To Build a Fire
The short story “To build a Fire” by Jack London, tells about the relationship between man and nature. The story takes place in the Yukon during one of the long night. The main character who is unnamed travels with a dog along a small trail to a mining camp. The man leaves against the advice of a local and after a short time realizes that he should have waited. The temperature is extremely cold because the mans spit freezes before it hits the ground. The main obstacle of his journey is the many covered springs that mean death to whoever falls into them. The man sends his dog in front of him to make sure that the trail is safe. Eventually the dog falls into one of the springs and gets his paws wet. Immediate, acting solely of instinct, the dog begins to chew the ice off of his feet. Further down the trail a similar incident happens, but this time the man falls into the spring. In order to keep his feet from freezing he has to build a fire. The first attempt to build a fire is flawed by the location the man chose under a tree. After the man is unable to light a second fire because of the loss of dexterity in his fingers, he becomes panicked and blindly runs, until totally exhausted, and dies. Throughout the story the mood gives the impression of extreme cold, and the tone is ironic. Through the actions of the main character, Jack London shows that man must be humble to nature.
The main character in the story remains nameless because he isn’t supposed to represent and specific person. Jack London did this on purpose because in his first version of the story the man does have a name. The man represents the fraction of society that doesn’t respect nature. He doesn’t understand the power of nature because he is oblivious to it. On the other hand the dog was “told a truer tale than that was told to the man by the man’s judgement.” The man “did not know cold. Possibly all the generations of his ancestry had been ignorant of cold, of real cold.” “The was no keen intimacy between the dog and the man.” The man and the dog are together because the man needs the dog, and the dog has no choice. They have no emotional connection between them because the dog is used as a slave. In one part of the story the man uses the dog to test the trail and make sure that it is safe. The dog has more inherent knowledge about the area, all of his “ancestry knew” about the cold and the dangers of extreme cold. He also had a warm “natural covering” to keep him safe from the weather. The man was not used to the cold. He “was without imagination. He was quick and alert to the things of life, but only the things, and not the significances.” He also was stubborn for his neglect to take advice.
To Build a Fire is a story is a perfect example of the writing genre Naturalism. It contains elements like survival depends on instinct, nature is impersonal, man lacks free choice, and heredity and environment direct and influence our lives. In the story nature is the antagonist and is very impersonal, as it is in life. The dog survived because it knew to find fire from instinct. The man died because he lacked free choice. In Naturalism the conflict remains unresolved.
Death brings the man more imagination. In the beginning of the story the man lacked imagination, as he began to accept death he went through a lot of changes. At first, before the cold really sets in he is very envious of the dog. As the cold set in, he became more imaginative. He used “the sense of vision in the place of touch.” He soon realized that the “Old-timer at Sulfur Creek was right,” and “despair” began to set in. Even with the extreme cold, he still tried to light his fire. At first he though that it was only a small problem and the cold might cost him a couple of fingers, but towards the end he realized that it was his life that he was fighting for. When the fire failed the second time he became desperate. “He remembered the tale of the man, caught in a blizzard, who killed a steer and crawled inside his carcass, and so was saved.” This “put a wild idea into his head,” “He would kill the dog and bury in the warm body until the numbness went out of them.” When the man failed to kill the dog “A certain fear of death, dull and oppressive, came over him.” He began to panic and run blindly to the camp. Although he knew he lacked the endurance he drove forward until collapsing for the final time. Once again he saw the warm dog and became angry and envious of his warmth. Eventually he sat up and decided to meet “death with dignity.” After he accepts his death he has an out of body experience, and then “drowsed off into what seemed to him the most comfortable and satisfying sleep that he had ever known.”
The story shows that nature is stronger than man. Animal’s live a lot closer to their habitat than we do and therefore have a more intricate understanding of it. The man should have listened to the old man, or noticed the signs that his dog was giving. The story also shows that nature is random, it doesn’t choose who will live and die. I think that this story is a perfect example of naturalism, because it contains all of the elements.
To Build a Fire