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The Setting in the Short Story to Build a Fire

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When people think about winter they may think about snow and the cold temperatures. Normally they do not think about the harsh consequences that can come with being in the winter wilderness. However, in Jack London’s “To Build a Fire”, those harsh consequences are brought to life as the main character has to deal with them.

London’s style of writing is part of the naturalism movement. This means that the environment and nature have a huge significance in the story. Because of that, “To Build a Fire” follows the framework of a typical naturalist story by having the setting be heavily described and emphasized. In the story, London uses the setting to create the conflict, develop the characters, and tone to convey the message that if one does not put aside his pride and listen to others, then they will suffer in the future.

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One aspect that is created by London through the use of setting is tone. The setting is mentioned from the very beginning of the story, allowing the tone to be created from the start as well. By using words such as “dark” and “subtle gloom” (24), the dismal tone of the story is revealed. Whenever London depicts the setting, he never uses words that are lively or cheery, but instead uses descriptors that are very dreary and almost depressing at times. That technique directly affects what the tone of the story will be at any given time. Furthermore, the repetition of the lack of sun, “no sun nor hint of sun” adds to the bleak and miserable tone of the story (24). The constant absence of the sun or anything bright emphasizes the hopeless tone created by the setting. It is also foreshadowing the unpleasant outcomes that are going to occur because everything about the tone and setting is grim. By describing the setting the way London did, the readers are able to infer what might happen to the man. Additionally, the tone that is created by London correlates to how the setting is described. It clearly represents how the setting creates and influences the tone. Through London’s application of the setting, a clear tone is able to be portrayed to the readers easily.

However, tone is not the only thing created by setting. Another element that the setting greatly affects is characters and the evolution of them throughout the story. The setting causes the characters to experience many physical and mental challenges. As the cold temperatures started to get to the man, he started to go crazy and do things that he would not normally do: “…he encircled its body with his arms…while it snarled and whined and struggled” (29). The man became so desperate because of his surroundings that he tried to kill the dog. London uses the setting to show the readers another side to the man that was not seen before. Along with that, the setting played a huge role in contributing to the man’s deteriorating health. As the story goes on, the setting gets worse, causing the character’s health to get worse as well: “Already all the sensation had gone out of his feet” (27). The below freezing temperatures caused this to happen. London uses the effects of the setting to not only cause the character a lot of distress but also expands them by describing how they handle everything that is transpiring due to the setting.

Lastly, the author uses the setting to create the main conflict and develop it throughout the entire story. The setting is the biggest obstacle that the character has to face. This created many problems for him and ultimately led to his death. In the story, it states, “he was losing in his battle with the frost” (30). Due to the frigid conditions, the character has to deal with not having full control of his body. This obstacle generated by the setting adds another layer to the struggle the man has to face. The setting of Alaska’s arctic tundra created many other hardships as well. For example, London states, “It grew like an avalanche, and it descended without warning upon the man and the fire, the fire was blotted out!” (28). The bitter winter windchill caused the man’s fire to blow out resulting in him receiving no warmth. He then struggles throughout the rest of the story to build another. After every step that is taken to better the situation, London always follows it up with a negative action by the setting to contradict what just happened. This then establishes another conflict that has to be dealt with. This pattern goes on throughout the story, permitting London to convey his message that if people do not stop to look at things from other perspectives or listen to others because they are too prideful, then they may face unfortunate consequences. The setting enables the conflict to fully arise and occur as the story goes on.

London used the setting to create the tone, develop the characters, and the main conflicts throughout the story. However, the setting did not only impact the main aspects of the story, it also allowed the readers to have a better understanding of the message that the author was trying to convey. This was that if one does not try to listen to others or see things from a different perspective because of their pride, then they will pay for it in the future. If the setting was not described the way it was by London the story would also be completely different. Without the setting, the story would not be complete.


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