifying his situation. The dog also uses his instinct by avoiding the narrator’s trap to kill it and use its carcass as a source of heat to warm his hands, “a strange not of fear that frightened the animal, who had never known the man to speak in such way before. Something was the matter, and its suspicious nature sensed danger-it knew not what danger, but somewhere, somehow, in its brain arose an apprehension of the man.” (Norton 1065).
Evolution plays a big part in who lives in this story, especially when the man’s hands become inept, they can neither grab nor touch. When you take out the use of the thumbs, humans drop fast on both the food chain and the natural selection list. He could not even kill the dog even if he wanted to; he could not grasp the knife. Rendered useless he started to think about what the man had said to him at Sulpher Creek and how he had caused all of this to occur, and how he brushed it aside thinking that he was man enough to tackle such a task by himself.
The narrator’s arrogance led to a chain of bad events to occur, first mistake not taking old timer’s advice about traveling alone. This first mistake leads to the second then the third, and these events all lead to the final outcome. Given this link between the mistakes the narrator should have considered his surroundings better. For example the author describes the setting as snow covered land that hides springs of water, water in this setting is dangerous because getting any part of the body wet means certain frostbite, and it was often layer water then snow so a person could get wet all the way up to the waist. Since he is dumb he stays away from the creek and is amazed that he fell through and got wet from a place that showed no signs of danger. He then builds a fire and dries himself and calls it an accident, which shows
In conclusion, the man realized he cannot admit that it is his fault that he should have took the old timer’s words to heart, that he should and stayed on the path, should have built a fire in the open, and not to use all the matches at once. Though he ran around like a chicken with its head chopped off trying to stave off death, he finally made peace with his inevitable doom. So while he is lying there welcoming death thinking about when his friends are going to find him and what they are going to say about his death. The last comments reflect his final acceptance of death, saying that the old man was right twice, as the husky comes back finding him dead then leaves to find more food and fire providers. So in the end the intelligence can only get you so far in life knowing how to apply it is what counts.
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