Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Knowledge or Instinct? Jack London's “To Build a Fire”


The Lesson


Bound for the Klondike gold fields. Chilkoot Pass, Alaska.

Bound for the Klondike gold fields. Chilkoot Pass, Alaska.

Credit: Image courtesy of American Memory.

The man "was a newcomer in the land, a chechaquo, and this was his first winter." Jack London's startling, and even cold, observation of a man's foolish confidence in the face of nature's power forms the story "To Build a Fire." As the man and his animal companion take a less-traveled path to their Yukon camp, they step into a tale of wilderness survival and dire circumstances. London's stark, distanced portrayal is an excellent example of American literary naturalism. In this lesson, students will closely read "To Build a Fire," understand the use of narrative point of view, and debate the distinction between knowledge and instinct. Students can then learn about the elements of literary naturalism and how they relate to London's work.

Guiding Questions

  • What is the relationship of man and nature in London's short story "To Build a Fire"?
  • In London's story, what is the difference between knowledge and instinct?

Learning Objectives

In this lesson, students will learn how to:

  • Examine critically the relationship of man and nature in "To Build a Fire"
  • Discuss London's juxtaposition of knowledge and instinct
  • Understand third person, omniscient point of view
  • Conduct in-depth character analysis

Preparation Instructions

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Introducing London and Picturing the Scene

Introduce your students to Jack London's biography and place him in literary history, using the biographies and other information available in the "Preparing to Teach" section.

To give visual life to each story, ask students to explore the following images (you might consider breaking students up in groups depending on the number of computers available). Students have likely not read the stories yet, so you might have them read the first few paragraphs out loud to set the scene.

Images relevant to London:

From Jack London Collection (a link from University of Virginia's Center for Liberal Arts):

From Digital Classroom:

From Links to the Past (National Park Service)

Activity 2. Encountering the Wilderness

Assign students "To Build a Fire" to read and ask them to carefully describe the main character of the story—"the man"—in a brief character analysis assignment. You might provide some helpful starting questions, such as:

  • How would you describe the man in London's story?
  • How experienced is the man? Is he a novice? Prepared?
  • What does the man seem to think of his own abilities?
  • How does the man behave in relation to his environment?

Ask students to share their brief character assessments. After going over the basic characteristics of the man, turn students' focus to his relationship to the environment.

First read the opening of "To Build a Fire":

Day had broken cold and gray, exceedingly cold and gray, when 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. It was nine o'clock. There was no sun nor hint of sun, though there was not a cloud in the sky. It was a clear day, and yet there seemed an intangible pall over the face of things, a subtle gloom that made the day dark, and that was due to the absence of sun. This fact did not worry the man. He was used to the lack of sun. It had been days since he had seen the sun, and he knew that a few more days must pass before that cheerful orb, due south, would just peep above the sky-line and dip immediately from view.

Ask students to point out some of the adjectives in this opening scene and write them down:

  • Cold
  • Gray
  • Dim
  • Little-travelled
  • Steep
  • Clear
  • Intangible
  • Subtle
  • Dark

Then discuss this opening scene with students, using the following guiding questions:

  • How would you describe the setting in this opening paragraph?
  • What is the mood of this opening paragraph?
  • How does this opening make you feel as a reader?
  • What is the man's reaction to the landscape?
Activity 3. The Narrator

Students may have noticed by now that the man is cheerfully unaware of the situation that he is in during the first section of the story. Ask students to point to specific passages that allow them to know this information. Students might point out, for example, that "the animal was depressed by the tremendous cold." They might also point out the man's recollection of how he laughed at the "that man from Sulphur Creek [who] had spoken the truth when telling how cold it sometimes got in the country."

For an extended exercise, ask students to cut and paste the online version of the story in a word processing document. Using a highlighting tool, students can color code the narration as they are reading the story. [Note: students can conduct this activity with print copy of the story using one or two highlighter colors.] Ask students to mark each time the narrator

  • has knowledge unknown to the characters themselves
  • provides his own commentary

Ask students to refer to their color coding as you lead a class discussion, or have students spend ten minutes in group work finding appropriate passages in the text, considering the following questions:

  • Identify passages in the story where the narrator either has knowledge unknown to the characters themselves or where the narrator provides his own commentary.
  • How would you describe the tone of the narrator?
  • Does the narration foreshadow subsequent events? How?
  • How does the narrator feel about the character(s) at this point in the story?

Ask students what point-of-view the narrator is adopting in this story—first or third person? Students should be able to note that the narration is from a third-person perspective, since the narrator is not using "I" to describe him- or herself.

As a follow-up question, you might ask students to consider:

  • How would this passage be different if it were narrated via first person point of view? Would the story change?

During the course of this discussion, introduce students to the different kinds of third-person narration: limited and omniscient. Point out to students that limited third-person narration usually focuses on the thoughts of a single character in the story. Omniscient third-person narrative, on the other hand, has total access to the thoughts of all characters in the story, such as the case in "To Build a Fire" (where we know the thoughts of both the man and the dog).

You might refer students to the LitWeb glossary entry for omniscient point of view, available via the EDSITEment-reviewed Academy of American Poets. Ask students to discuss what effect having this omniscient knowledge has on the story. What would be different if the story's narrator only related the man's point-of-view? This question is a good way to segue into the next activity.

Activity 4. Knowledge and Instinct

Ask students to consider what it means "to build a fire." While initial responses may focus on notions of survival, students might recall the legend of Prometheus, or suggest the relationship of fire to knowledge. Ask students to revisit London's story and use the following chart to note passages that discuss knowledge and instinct. The shared space is available for those passages where the situation is unclear. For example, London writes: "Empty as the man's mind was of thoughts, he was keenly observant, and he noticed the changes in the creek …" This passage suggests a certain assumed kind of knowledge that, we discover later, did not prevent him from surviving his fall into the ice. Students should also pay attention to the dog's instincts.

After students have had some time to look for instances of knowledge and instinct, ask them to first compare the main character to the Sulphur Creek old-timer who gave advice. What are some key differences in their attitudes towards nature and their knowledge of nature?

Next ask students to compare the man and the dog:

  • How is the relationship between the man and the dog discussed at first?
  • What did the dog instinctively understand that the man did not?
  • How does the man and dog's relationship symbolize the man's relationship to his environment?

Students will likely point out that the man was initially established as the master of the dog. The narrator discussed the "whip lash" and the "harsh and menacing throat sounds" the man used towards the dog, which even convinced the dog to risk its life for the man. Students should be able to point out several passages that establish what the dog knew about the weather and landscape that was not obvious to the man. They should highlight a key passage:

"On the other hand, there was no keen intimacy between the dog and the man… so the dog made no effort to communicate its apprehension to the man."

Students might note that the dog in many respects symbolizes the natural landscape that surrounds them. Just as the man did not respect the dog, so too does the man fail to respect the world around him. Ask students to consider this suggestion as they reread the passage of the story that describes the struggle between the man and the dog. The man, freezing, attempts to kill the dog in order to steal its warmth, a futile struggle that is an apt symbol for the life and death struggle he is experiencing in the wilderness.

As students draw to the close of the story, ask them to consider the following questions:

  • What does the man's failure to "build a fire" symbolize?
  • Does the man have either knowledge or instinct?
  • Did the man finally gain knowledge at the end of the story?
  • What is the significance of the dog's final movement towards civilization at the end of the story? What does this suggest about the dog's relationship to nature? Is instinct driving this movement?


Ask students to consider in a brief essay how the third-person omniscient narrator enabled the author of the story to relate the struggle between man and nature, knowledge and instinct.

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

1-2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > American
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Short Stories
  • Compare and contrast
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Interpretation
  • Literary analysis
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Using primary sources
  • Writing skills
  • Kellie Tabor-Hann (AL)


Activity Worksheets
Student Resources