In Jack London’s novel, a man sets out in the dead of winter to visit his friends in the far north. He checks the thermometer and finds that it is 75 degrees below zero and too cold to fly, but he nevertheless continues to go (London 65). The man is certain that he will reach his friends regardless of the weather. A dog is his only friend on the trip. The puppy, on the other hand, knows little about thermometers and instead trusts its intuition, which tells it it’s not a good idea to fly on such a cold day. London uses the dog in the story to convey the theme of primitivity. He compares the man’s intellectualism over the dog’s primitive instinct. While the man makes the judgement to travel in the cold weather to meet his friends, the dog uses its primitive instinct to tell him that it is not wise to travel on such a cold day. The dog instinctively knows that it needs to stay by the fire and wait out the bitter cold.
London draws the line that distinguishes man and animal when the dog’s feet gets wet. The dog is aware that if it does not get the ice off its feet, it will not be able to walk. Therefore it chews off the ice from its feet (London 69). The dog does not intellectually know that it needs to get ice off its feet to be able to walk. Rather, London says it is a matter of instinct and the dog just responds to its human nature. The man is also aware that he should get the ice off the dog’s feet not through instinct but through judgement.
Dogs are known to be faithful to man. However in this story, the dog London describes is opposite of faithful. He describes the dog as being indifferent to man. In fact, the dog only followed the man to avoid being whipped. It has never experienced any connection with man and the only relationship he knows is that man is supposed to provide food and fire. This lack of connection towards the man brings out the dog’s primitive nature. It reminds us that dogs are animals and no matter how much we want to connect with them in a human nature, they still stay true to their animal instinct.
The dog follows the man throughout the journey all the while relying on his instincts for survival. When it gets too cold, and the man desperately attempts to stop his hands and feet from freezing, the dog burrows into the snow and keeps itself warm as it watches the man (London 71). The sight of the dog watching him reminds the man of a story of someone in an almost similar situation, who killed a steer and used its carcass to keep warm. The man attempts to call the dog so that he can kill it and use its carcass to keep his hands warm, but something inside the man’s voice made the dog afraid. Its primitive instinct told him something was wrong with the man and it needed to stay away from him.
The dog’s primitive instinct also prevents it from caring for the man and was only concerned about its safety. Even when it saw the man trying to run through the snow and light a fire under a tree, the dog knew it was a mistake but did nothing to warn the man. When the man froze to death while seated, the dog knew to instinctively curl up on the snow and stay warm. Eventually, it senses the man’s death and instead of staying around like other dogs to mourn their master, it saved itself by going to a camp where there was fire and food.
London, Jack. To build a fire. The Century Magazine, 1908.