In Jack London’s, “To Build a Fire,” the presumptuous qualities of human nature are highlighted, in the story of a man who attempts to take on the hypothermic Yukon in Alaska. The main character allows his pride to take over his mental process, which distorts his perception. This leads him to making ignorant decisions. The man ignores what an old-teller warns him about traveling alone in the Yukon when the temperature is fifty degrees below zero with his strong sense of dignity and confidence. However, when he runs out of gas in his attempt to reach the mining camp where his friends would be, he accepts his sciolism in reminder of what the older teller told him and comes to terms with his death.
The unnamed character is trekking through the bleak conditions of Alaska through Yukon in hopes of arriving at a mining camp where his friends are. The man ignores the fact that it is fifty degrees below zero in the midst of a sunless day. His dog, a native husky, is traveling with him is “deeply depressed by the tremendous cold.” (820) When he reaches Henderson Creek, an area that he was familiar with, he decides to stop. He notices that the creek is frozen and sends the dog ahead of him in fear of getting his feet wet by the subzero water. When the dog breaks through the ice and gets his legs wet, the man’s fingers go numb while trying to remove the ice off the dog. He immediately builds a fire. After traveling for some more time after their stop, the man falls through the ice himself and is forced to stop and build a fire once again. While trying to build the fire, the man thinks of the old-teller who told him not to travel alone when it is fifty below zero. He convinces himself that the old-tellers are generally feminine and that “all a man had to do was keep his head, and he was all right.” (824) The man epically fails at building the fire and irrationally comes to the conclusion that he should kill the dog and submerge into its body for warmth. After his attempt to attack the dog, he realizes that the old-teller was right after all and finally accepts defeat.
London suggests that the central conflict is an internal conflict within the main character, in which “he was without imagination” leading him to make foolish decisions. Along with his stubbornness, he ignores nature and the advice he’s been given and believes he can defeat the odds of nature. The story leads to the main character realizing that he will not be able to survive when he runs out of gas. This realization consists of him remembering what the old-teller had told him about how “no man must travel alone in the Klondlike after fifty below,” and the severity of his incomprehension of his situation. His obstinate attitude takes the price of his life. He tried to express free will in spirit of his self-assured attitude in an environment that was going to inevitably destroy him. The theme of determinism is emphasized, in the fact that nature is indifferent to humans.
The story is told in third person omniscient, allowing readers to get a great understanding of the situation, not only through the main character, but his “dog, a big native husky.” (820) The mind of the main character, the unnamed man, “was of thoughts, he was keenly observant, and he noticed the changes in the creeks, the curves and bends and timber jams…” (812) The dog’s mind is subtly introduced in the fact that “the animal was depressed by the tremendous cold.” (820) The third person omniscient point of view allows for the author to express his indifference towards the character and his foolishness. This indifference is emphasized when the author states that the falling of tree, that destroyed his fire, was the man’s “own fault or, rather, his mistake.” (825) Within the quick peak into the dog’s mind, its “menacing apprehension that subdued it…” better reveals the relentlessness in the austere situation. In addition, the fact that the man’s mind is rarely truly entered and the conditions and situations compose most of the story highlights London’s intention in revealing the theme of determinism.
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