The protagonist in Jack London’s To Build a Fire implies a character that is cool, calm, and collected under the pressures of loneliness and landscape. The text suggests that the man is alone in the Artic wilderness of Alaska with all it’s dangers and natural mysteries. London’s character seems to be a direct contrast to his surroundings, where the land is seemingly limitless and wondrous, the man is limited and admittedly, without imagination. Similarly, in contrast with the timeless and constantly changing character of the natural world is the character of the man, who displays serious calculation and conscious, purposeful action.
Though the man does show signs of fear and apprehension, it becomes apparent that he wants to believe that he is stronger than his surroundings and that his feelings do not reflect a defect in his own character. In the end the man meets his demise by realizing that nature is more powerful and swift than man with all his equipment and thoughts. The most important feat for the man becomes the simple ability to build a fire. Early on in the text, it is stated that the man was of no imagination and for this reason had little appreciation for the wilderness and all the elements that he simply noted in his life and on this journey.
“The trouble with him was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances”. It was, in fact, the significances that the man would learn that were of the greatest consequence. Although, he was warned by an older man to never travel alone, the man paid no mind to this warning and believed that he could conquer nature alone. The man, alone in the wilderness and only in the company of his dog, was also experiencing an emptiness in his thoughts.
“Empty as the man’s mind was of thoughts, he was keenly observant, and he noticed the changes in the creek, the curves and bends and timber-jams, and always he sharply noted where he placed his feet”. The man is one of action and not of much contemplation, even his emotions seem hollow and are compared to the fears that his dog instinctively experiences. But, it is due to this emptiness and lack of appreciation of the severity and vastness of nature and his human nature that leads him to falter and step into the creek, even as observant as he believed he was.
It is to build a fire that is the most unnatural and to the man, impossible ability of humankind. The feat of the most primitive men in history was the only thing that could save the man’s life, but he had to surrender to the power and forces of nature. “He knew there must be no failure. When it is seventy-five below zero, a man must not fail in his first attempt to build a fire–that is, if his feet are wet”. Just as the man had the capacity to know that he must succeed in his attempt to build a fire, knowing this and believing that his ability to think would allow him to conquer nature was his downfall.
In conclusion, the man in “To Build a Fire”, believes himself to be strong and smart, but not imaginative or appreciative of the wilderness around him. He serves as a direct contrast to the world around him, as he uses his watch, matches, and other man-made objects on his journey. With all that his has in his intentions and his arsenal of equipment, he must surrender to the power of nature that knows no time, no mercy, and no limit. Works Cited London, Jack. (1908). “To Build a Fire” in To Build a Fire and Other Stories (1999). Macmillan
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