The story is told in an omniscient point of view about a man’s journey through the Yukon wilderness all alone, with only a Husky as a companion. While the man’s thoughts are occupied with many characters such as the old timer in Sulphur Creek and the boys that he is to meet in the other camp, it is evident in the story that there are only two characters: the unnamed protagonist and the dog.
Given this, the conflict that is observed in the story is one that of internal conflict: a man’s struggle to overcome everyday natural circumstances that turn to be his plight and his downfall because of his overconfidence in the possibility of conquering nature. The story is a commentary on how humans are always in conflict with nature, and it is up to them to align themselves with the workings of nature or not. In case of the latter, they will suffer the consequences because of the notion that nature can never be conquered nor defied without doing ill or even death to whoever takes the endeavor.
As already established, the conflict represented in the story is between man and his struggle with nature. It is interesting to note that the character of the dog is significant in the story. As a matter of fact, it serves as the embodiment of what nature is and what it can do. When the man remembers the advice of the old timer in Sulphur Creek and realizes for the first time that he made a mistake, it is not a big deal to the dog. The dog is portrayed as an expert of the winter and the trail. This wisdom of the dog is suggested in the words of the author: “The animal is depressed by the tremendous cold.
It knew that it was no time for traveling. Its instinct told it a truer tale than was told to the man by the man’s judgment” (London 422). Even with this, the man feels superior over the dog and does not realize that the dog is more knowledgeable than him when it comes to surviving the winter. Furthermore, it even crosses his mind to kill the dog for his own survival, but it is not feasible. When he calls the dog to realize his evil plans, “its suspicious nature sensed danger—it knew not what danger, but somewhere, somehow, in its brain arose an apprehension of the man” (London 432).
This idea of him wanting to kill the dog suggests control and defiance of nature. It is observed that in the end, the dog is able to find its way safe to the next camp which suggests that nature knows better than man. “And still later it crept close to the man and caught the scent of death. This made the animal bristle and back away. Then it turned and trotted up the trail in the direction of the camp it knew, where were the other food-providers and fire-providers” (London 435). The unnamed protagonist succumbs to death after two failures of building fire to warm himself.
This is a result of his stubbornness of traveling all alone after being warned by an old timer that it is not safe to hike when the temperature is fifty degrees below zero. His first struggle of building a fire to warm his wet legs and foot-gear is undone when “one bough capsized its load of snow” to the fire (London 429). This incident is again an indication that man has nothing to do with the workings of nature. The fire that he builds for his own protection and comfort is extinguished right away by just a load of snow from the same tree where he took the twigs and branches to feed the fire.
“Each time he had pulled a twig he had communicated a slight agitation to the tree—an imperceptible agitation, so far as he was concerned, but an agitation is sufficient to bring about the disaster” (London 429). This event suggests that the very essence of nature in providing for every human need is also negated in its ability to extinguish what is excessive and what is not wholly deserved. When he realized that he has already failed many times in keeping himself warm and has made a mistake to travel by himself when he should not, he decides to end his struggle.
The moment he decides to fight no more and accept his fate is the moment where he achieves the epiphany that the old man was right and that nature is impossible to be owned or conquered. No matter how he struggles to survive nature’s pangs of cold, “He was losing in his battle with the frost. It was creeping into his body from all sides” (London 434). In conclusion, the death of the protagonist is neither caused by his inability to build fire nor his lack of knowledge of the fire and the winter. It is caused by his defiance of nature’s forces. First, he refuses to take heed of the old timer’s precautions.
Second, he believes too much of himself that he can survive the winter by himself. As a matter of fact, he disregards the dog all throughout the story except when he plans to kill it. Third, instead of availing the only help he can get—the dog—he plans to kill it, and in this way, he commits a crime against nature. As a consequence, he fails to kill it for his fingers are numbed with the cold, and he is unable to at least throttle the animal. The dog displays knowledge and wisdom in surviving the trail and the winter; however, the man has not realized this.
If only he knew, they could have been safe in the next camp in no time. Finally, it was too late when he decides to conform to nature. It was the last and final stage that ultimately leads to his death. When he gave up the idea of fighting nature back, he realizes one important thing: that there is no way he can conquer nature. He realizes that the only way to live and survive alongside nature is to build fire with it, not against it. Work Cited London, Jack. “To Build a Fire. ” Great American Short Stories: From Hawthorne to Hemingway. Eds. Corinne Demas. San Francisco: Spark Educational Publishing, 2004. 420-435.
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