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In Jack London's "To Build a Fire," he reveals how a man goes through a harsh winter in the forest facing multiple obstacles along the way. He has to depend on what he thinks he should do when problems arise instead of thinking intuitively and beyond the obvious. Before the unnamed man left on his expedition he was warned by an old timer "that no man must travel alone in the Klondike after fifty below" (London 238). If the man would have listened to the old timer in the beginning of the story he would have never had to be in any of the situations. But because the man likes to think for himself, it costs him his life. London shows readers that the outcome of events can change drastically if actions are analyzed with instinctive insight. London states, "The trouble with him was that he was without imagination" (231- 232). This tells us that in order to make it through hard times you have to use your imagination and think of creative ways to get yourself out of the situation you are in. London wants readers to understand that the man didn't need just warmth and fire but he needed to build this fire where it wouldn't be doused. Through tone, theme and characters, in "To Build a Fire", Jack London reveals the man's struggle against nature and how mankind in general no longer trust their instincts to think beyond the surface of life and its situation to survive in a world where man in less significant than the forces of nature.
As the reader first begins the story they will realize that the tone is going to be very gloomy because of the first sentence which London states, "Day had broken cold and gray, exceedingly cold and gray" (231). The reader then knows how cold it is, then London as well states, "It was a clear day, and yet there seemed an intangible pall over the face of things, a subtle gloom that made the day dark, and that was due to the absence of sun." The reader also knows that the man is up very far north in Canada because of the clues given off from that sentence. Up north in the winter the sun does not shine, which makes it even colder because there is no source of heat. London makes it explicitly clear that it was dark and very cold. London states a bunch of code words, and restates them within the story, to make sure that the reader knows how cold it is, such words as cold, gray, and gloomy. London had two different stories called "To Build a Fire," the first was a lot shorter. "London obviously used his additional wordage for greater artistic effect, creating a narrative mystery and an atmosphere lacking in his first vision" (Labor and Hendricks, 237). The difference between the first and second is in the second there was a dog and in the end the man ends up dying. The first story still has the same effect of being very cold and dark though, and all the situations are not as much in detail. In the end the man ends up surviving and making it back to the camp with the boys, so that is a big relief for the reader. In the second story he wrote the story to build up the reader with a lot of extra details that he left off in the first. While you read you get so into the story with all the visual detail that the author puts in it that you want the man to survive and make it back to camp, but in the end he places a big let down on the story and has the man die. With all the extra detail it is easier for the reader to understand exactly how cold it is and how much snow there is covering the ground. Therefore, the tone in the first is more uplifting and happy than in the second where he dies and leaves the reader depresses because he didn't make it back to camp with the boys.
The main central theme of London's "To Build a Fire," is man versus nature. The unnamed man goes into the forest alone with just a native dog hoping to survive, ending up not making it through the harsh winter wind and ending up dying. "The theme consists of a double movement - downward toward disintegration and death and upward toward reintegration and life, but life greatly enriched" (Peterson, 15). The theme in the story is foremost in a downward shift. Through the whole story everything keeps going downhill. For instance the one upward shift in the story, when he actually gets the fire lit, is soon accompanied by the greatest downward shift when the fire is put out because of the snow falling on the fire. But if the man would have just placed the fire in a more open spot this wouldn't have happened, instead the man thinking instinctively instead of thinking out of the box, places it under the tree where the branches are easily located and the man does not have to carry them to a further location. The man tried to light another fire in a different location, but it was too late the cold had taken him over and his hands were too numb to be able to light the match to start the fire. If the man would have just thought about what would happen after he lit the fire and the hot steam would start to melt the snow located on the tree above, this would not have happened and he might have survived through the crude winter. Because of this action he let nature take over him.
The characters in this story are the unnamed man, the dog, and the old-timer from Sulphur Creek. The man is known as the "chechaquo,"(London, 231) or the newcomer, goes out in the winter forest with only a dog along with him and tries to undergo the obstacles in the forest along the way. This was the man's first encounter with the cold Canadian forest, clearly the man should not risk his life in the cold when he is from the south and used to the warm weather. When the man first started his long journey, there was probably not a thought that he might die of hypothermia. The story ends with his death because the man let nature overcome him. The man before the journey started did not think about how powerful nature is, he thought that he could overcome nature but he couldn't. In the man's case his thinking has to go beyond the power of reason, he needed to think of what would be the outcome of his action. "Unlike the short-signed and rationally limited traveler, he would not have walked without a companion, and most certainly would have built a fire in the correct way" (Bowen). The man did not; he let nature take him over. London described the dog as being, "A big native husky, the proper wolf dog, gray-coated and without any visible or temperamental differences from its brother, the wild wolf" (232). Although the cold forest was native to the dog he still had to respect his owner, the man, to taking the lead into the forest when the dog clearly knew it was too cold for survival. The dog being native to the cold weather has better instinct than the man. For instance when the dog falls in the river trail, he immediately starts to lick his legs and try to get all of the frost off. The dog also knows how to keep himself warm by curling up in a ball in the snow. In the end due to the man's death he knows to strive on towards camp. "The old-timer from Sulphur Creek is the man's major source of advice in the story." From the beginning of the story the old-timer warned the man of the obstacles he would be facing while going in the forest alone with only a dog, but the man still insisted on going along on his journey. At first, as the man was remembering the advice that the old-timer gave him he was thinking how "womanish" he sounded, "You were right old hoss; you were right, the man mumbled to the old-timer from Sulphur Creek" (London, 244), by the end the man wished that he would have listened to him and not been in the situation he was in.
London's disappointment in mankind's loss of instinctual judgment us evident through the use of tone, theme, and characters. His story teaches readers to look beyond what is placed in front of you and take it to the next level. This story is very easily comparable to life, because if you not careful and don't analyze the situation before you put yourself into it people will take advantage of you and start to walk all over you. Just as in the story, the man did not analyze the situation he messed up in, therefore nature took advantage of him. May states, "That the man's death is more important because it represents the weakness of man without a companion to aid him in a struggle with nature" (21). London's story places thoughts in the readers head that nature can be understood and subdued with help of another human being, intuitive thinking, and good reasoning. According to Peterson, "what London is saying is that modern man in accepting reason as a guide to short-sighted ends, has allowed his primal instincts to trophy" (17) London does not want people to just totally forget about primal intuition, but to consider instance and good reasoning in order to overcome the obstacles that people face in life. London believes if people keep reverting to their habits of just doing what is easiest, we will end up like the man in the story did.
Bowen,Â JamesÂ K.Â Â "Jack London's 'To Build a Fire': Epistemology and the White Wilderness." Western American LiteratureÂ 5.Â (1971): 287-89.
Labor,Â EarleÂ andÂ Hendricks,Â King.Â Â "Jack London's Twice-Told Tale." Studies in Short FictionÂ 4.Â (1967): 334-347.
London, Jack. "To Build a Fire." The Norton book of American short stories. Ed. Peter S. Prescott. New York: Norton, 1988. 231-244.
May,Â CharlesÂ E.Â Â "'To Build a Fire': Physical Fiction and Metaphysical Critics." Studies in Short FictionÂ 15.1Â (Winter 1978):Â 19-24.
Peterson,Â ClellÂ T.Â Â "The Theme of Jack London's 'To Build a Fire'." American Book CollectorÂ 17.3Â (November 1966): 15-18.