To Build a Fire Analysis
The short story, ‘To build a fire,’ by Jack London tells the tale of a man who embarks on a journey of nine miles in extremely hostile cold conditions in a place to which he is not at all accustomed to. His lonely sojourn in the company of a dog puts him through a nightmare where he encounters the pure savagery of nature by way of the lashing cold. Toiling through unknown terrain, frozen by the weather of sixty degrees below freezing point, he pushes the limits to keep moving forward. In fact, he has been warned by an elder at Sulfur Creek not to undertake his journey alone, but the man ignores the old-timer, trusting the vanity of his wisdom which preempts him from foreseeing the ferocity of the brutality that lies hidden in nature. Finally, unable to withstand the fierceness of the cold, incapable of even building a fire with his frozen hands, he surrenders his vanity and ignorance before the might of nature and drops dead. The story illustrates the human fallacy of pride and ignorance and shows how these weaknesses can cause peril.
The author narrates the story from the point of view of the unnamed protagonist whose vane character makes him think that he knows enough about the terrain to undertake the journey in such conditions, despite the warning from an old man who is a native of that place and knows the land and its weather quite well. Though the man is aware of the fact that temperature in that area drops to sixty degrees below freezing point, he fails to estimate its actual implications at a practical level. Thus, the readers can understand that despite his pretentions to be smart and chivalrous he is devoid of common sense and natural instincts that even the dog which accompanies him has. The man can thus be seen as a person who views things only on a surface level because of his lack of wisdom and, therefore, he fails to appreciate the raw power of nature, which culminates in his doom. The author brings out the fragility of the man by contrasting him against the dog, which, albeit being a humble animal, clearly understands nature by its instincts and thus becomes capable of surviving the horrendous journey. Again, the selfishness and the primeval element of violence in the man’s character become evident where he thinks of killing the dog and slitting its belly to dip and warm his hands from its blood. Here, the animal’s instincts reveal to it the man’s intention and it backs away to safety. However, in spite of some weaknesses in his person, the man does possess some traits that render strength to his character. His persistence with continuing the journey, and the manner in which he entertains the thought about “the conception of meeting death with dignity,” demonstrate this. (London, 1908). This shows that the man accepts death as a final verdict of nature upon humans, and he accepts it with honor.
The conflict in the story mainly stems from the man’s need to reach the campus 9 miles away, in such an extreme climate condition. The conflict builds up as the journey progresses, and the man has to face challenges upon devastating challenges that nature offers. The basic source of the conflict is human ignorance and vanity which causes him to underestimate nature. As discussed earlier, the protagonist perceives things on a superficial level only and, therefore, fails to understand the savagery nature can unleash, which he suffers throughout various episodes in the journey. The element that stands out here as the reason for the conflict is a human fallacy. The man’s pride in his knowledge prevents him from reckoning the actual implications of the place and the extreme weather condition which is sixty degrees below freezing point. If the man were to have wisdom he would have been able to envision and foresee the practical difficulties of a nine-mile journey under such conditions, and wouldn’t ignore the old timer’s advice.
London has used the literary device of setting to accentuate the element of human fallacy in causing a disaster of such magnitude. The first description of the Yukon River, “a mile wide and hidden under three feet of ice, On top of this was as many feet of snow,’ itself signifies the man’s folly, entailing the main conflict in the story, and strikes home the point in the readers’ mind with full impact. From this stage on, London both enchants and horrifies the reader with his beautiful description of the topography as well as sometimes subtle and sometimes straight hints to the climatic conditions. The “crackling spittle,” the dog stepping into the water, wetting its forefeet and legs, and “almost immediately the water that clung to it turns to ice,” are images that will haunt the audience long after they finished reading the story. (London, 1908). Besides, these images also point to the conflict in this story which entailed as a result of human folly. Thus, one can surely argue that the author, through this saga of a lone man who embarks on a mission impossible, has successfully portrayed the fallacy of human vanity which caused irreparable damage.
Works Cited London, Jack. To Build a Fire. The Century Magazine. V.76. Aug. 1908. 19 Mar. 2008. <http://www.jacklondons.net/buildafire.html>.