Both Jack London and John Muir were lovers of the outdoors, and this love is reflected in their writing. Both writers also utilized canines in their stories, although they addressed the relationship between dog and man in vastly different ways. Jack London's canine-human relationship recognized and even glorified the ancient wolf-like tendencies of the dog, while John Muir's dog exemplified the common classification of dog as “man's best friend.”
Both Muir and London were fascinated by the wild in the dog, and the fearless manner in which canines face their fates. London and Muir knew the wilds well: both were naturalists who spent much of their time exploring the unexplored parts of the world. Their canine companions were often their only company on treks through the wilderness, and this intense loneliness forced them to consider the relationship between humanity and their canine counterparts.
There is something about the wilds of Alaska that bring out the essence of man. Both Muir and London braved the Alaskan wilderness and wrote about their experiences; Muir’s “Stickeen” was a piece of creative nonfiction, while “To Build a Fire” is fictional piece in which the narrator shares the mind of a dying man. However, the most fascinating aspect of the stories is the relationship between man and dog.
In London’s “To Build a Fire,” the first impression of the dog is less of a dog, and more of a wolf. “At the man's heels trotted a dog, a big native husky,” he writes, “the proper wolf-dog, gray-coated and without any visible or temperamental difference from its brother, the wild wolf. The animal was depressed by the tremendous cold. It knew that it was no time for travelling. Its instinct told it a truer tale than was told to the man by the man's judgment” (London). The dog represents the wild, nature; it is something elemental and instinctual in London’s work. The dog is man’s connection to nature, and he ignores the animal’s instinct, to his detriment at the end of the story.
The wolf-dog is aware that the man is exercising poor judgment, but does little to help the man or to save his life; when the man dies, the wolf-dog heads back towards camp without a second thought regarding the man and his fire. The man forces the dog to do things that it does not want to do, things that go against its instincts. The bond between the wolf-dog and the man is minimal, because the man cannot or does not respect the instinct that the dog has.
In London’s text, the man tries to force the dog into certain behaviors, rather than encouraging it and engaging it as a man should engage his dog. London writes: Once again, however, he had a close call; and once, suspecting danger, he compelled the dog to go on in front. The dog did not want to go. It hung back until the man shoved it forward, and then it went quickly across the white, unbroken surface” (London). This is not the way that man should bond with dogs; the man is fighting the dog and the dog’s instincts rather than trusting them and engaging them properly. In London’s story, the man slowly begins to succumb to the cold; first his hands freeze, and he tries to kill the dog for warmth; but soon, his whole body is freezing and he becomes less and less able to make coherent decisions, as is the case when someone is suffering from extreme exposure to the elements.
The dog, for all its rightful distrust of the man, refuses to leave the man’s side, although it does run snarling from him on a few occasions. The dog does not understand why the man will not build a fire; it does not understand the ways in which the cold are affecting the man’s brain. London writes: “There were no signs of a fire to be made, and, besides, never in the dog's experience had it known a man to sit like that in the snow and make no fire” (London). The dog understands man’s nature much more intimately than the man understands the wolf-dog’s nature, and for his lack of understanding, the man pays with his life.
Muir tells a vastly different story of companionship between dog and man. Muir’s dog, Stickeen, is not the same wolf-dog of London’s “To Build a Fire,” although the dog is similarly detached at the beginning of the story. After the incident on the glacier, Muir writes: “Thereafter Stickeen was a changed dog. During the rest of the trip, instead of holding aloof, he always lay by my side, tried to keep me constantly in sight, and would hardly accept a morsel of food from any hand but mine. At night, when all was quiet about the camp-fire, he would come to me as if I were his god” (Muir). This is the relationship that has become known as the quintessential human-canine relationship; the man and the dog go through trials together and become bonded.
At the beginning of the story, Stickeen and the narrator are at odds with each other. The narrator does not understand the dog, and the dog can sense that the narrator does not understand and is distant as a result. However, once the narrator shows his kindness to the dog and his concern for the dog’s well being when the animal is afraid, the narrator’s relationship with the dog changes.
The dog becomes happy to be around the narrator, convinced that the narrator is his best friend and has his best interests in mind at all times. This is one of the main reasons why “Stickeen” has become known in literary circles as the original “dog story”-- the story in which the dog’s personification as “man’s best friend” truly becomes solidified in the American consciousness.
Stickeen is less wild than the dog in “To Build a Fire,” and has a different relationship with the narrator than the man and the dog have in “To Build a Fire.” The dog in London’s text is at odds with the man; their relationship, like the relationship between the man and nature, is fraught with difficulty and animosity.
Stickeen and the narrator, on the other hand, embrace their troubles and bond over them. The narrator does not try to outdo nature in any way; instead, he tries to solve the problem gently, coaxing himself and later his companion through the motions and to safety. Stickeen, although he is only a dog, understands what happened on the glacier and understands what the narrator did to ensure his safety. He becomes truly domesticated after the incident, no longer the wild dog that he is at the beginning of the story.
London and Muir approach the issue of the canine-humankind relationship in two very different ways, although the settings for their stories are remarkably similar. London’s protagonist does not respect the dog, and as a result, he manages to alienate the only creature that was present for his death, and his only real hope for survival.
Muir’s narrator-- Muir himself, in fact-- does respect the dog that he is traveling with, and as a result, gains a life-long friend rather than a foe. Stickeen becomes attached to the narrator in a way the dog in “To Build a Fire” does not become attached to the protagonist; the canine-humankind relationship, then, is based heavily on the actions of humankind. Dogs are simple creatures, and they respond to kindness and honesty in action. When humans abuse their trust, they can do irreparable damage to the human-canine relationship between the animal and the human in question.
London, Jack. The call of the wild, White Fang, and other stories. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990. Print.
Muir, John and Bruce Rogers. Stickeen. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1909. Print.