Everyone at some point in time tries to accomplish feats that are almost near impossible. Warnings from others, more experienced with some of life’s pitfalls, go unheeded to those subject to grandiosity. London’s?To Build a Fire? illustrates that man is insignificant in the face of nature, and that if a man sets himself up against nature he will ultimately be defeated.
London’s?To Build a Fire? is a story of a man whose life comes to an end when he ventures into the Yukon trail with only a dog for his companion. Ignoring the warnings of the day along with the warnings of the old-timer, the man proceeds on the journey of making camp by six o’clock.
It is the setting of the story that reveals how week man is against nature. The man’s pride as well as his attitude toward nature will be affected and influenced eventually by forces of nature.
As the reader is first introduced to the man, he has the attitude that he knows everything he needs to know about nature and how to survive the weather. “The tremendous cold and the absence of the sun had no effect on the man” (910). “He was alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not the significance”(910).
These two quotes suggest that the man was aware of the day but due to his ignorance he did not realize the mistake of making that journey. The man’s ego makes him take the journey alone without notice of external things of nature that would influence him later.
The effects of naturalism are exhibited when he stops for lunch and forgets to start a fire as soon as he sits down. This is the first sign that the cold is beginning to affect him. Instead of being cautious or frightened, the narrator explains, “He chuckled at his foolishness” (913).
At this point, he still does not realize the significance of being properly prepared both physically and mentally. However, the surrounding setting is starting to influence his reaction to how cold it really is. He starts realizing that his hands were going numb and that he felt a stinging sensation when his feet made contact with the ground. This influence is not strong enough to make the man change his attitude that he is stronger than nature.
The man’s ignorance leads to his fall in the next part of the story when he lights the fire and becomes overconfident in himself. This becomes obvious to the reader when the man thought to himself, “here he was; he had an accident; he was alone, and he had saved himself” (915). This new-found confidence is soon extinguished when the fire goes out. “It was his own fault or, rather, his mistake”(916). At this point, it is very clear that nature is getting the best of him.
The reader is told that, “The man was shocked. It was as though he had just heard his own sentence of death” (916). “If he only had a trail mate he would have been in no danger now” (916). After realizing the danger of his surroundings his thought process changed drastically, and no he was not influencing nature but was influenced by nature itself.
From the evidence of what the man sees as a mild day, he jumps to the conclusion that the day won?t bring any harm to him. He believes that he is significant in this huge world, but in reality, he finds out that he was like a grain of sand along the beaches of the West Coast. No matter how hard he tried, nature always had the upper hand.
The story shows that is one thing to know about the power of the natural world, but another to understand the significance of its power. It exemplifies that no one man can overcome the overwhelming power of nature and shows that their will always be conflicts of man vs. nature and ignorance vs. intelligence.
Example #2 – Character Analysis
In “To Build a Fire,” Jack London expresses his perspective of the multitude of greenhorns who flocked to the Yukon in a rush for gold. It is evident that he believed that these newcomers were too inexperienced and blinded by gold fever to survive the trip. Like many of them, “the Man” is driven by his own foolish ego to act irrationally and to not follow wise advice.
Though his conscience continually nags at him, his ego-driven way of thought keeps pushing him blindly forward. The Man is not the only representative of other fortune hunters like himself, but he also represents every person on this planet. All of us, at some point in time, pushed our own conscience aside, and followed our own selfish ego.
The Man was a newcomer to the land, yet when he was offered advice on how to survive the harsh conditions of the Yukon, he just laughed at it:
It certainly was cold, was his thought. That man from Sulphur Creek had spoken the truth when telling how cold it sometimes got in the country. And he had laughed at him at the time! That showed that one must not be too sure of things.
This shows that he is driven by his ego, and like many other young men, he thinks that he is so much better than everybody else that he does not even listen to the advice of an old man who has probably been living in the Yukon longer than the Man has been alive.
Fifty degrees below zero stood for a bite of frost that hurt and that must be guarded against by the use of mittens, earflaps, warm moccasins, and thick socks. Fifty degrees below zero was to him just precisely fifty degrees below zero. That there should be anything more to it was a thought that never entered his head.
The Man thinks little of the extreme temperature. He thinks of it as only “a bite of frost that hurt,” and nothing more. He doesn’t realize that the cold can not only “hurt,” but it can kill.
During his fateful journey, the Man is given warnings first-hand of the extreme cold and of the consequences of his actions. The first is when he spits on the snow:
As he turned to go on, he spat speculatively. There was a sharp, explosive crackle that startled him. He spat again. And again, in the air, before it could fall to the snow, the spittle crackled. He knew that at fifty below, the spittle crackled on the snow, but this spittle had crackled in the air. Undoubtedly, it was colder than fifty below – how much colder he did not know.
But as aforementioned, the Man thinks almost nothing of the extreme temperature. Also, the man was given advice by an old-timer at Sulphur Creek, who warned him to never venture out in the Yukon when the temperature dropped below fifty degrees.
Nevertheless, he goes anyways. A warning that should have shocked the Man back into reality is when he first fell into one of the many springs that never froze:
And then it happened. At a place where there were no signs, where the soft, unbroken snow seemed to advertise solidarity beneath, the man broke through. It was not deep. He wet himself halfway to the knees before he floundered out to the first crust.
He successfully builds a fire to thaw out his socks and boots, and, once again, his ego takes control of him:
The fire was a success. He was safe. He remembered the advice of the old-timer on Sulphur Creek and smiled. The old-timer had been very serious about laying down the law that no man must travel alone in the Klondike after fifty below. Well, here he was; he had had the accident; he was alone, and he had saved himself.
He goes on to say, “All a man had to do was to keep his head, and he was alright. Any man could travel alone.” He still has not learned his lesson. Unfortunately for him, the man does not realize his faults until his eleventh hour:
You were right, old hoss, you were right,” the man mumbled to the old-timer of Sulphur Creek. The man drowsed off into what seemed to him the most comfortable and satisfying sleep he had ever known.
Like the Man, we often follow our own egos and turn away wise advice. Fortunately for us, we often get another chance, unlike the Man. All of us have either experienced or heard the story about a child getting burned for the first time.
The child disobeys his mother and touches something hot and winds up paying for his disobedience with pain. But, unlike the Man, the child learns from his mistakes. He probably will never test the limits regarding anything hot ever again.
The Man in “To Build a Fire” is a victim of his own self, which was transformed into his worst enemy by his selfish ego. He pays the highest price for his actions; his life. He could have saved himself had he heeded the old-timer s advice and waited for the temperature to rise or for a traveling companion.
But, he let his ego take control of himself and pushed all of the wise advice which he had been given out of his head.
The Man is symbolic of every living person in that we all usually learn things best the hard way. Fortunately for us, we often get another chance. We should cherish the advice and wisdom of others and blend them with our own knowledge to create our view of the world. If we could succeed at this, we would probably live much happier lives.
In the story “To Build a Fire” by Jack London, there are three principal themes. They are respecting nature and considering the results of actions. The main theme, or universal truth, is heeding warnings. The themes are shown through the character and his actions. The main character in the story had an attitude that prevented him from heeding internal and external warnings. He did not respect nature’s power, and therefore he paid with his life.
His attitude was arrogant and careless. The man had no imagination and only understood facts. He knew it was very cold and his body was numb, but he failed to realize the danger. A newcomer with no experience, he thought he was invincible. Neither the “absence of sun from the sky,” nor “the tremendous cold” made any effect on him. For example, the temperature was less than -50 degrees. He did not care about how much colder it was. To him, it was just a number.
He did not think of his “frailty as a creature of temperature.” When the “old-timer at Sulphur Creek” warned him not to travel alone in such cold, the man laughed at him. The old-timer had experience and knowledge, yet the man called him “womanish.” Even when the man knew he was about to die, he thought, “freezing was not so bad as people thought,” and “When he got back to the States he could tell folks what real cold was.”
These quotes show that the man did not take his situation seriously. Instead of dying with dignity, he thought about how foolish he looked “running like a chicken with its head off.” He was ignorant, unimaginative, foolish, and doomed. The man learns his lesson the hard way.
The man encountered many internal warnings that it was too cold to be outside. First, his nose and cheeks went numb. His face, feet, and hands followed. His beard and mustache grew icy from his breath. Rubbing his face and beating his hands only temporarily helped his circulation. After he got his feet wet, they froze. His fingers “seemed remote from his body” because he could not move them.
The most obvious clues that the man took in were internal. “He wondered whether his toes were warm or numb.” It should have worried him. When he lit the last fire, his flesh burned. He knew because “he could smell it.” He could not even feel his hands burning. The man thought it was “curious that one should have to use his eyes to find where his hands were.” Eventually, no amount of running or thrashing can awaken the feeling in his body. If he had paid adequate attention to his internal signals he may have survived.
If the man did not believe his body, there were also several external signals to guide him. He mentioned the “old-timer at Sulphur Creek” many times. The experienced old-timer warned him of the danger of traveling alone. He didn’t listen to the old-timer.
The man spat, and it crackled before it hit the ground. This alarmed him of how cold it was, but not of the dangers. “In a month, no man had come up or down that silent creek.” Other people were wise enough not to travel. Even the man’s dog notices the “tremendous” cold. It wanted to stay by the fire and seek shelter. The man disregarded the warnings of nature, experience, and proof of the dangerous cold. He believed he was infallible.
The story effectively shows that failure to heed warnings will lead to adverse repercussions. In the main character’s case, it led to his death. The man’s attitude thwarts him from taking advice from people, events, facts, or even himself.
Example #4 – Naturalism In To Build A Fire By Jack London
When Jack London wrote, “To Build a Fire” he embraced the idea of naturalism because it mirrored the events of daily life. Naturalism showed how humans had to be wary at every corner because at anytime death could be there, waiting for them to make a mistake and forfeit their lives.
He used naturalism, the most realistic literary movement, to show how violent and uncaring nature really is and how no matter what you do nature will always be there. London also presented the basic idea of Darwinism and the survival of the fittest, basically, if you are dumb you will die. Collectively, London used naturalism to show how in life, humans can depend on nothing but themselves to survive.
“To Build a Fire” is a short story that embodies the idea of naturalism and how, if one is not careful, nature will gain the upper hand and they will perish. When the narrator introduced the main character of the story, the man, he made it clear that the man was in a perilous situation involving the elements.
The man was faced with weather that was 75 degrees below zero and he was not physically or mentally prepared for survival. London wrote that the cold “did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man’s frailty in general, able only to live within certain narrow limits of heat and cold.”(p.1745) At first, when the man started his journey to the camp, he felt certain that he could make it back to camp before dinner.
As the trip progressed, the man-made mistake after mistake that sealed his fate. The man’s first mistake was to step into a pool of water and soak his legs to the knees. This blunder forced the man to build a fire to dry his wet socks and shoes so his feet would not freeze and become frostbitten. When the man began to build a fire he failed to notice that he was doing so under a large, snow-laden spruce tree where he was getting his firewood.
When the man had a small fire that was beginning to smolder the disturbance to the tree caused the snow to tumble to the ground and extinguish the fire. “It was his own fault or, rather, his mistake. He should not have built the fire under the spruce tree. He should have built it in the open.”(1750).
That minor detail of the critical placement of the fire ultimately cost the man his life. The third mistake the man-made was that he removed his gloves for an extended period and his hands became completely numb. When the man was trying desperately to re-light the fire he removed his gloves and lost all feeling in his hands. If he had remained calm and thought about his situation he might have had a chance to survive. Nature showed no mercy when the man attempted to re-light the fire using only his palms, and he failed. “He was losing his battle with the frost.
It was creeping into his body from all sides.”(1754) The man’s unfortunate mistakes cost him his life and nature felt no sympathy for him. He was just another man who failed to defeat nature for one more day. If the man had brought along a companion for the journey like the old man in the town had suggested he would still be alive. However, his stubbornness would not submit to that. “The old-timer on Sulfur Creek was right, he thought in the moment of controlled despair that ensued: after fifty below, a man should travel with a partner.”(1752).
Instead, the man brought a wolf dog with him to keep him company. The only thing that the dog was good for was as an outlet for the man’s jealously when he realized all the mistakes he had made. The man envied how the dog could just sit in the snow and his warm fur would protect him from the elements. The mistakes that the man-made reflect everyday life by showing how just one accident or miscalculation can cost you your life.
Naturalism utilized the environment to show how fierce and apathetic the world can be. In the opening scene of “To Build a Fire” London used a bleak description of the Yukon to show how barren the wild is. “The Yukon lay a mile wide and hidden under three feet of ice. On top of this ice were as many feet of snow.” The idea that the Yukon is a desolate wasteland full of little more than ice and snow is the perfect example of how foreboding and dangerous nature can be when it’s power is unleashed.
The man obviously paid no heed to the ferocity that nature could exhibit at any given time. Another example of nature being hostile is the dog. The only thing the dog comprehends is that the man is a fire maker who drives the cold away. ” The dog had learned fire, and it wanted fire, or else a burrow under the snow and cuddle its warmth away from the air.”(1746). If the main character in the story did not help to keep the dog warm by building a fire, the dog would have left him a long time ago. The dog also feared the man because the man was never kind to him; he only yelled and cursed at the wild dog.
Naturalism in “To Build a Fire” used the Darwinistic idea of survival of the fittest to reveal that no matter what the environment is if you are not careful about the decisions you make you will die. When the man decided to brave the perils of the Yukon he was not smart enough to take a partner with him in case something happened to him.
His only thoughts were of getting back to camp before it became dark outside. He did not follow his instinct when he was crossing the frozen wasteland but plowed ahead recklessly with abandon. The man was destined to die from the start of the story. He did not pay attention to the weather, or to the advice of a man familiar with the territory and therefore sealed his fate.
The man also failed his survival test when he began to panic as the second fire extinguisher. He seemed as though he had lost all knowledge of his survival skills. He thought about killing the dog and wallowing in its steaming insides for refuge from the cold. “The sight of the dog put a wild idea into his head. He remembered the tale of a man, caught in a blizzard, who killed a steer and crawled inside the carcass, and so was saved.”(1752).
When the man realized that the dog would not let him come near he was forced to concoct another plan. His idea was that if he ran all the way to the camp, he would be able to survive. Unfortunately, that plan failed as well and the man perished in the cold, numbing snow of the Yukon.
Overall, naturalism is the most realistic literary movement. It parallels life more than any other movement because it reveals the fact that nature has not a heart and no emotions. Nature feels no compassion for human struggles and will continue on its path of destruction and harm regardless of the circumstances.
To Build a Fire by Jack London tells the story of a man who perishes in extreme weather conditions because he fails to take precautions before setting out on a journey in cold weather. The story is both naturalist and realist.
The naturalist movement in literature concerned itself with the struggles that a man had to go through to survive in the world. The nameless protagonist in the story goes through struggles as he encounters biting cold on his way to meet some boys. He walks through snow yet he had not dressed appropriately for the cold. The man uses his knowledge in order to fight the severe cold just as naturalism shows the struggles of man against nature.
In the end, nature subdues him (An Introduction to Realism and Naturalism, n.d.). The man who has set out to seek gold becomes preoccupied with the cold that threatens his life. The nature is indifferent to the man as he starts to suffer from frostbite as it continues to be cold anyway. The dog that accompanies the man is also indifferent to the man even though it seems to behave more aware of the danger posed by traveling in that kind of weather than the man who underestimates the danger.
The emphasis of naturalism is narrative rather than the individual (An Introduction to Realism and Naturalism, n.d.). The author does not bother to tell us the name of the man. He remains nameless and the author concentrates on telling the story about the struggle with nature.
Moreover, just as the characteristic of naturalism is writing about the middle class the man obviously belongs to the middle class because he ventures set to get gold just like the boys. He is an ordinary person and not a hero who triumphs against the odds he faces.
The other characteristic of naturalism is determinism (An Introduction to Realism and Naturalism, n.d.). A man does not have free will when it comes to nature, which shapes their behavior. The behavior of man is determined by nature. All the actions of man have results and the man’s actions such as building a fire under a tree lead to the destruction of the fire he had made and eventually, he freezes to death, as he is unable to make another one successfully.
On the other hand, realism is evident in the story. Realism attempts to portray life as it is (Duiker & Spielvogel, 2008; An Introduction to Realism and Naturalism, n.d.). The story tells the fate of the man honestly. For instance, the man faces his death, which maybe could have been avoided because he lacked imagination. He failed to know or make judgments about the consequences of temperatures below 50 degrees Celsius.
Unfortunately, when he began to think critically it was already too late for him to overturn his fate. The author describes the environment and the actions of the man such that one can actually form a mental picture of the man trying to save himself desperately from the cold as he tries frantically to light a match but his frozen hands cannot help him.
Realism deals with ethical choices made by man rather than the emotions (An Introduction to Realism and Naturalism, n.d.). In the story, we see the choices that the man makes. For instance, he decided to go out despite the obvious looming danger.
He ignores the cold that bites his nose and instead of turning back or finding a shelter to keep warm, he continues with his journey. The choices he makes have consequences and one of them is death. Moreover, the story talks realistically about an ordinary man making an effort to improve the condition of his life by going to the gold-rich Yuken.
In Jack London’s To Build a Fire the setting of the short story plays a significant role. Jack London uses specific techniques to establish the atmosphere and tone of the story. By introducing his readers to the setting, London prepares them for a tone that is depressed and fear-provoking. Isolated by an environment of frigid weather and doom, the author shows us how the main character of the story is completely unaware of his surroundings.
The only world the man is actually accustomed to is the world he has created for himself. Since many of us have never been exposed to such a harsh climate, London’s account that the environment is the determining factor of his survival paints an accurate picture. Anything that the man and his dog come into contact with creates an expectation for disaster in the story.
The significance of the words ‘dying and death’ in the story continuously expresses the man’s dwindling warmth and bad luck in his journey along the Yukon trail to meet his friends at camp.
London associates dying with the man’s diminishing ability to stay warm in the frigid Alaskan climate. The main character’s predicament slowly worsens one level at a time finally resulting in death. London places a strong emphasis on the setting in the introduction to the story. “Day had broken cold and grey, exceedingly cold and grey…” He repeats these phrases to emphasise to the reader the impact the setting has on the lives of the characters. The gloominess of the setting causes the man and his dog to fight a constant battle in a world of depression. Lacking the virtue of imagination, the man is only gifted with his practical knowledge. This ignorance will hamper his ability to adapt to the conditions and stresses surrounding him.
Typically the man never wants to deal with reality especially when the reality is unpleasant. “But all this-the mysterious, far-reaching hairline trail, the absence of sun from the sky, the tremendous cold, and the strangeness of it all- made no impression on the man.” He is able to tolerate the troublesome temperatures and climate he is surrounded by, he never attempts to face the monster within him.
Facing what he would do if the inevitable were to happen is this man’s worst fear. This fear causes the man to become selfish, only focusing on the actions and thoughts that are pleasurable to him. The man’s ignorance of his surroundings and self-indulgence foreshadows a possible downfall.
London provides us with subconscious hints that lead the reader to believe that the man will suffer a tragedy in the end of the story. Only relying on his previous experiences causes the man to be a disadvantage to his dog. A dog by nature is an animal that has the natural gift of instinct. Under these bitter conditions, the dog was capable of survival because of those instincts.
The dog follows the man throughout his ill faded journey, but after the man succumbs to the weather, the husky relies upon his instincts to survive. Being placed in this type of environment is the main conflict of the story for both the main character and the dog.
Relying only on his judgment, the man can not prepare to prevent a disaster from occurring. London’s constant focus on how the environment affected the man and his reaction to being unable to survive like his dog gives the reader certain hints. At this point, London has already given an insight to the conclusion of the story.
The theme of London’s ‘To Build a Fire’ is how we should all take heed to modern knowledge and learned behavior has its benefits, but our primal instincts should never have ignored. The man in the story had lots of knowledge but neglected to pay attention to his ‘sixth sense.’ The dog, on the other hand, followed as long as he could but then let his instincts carry him to safety. We can never have enough knowledge to replace the survival skill that nature has provided us.
Lured in by the plot of the story the reader keeps on reading, waiting in anticipation of the danger of the climate to overcome the man. “On the other hand, there was no keen intimacy between the dog and the man. The one was the toiling slave of the other, and the only caresses it had ever received were the caresses of the whiplash and of harsh and menacing throat sounds that threatened the whiplash.” Although the dog was obviously anxious, he was unconcerned with the safety of the man.
If the man was to come upon serious danger, the dog would not be willing to help him. Not being concerned with anything somewhat inventive, the man put himself in a position to anticipate death. His selfishness and ignorance keep him in a situation of danger and disaster.
The climax of the story is when the man falls through the ice, wetting himself up to his knees. Preparing himself in advance might have prevented the man’s accident in the water. The man’s ignorance once again caused him to be unprepared for this kind of situation.
The man never took the proper precautions because he never thought of how to cope with a deadly situation. The only help he was given for a similar situation was the advice of an old-timer from Sulphur Creek. Viciously, the man attempted to stop his appendages from freezing but was unsuccessful as the dog watched.
London’s portrayal of the man does not initially give the reader the theme of dying, but slowly develops the theme as the story develops. The story doesn’t mention death until the last several pages. The main character changes from an enthusiastic pioneer to a sad and desperate man. The conclusion of the story portrays the man accepting his fate and understands the old-timer at Sulphur Creek had been right; “no man must travel alone in the Klondike after fifty below.”
Using characterization, London is able to present why certain people are alive at the end and how one benefits from being social. The old-timer at Sulfur Creek is alive because he is experienced and wise enough to benefit from others’ experiences that it is not wise to travel alone in the Yukon. The boys at camp are also alive because they are together and can benefit from each other.
The man’s husky is alive because it is well-suited for the Yukon environment, while the man is not. Unlike the other characters, London has the man die at the end of the story to illustrate that he dies because of his arrogance in his ability to travel alone. If the man travels with a companion or a companion of equal instinct, he can benefit from him and possibly return safely to camp.
In the opening paragraph London presents us with a scene that is gloomy, depressing, and ominous, these elements foreshadow an outcome that will be fatal to our protagonist. Our man has no name, but he does not need one, he could be any man that has bitten off more than he can chew; he does not consider the consequences of his actions until it is too late.
By then there can be no return, he has crossed the line that cannot be uncrossed, because he trusts his intellectual thought process, not paying attention to man’s intuitive thoughts, the instinctual ones that some men consider less valid because they come from the unconscious mind.
His unwillingness to contemplate the extreme cold, the barely used trail, his dog’s instincts, reflect the man’s inability to view the whole picture. As London puts it “the man had no imagination” he thought only to keep moving and stay dry, then he would be fine, however, the man, in the end, could do neither.
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