"To Build a Fire"

Donald Brown

Most of Jack London's stories are set in the outdoors. By using the outdoors as a backdrop, London offers a unique perspective to the story's themes and different character types. In "To Build a Fire," I believe that London uses the theme and character of a rugged, independent outdoorsman to show that, even though we may want to travel alone in the outdoors, we should always travel with friends or stay within our limits. He uses his knowledge of nature to set a wilderness backdrop that fits well into any story that he writes.
The plot in this story is one of a man trying to conquer the last frontier. I believe that London, through this plot, shows how one needs to keep in mind that, no matter how much we think that we control something, we are still at nature's mercy. Nature's scorn is shown when the central character, after passing through the most dangerous areas of "ice springs," thinks that he is home free. Then he steps into a puddle of shallow water that goes up to his knees. But just when the man thinks that he is home free again and his fire is started and will soon be drying him, it is put out by snow on the very tree that has given him the branches to create his fire. London also shows how we should respect our elders by the knowledge the old man from Sulphur Creek possesses. The old man had warned the younger one about trailing in the back country in such harsh weather. The young man shrugged off the warnings and went out anyway. I believe that London is trying to show us how we need to listen to our elders and not to what our young minds tell us to do. The elders have been there and know what will work. An example of this is when engineering students first begin work. They design projects that work well on paper however, by the time that these projects reach the foreman on the job site, the sites are often immediately sent back to be reworked. The man in charge of construction on the site knows designs that will work and ones that will not by experience. The fresh young college graduate knows only what works on paper, unless he has spent some time in the field earlier in college or in his life.
I believe that London uses the theme of rugged individualism to show how sometimes we do not need to be alone. If the man had been traveling with a friend instead of a dog, then he would most likely not have died. Instead the man tries to prove his ruggedness by traveling alone. He most likely had nothing to prove but to increase his self-esteem. The man also refuses to listen to the dog; it knew that it was too dangerous to traveling. The dog cowers away and even wants to return to the first fire that the man builds. The dog tucks his tail between his legs and whimpers for the man to return to the warmth. I believe that the dog is trying to show the man that it was foolish to try and travel in such weather. London also shows the theme of ruggedness by how the man seems to have no fear of a temperature of fifty below zero. To me this emphasizes the man's cockiness. I have many years of camping in my life, either through hunting or from my Boy Scout days. I have enough sense to know when it is too cold or the weather is too rough to begin a trip. This man knows the dangers and what may happen and chooses to live with what the consequences may be and pays the ultimate price. I have been camping before when there have been lightning storms, thunder storms, or hurricanes approaching. However, the group I travel with has enough sense to know when "the getting is good" and to make it home or to shelter safely.
London uses the man as a symbolic character. The man symbolizes certain people who believe that they can survive on their own. London uses this to show that, even if someone tries to make it on their own, that the unlikely often happens. If the man had been traveling with a friend, then he most likely would have survived. In Boy Scouting, this idea of traveling with a "buddy" is taught in the first rank that a scout attains. The young scouts must know why to travel with a buddy and what to do if that buddy becomes injured. I believe that London is showing us that, no matter how invincible we think we are, the inevitable can happen.

Work Cited
London, Jack "To Build A Fire." (1908) URL: http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/London/Writings/LostFace/fire.html 15 June 2000.

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