Jack London’s title for the story “To Build a Fire” starts the reader off with a very basic idea; building a fire. Almost anyone can build a fire. All it takes is a match and some kindling. London’s story is about more then building a fire, though. This story is about a man’s belief in himself, self-confidence and even arrogance, to such an extent that he doesn’t recognize the power of nature around him. London’s story is more like a “Man against Nature” story. London’s “To Build a Fire” casts a clear image that in the ever long-lasting battle between man and nature, nature is not a force that should be reckoned with.
The author’s characters are even very general. The main character of the story is never given a name except to be called a “chechaqua” or newcomer in the land. “The constant struggle of Man against the natural world and physical forces which threaten to undo him at any moment is expressed greatly by this story.”(Colin) This is not a story about one individual person or one isolated incident, but a story used to illustrate a larger continuous gamble or battle between man and nature.
London spends the first few paragraphs setting the physical scene. The setting is in Alaska along the Yukon River. It is close to the end of winter but the sun is still not yet in the sky. It is mentioned that this does not bother the man. The rest of the setting is described around the man and the places he has passed on this current journey and where else the trail leads in other directions. The description of the scenery is one of the most intriguing aspects of this story. London had a way of almost making the reader feel cold for the man in the story just by his descriptions of the surrounding territory.
“The Yukon lay a mile wide and hidden under three feet of ice. On top of this ice was as many feet of snow. It was all pure white, rolling in gentle undulations where the ice jams of the freeze-up had formed. North and south as far as his eye could see, it was unbroken white..”(Charters, 910)
The scene is set as beautiful, peaceful and cold. The harshness of this physical setting begins to become more and more clear as the story progresses. Later the man notices that his spit is cracking and freezing before it reaches the ground. He remembers that at fifty degrees below zero spit will freeze when it hits the ground. “Undoubtedly it was colder than fifty below.”(911) This also means that there is at least 107 degrees of frost if it is truly 75 degrees below freezing.
To increase the readers awareness of the cold, London describes how the mans breath is freezing on his whiskers and beard, the man is also chewing tobacco and with the temperature as cold as it is his cheeks and lips are numb and his spit tends to just end up on his beard and freezes in seconds. This man must be out of his mind to be out in the wilderness in these extreme climate conditions. “Seeing a man that oblivious to the dangers of traveling alone in colder than fifty below weather, walking on ice, and making a fire under a snow covered tree should be enough to substantiate that he was not unlucky but just plain stupid!”(Wilson)
The man starts to grow this “crystal beard of the color and solidity of amber.”(912) The surroundings are beautiful, peaceful and cold but the man did not see the danger that nature could bring upon him. That it was too cold out to travel or that it could get worse “was a thought that never entered his head.”(912)
The man had a native of the land with him. “At the man’s heels trotted a dog.”(911) No name is ever given to the dog in the story. Another way for London to keep the story general and the focus on the theme. The dog is a big, native Husky, a brother to the wild wolf it had the instincts to respect nature. The dog knew the temperature was too cold to be traveling but stayed at the man’s heels. The dog plays a dual role in this story. He plays the man’s conscience and natures voice and personification. “Often a dog can reflect the same personality and character traits as it’s owner. Dogs are extremely intelligent creatures and will reflect and behavior that they are exposed to for lengthy periods of time.”(Feinson, 127)
The man treats the dog the same way he treats nature; with no respect. The dog is just a tool, a sled dog and later considered expendable to possibly save the man’s life. The man treats nature much the same way. The dog also shows at the end how nature moves on. The dog stays to watch the man as he dies and once the dog realizes the man is dead he runs off to the cabin where there are “other food providers and fire providers”(921)
The protagonist in the story is the unnamed man. He’s a “newcomer” to this area of Alaska and it his first winter. He is on his way to a cabin at a claim where he will meet up with “the boys.” London refers to him as a man without “imagination” but, “quick and alert in the things of life.”(910) It is this lack of imagination that makes the man unable to believe or heed the warnings of the veteran Alaskan men who told him not to travel alone when it is fifty below. One needs to have a second person to try and start a fire if the first person should fail. But, the man in the story is over confident. He stops once and makes a fire without a problem to thaw his face so he can eat his lunch.
The man doesn’t notice how much the dog wants to stay at the fire. He doesn’t respect the instincts of the native animal. The trail follows along a creek, which is frozen but has natural springs along it that create small pools of water with thin ice and coatings of snow to cover them up. The man almost prides himself on how well he can spot these warning signs of possible danger. He also is increasingly happy with the pace he is keeping.
The man soon falls into one of nature’s little traps, a small pool of water, and has only a few minutes to build a fire and get warm and dry before he freezes to death. He tries to stay as calm as possible but in his haste doesn’t pick a good spot to build a fire. He realizes too late when the heat from the fire he has just built starts to melt the snow in the tree branches above him and drops down smothering the fire. “A man alone in the wilderness coupled with stupidity is a deadly combination. To deal with nature takes skill and know-how, this man seems to have neither, he was doomed from the moment he went off alone.”(website)
When it is 75 degrees below freezing one person doesn’t have a second chance to build a fire. The temperature is just too cold and exposed parts of the body will start to freeze. The man still believes in his strength to overcome the power of nature and continues to try and build a fire. He doesn’t succeed and at the end accepts his fate and falls asleep thinking about the next day when “the boys” would find him. The story is an illustration of what can happen to a person that doesn’t respect nature and its power. “This is the story of a man’s struggle against nature, trying to survive against impossible odds in a universe indifferent to an individuals fate.”(909) The man was so confident in himself that he traveled with nothing but his lunch and a few matches and birch bark to start a fire. “He has also been warned not to travel alone in such cold, but he goes anyway, with only his dog and confidence for a companion.”(Synopsis, 220)
He has no company, or supplies for the possibility he may confront some type of danger. Whether the danger be with another animal or with his surroundings. The short version of the story was originally published in the Boy Scouts of America Handbook. Any Boy Scout might remember the story form when they were a kid and the lessons that were taught from it when they were younger. They were taught to respect nature for what it is, what it can do, and of course, to always be prepared. If you aren’t, nature will take it’s toll, and what a deadly toll it can be.
Courtney from Study Moose
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