In 1908, Jack London published his revised version of To Build a Fire. It was popular for many reasons, yet one attraction to the story was the predominant themes that he involved in all his stories. Within this story, the theme of man versus nature is predominant, and is highlighted when the main character is trying to build a fire to save himself from the harsh indifference of nature. The main character, a nameless stranger in this version, fights his way through the below freezing Yukon Territory. He has several major mistakes throughout the story. He does not seem to realize that his attempts to best Nature at its’ own game would be futile.
Nature has a major meaning in many of Jack London’s nature stories. Here, it is the utter strength of nature and how vast and dangerous it can be. The main character is trying to conquer the frontier of the Yukon Territory, yet knows very little on how to even survive it. He is warned about the dangers in the frontier, yet he completely ignores them. Due to his ignorance, he becomes careless.
Because he becomes careless, he begins to underestimate his surroundings and ends up dying. His ego goes to conflict with his common sense as well. He does not fully understand the threat posed by the alien environment and that the only way to survive is to use his instincts. Only in his last moments does he reflect upon how incorrect he was to disregard the advice that was bestowed upon him. “’You were right, old hoss; you were right,’ the man mumbled to the old-timer of Sulphur Creek.”(London).
Nature is a constant. Nature does not have feelings or remorse. So, Nature never cares who you are or how much money you have. It only matters if you have the wit to stay alive, or to play by its rules. Nature shows no mercy, and it shown in the story when the main character wets his legs in the springs and builds a fire, only for it to be put out by the tree he is sitting under. Also, the several failed attempts to make fires to save his life shows how Nature would not allow him to live, no matter what he did or how hard he tried. Nature’s indifference mixed with the mistakes made by the protagonist led to the inevitable death that befell him.
The main character makes several mistakes that could have prevented his death. First, was the fact that he thought that he could singlehandedly take on Nature in the Yukon Territory. Additionally, it was due to his pride that he inevitably dies. He, first of all, travels by himself. It was one of the main rules in Yukon Territory to not go traveling alone if it was 50 degrees below zero. At the point when the main character left, it was 75 below. Even after an experienced person warned him not to go, his pride took over and he ignored the wise words. He even laughed about how he was right, and how the other people were just paranoid.
Within this story, Man greatly underestimated Nature. It is conveyed by the way that the man feels he can control Nature and attempts to do so. He is pleased with his one singular accomplishment, and as a result gets himself into a precarious situation. Yet, by how he cannot build a fire after that first one shows how even he could not break out of Nature’s preset boundaries. “Despite the gloomy, bitter, numbing cold, the man is not worried, even though he has reason to worry. At first he underestimates the cold.
He knows that his face and fingers are numb, but he fails to realize the seriousness of his circumstances until later in the story.” (Welsh) The story’s protagonist shows very little apprehension for the hidden dangers Nature has. He does have enough knowledge about the trail to know how the hidden springs were located near the river; yet he did not have enough knowledge and experience to know not to build a fire under a tree, and especially not to take the branches of that specific tree that you are seated under.
His inexperience left him weak and vulnerable to his worthy opponent, Nature. Man, in general, is a large variable that acts off of feelings rather than knowledge. The main character’s ignorance was a large factor of the mistakes he made along the way. He was warned many times by the old man at Sulphur Creek not to go out by himself because it was really dangerous and it was his first winter there. Because it was his first winter there, he completely disregarded the old man, thinking he was not being realistic.
He grew extremely ignorant after he built the first fire. “He remembered the advice of the old-timer on Sulphur Creek, and smiled. The old-timer had been very serious in 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. Those old-timers were rather womanish, some of them, he thought. All a man had to do was to keep his head, and he was all right. Any man who was a man could travel alone.” (London) Yet this ignorance led to bigger problems.
The main character’s ego does get in the way of his common sense throughout the story. He is a newcomer to the territory, so he does not know the way of the people there and the attitude that is necessary when traversing the back country. So his whole attitude is that things are what they appear, and there is no other way for them to be. Yet, in Yukon Territory, that is not the case. There were many hidden dangers that far up North, yet he only sees a few of them and refuses to look for the rest.
“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.” (London) His common sense was ignored in his situation because the man wanted to meet up with his pals no matter what and he wanted to tell them of how he defied Nature and survived. His common sense was telling him that the trip was not a good idea. There were a few obvious dangers that he ignored. If he had paid attention to those dangers, he would have been alive.
Mainly, he has been separated from his group and is traveling alone through a very cold environment that has been proven to be very dangerous in the wintertime. He does acknowledge these facts but does not think of those things as dangers, but rather as slight challenges that he could very easily overcome. The protagonist feels that he cannot wait for his traveling partners to come back down the trail, but has to rush up to meet them. And the man does not think that the temperature is anything to be seriously worried about. So, altogether, he is a disaster waiting to happen.
In many of Jack London’s stories, he uses an outdoors setting to inhibit the theme of nature. In this story, he does use nature to show how Man is vulnerable to Nature no matter where they are or what they are doing. Nature shows no mercy, and the main character realized that fact a little too late in the story. His inexperience and complete arrogance towards those who had more knowledge than him did lead towards his death.
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