Jack London’s “To Build a Fire”

Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” seems to set out on a single task: to inform the reader. The title itself implies that the story is more of a manual on how to build a fire than it is a tale with many lessons. The story’s deep description, symbolism, and purposeful diction all contribute to its strong portrayal of the dominance of nature.

The first lines paint a vivid picture of a cold gray scene with a faint trail leading away into the Yukon wilderness. The man, as he is always described, has no name and therefore can be interpreted as the reader or someone the reader knows. Also, without a name, the man does not represent individuality, but is a symbol for all men relying on fact over instinct. “The trouble with him was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only the things…”(1763). The man is a mathematical, scientific thinker; he follows the enlightenment ideals that science is the answer to everything. This is the only point in the story where Jack London seems to make any judgment on the man or his way of thinking. London stresses his point that the man never thought more of things than their scientific basis, never conjectured further thought or addressed significance. The rest of the story seems to be laid out like instructions, it just displays the facts without discourse to their importance.

In almost the complete opposite of the man, his dog carries a vital role in the story. The dog represents an instinctual reaction to the situation, unlike the man who depends on technology. The dog uses it fur coat as natural protection from the cold and is even introduced as a part of the landscape. The dog is “a big native husky, the proper wolf-dog, gray-coated and without any… difference from… the wild wolf”(1765). Its instincts are described more vividly than its actions: it knows that it is too cold to travel and that it needs to lick the ice away from its legs, with little or no experience with the situation. The dog represents a voice of reason in the story, it tries to warn the man of the dangers he encounters, waiting until its own life is in peril before leaving the man for the other “food-providers and fire-providers”(1773).

Nature is described as the dominant force in the story, but it is never shown to actively attack the man. The wilderness would have been just as cold if the man had never walked along the trail; nature made no malicious act. The man’s own mistakes lead to his conflicts with the environment behind him. “Each time he had pulled a twig he had communicated a slight agitation to the tree… one bough capsized its weight of snow… like an avalanche… and the fire was blotted out”(1768). The man, in his hurry to save his own life, failed to notice the implications of his actions and eventually caused his own demise.

“To Build a Fire” is a descriptive and informative tale that focuses on the powers of nature and instinct. Jack London uses a journalistic style similar to the style he would use if he were actually writing instructions on how to build a fire but instead, he tells a story of the common man in nature.

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Comments 3 comments

C.S.Alexis profile image

C.S.Alexis 8 years ago from NW Indiana

Keith,

First Off, WELCOME to HubPages! I LOVE JACK! I read and reread his books, first as a child and again as an adult.

The basis to this story truly depicts the truth that No Man, no matter who he thinks he is, has more power than than the power of NATURE. Love the story and am thankful to you for reporting on it. Let me be the first to join your fan club. Keep them coming and Good Luck! C.S.Alexis


Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 8 years ago from North America

Welcome to Hub Pages, Keith. I enjoy both Jack London's and Robert Service's work concerning the wilderness experience. I look forward to your additional Hubs on this subject. Thumbs up!


GetitScene profile image

GetitScene 3 years ago from The High Seas

What an interesting take on the story. I just re-read this story a few weeks ago so it's very fresh in my mind. After reading your article I might just give it another read and see how that changes my experience.

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