"To Build a Fire"
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
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.
London, Jack "To Build A Fire."
(1908) URL: http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/London/Writings/LostFace/fire.html
15 June 2000.
page for WebCT English 1102
Armstrong Atlantic State University