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Jack London: To Build a Fire

Updated June 19, 2019
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Nature is always pushing man to his limits. When man heeds the warning signs that nature has to offer and those warnings of other men, he is most likely to conquer nature.

When he ignores these warnings, nature is sure to defeat man. To build a fire is a prime example of this scenario. In the short story, “To Build a Fire” by Jack London, an inexperienced traveler in the Yukon travels alone with his dog, even though it is ill advised to do so. The man is strong and smart but nature humbled him during his quest to reach his friends. The man’s inexperience with traveling in the cold subzero temperatures doomed him from the beginning, but his strong focus under extreme pressure and his keen sense of observation are what allows him to survive as long as he did.

The ignorance of the old-timer’s words of wisdom slowly haunts him and catches up with him in the end. The man’s disregard for nature’s power is his demise during his journey. Although the man’s inexperience is his demise, he has very keen observing skills and strong focusing abilities. London writes, “he was keenly observant, and he noticed the changes in the creek, the curves and bends and timber-jams, and always he sharply noted where he placed his feet.” (London, 527) These skills allow him to make his way through the Yukon. He lacks imagination of what could happen to him in the tundra of the Yukon.

“The trouble with him was that he was without imagination,” (London, 525) London explains. If he had had a better imagination before he started his journey, he surely would have taken better precautions. He had the book smarts’ about walking through the Yukon but he lacked the street smarts.’ He may lack experience and imagination in traveling in subzero temperatures but his calm nature allows him to stay focused, even when the fire is snuffed out by the falling snow from the tree and he thought of it as hearing his own death sentence. “It was as though he had just heard his own sentence of death.

For a moment he sat and stared at the spot where the fire had been. Then he grew very calm.” (London, 529) Furthermore, when he is sure he will lose his toes and fingers, he does not lose sight of his most important goal, surviving. London tells how, even when in grave danger, the man regroups without panic and strong belief in his own abilities. “Well, it was up to him to build the fire over again, and this second time there must be no failure. Even if he succeeded, he would most likely lose some toes” and “Such were his thoughts, but he did not sit and think them.” (London, 529) When his inexperience exposes itself to him, he remembers the old-timers words of wisdom.

The man did not realize the prudence behind the old-timer’s words of wisdom. He ignored the old-timers cautions and dangers of traveling alone, making him foolish and naive to his situation. “That man from Sulphur Creek had spoken the truth when telling how cold it sometimes got in the country. And he had laughed at him at the time!” (London, 528) The man blinds himself with his own ignorance at this point. This ignorance leads many to believe he is not a wise man but he shows himself to be quite opposite of that throughout the story. For example, London writes, “And to get his feet wet in such a temperature meant trouble and danger.” (London, 527) That may sound like common knowledge but to fully understand its severity, in such brutal temperatures, must be present in his thoughts.

He came well prepared in some aspects and unprepared in others. He had with him seventy matches to start fires with, making it possible to start as many as seventy fires in case of emergency. On the other hand, he only carried a few biscuits for food, not leaving room for extra time to travel in case he cannot travel as fast as he would like to, leaving his demise imminent because of his total disrespect for nature’s powers. The man’s lack of respect for nature’s power is made apparent at the beginning of the story. London writes, “The mysterious, far-reaching hair-line trail, the absence of sun from the sky, the tremendous cold, and the strangeness and weirdness of it all — made no impression on the man.” (London, 525) The man has no idea what he is about to encounter and does not calculate all the risks he will face. “He was surprised, however, at the cold” and “Once in a while the thought reiterated itself that it was very cold.” (London, 527) These were his only feelings while traveling through the cold.

His thoughts were never on the merciless power of Mother Nature. This disrespect, however, shall come to taunt him later. When he does realize nature’s power, he is already destined to die. “A certain fear of death, dull and oppressive, came to him” and “Then the thought came to him that the frozen portions of his body must be extending.” (London, 533) With these thoughts in his head, he finally does realize nature’s power but that proves to be to late. The man is strong and smart but nature humbled him during his quest to reach his friends.

The man is strong and smart, yet he is ignorant and inexperienced. What was the man’s urgency to cross the Yukon? Possibly, there was no urgency but only his want to prove he is wiser than the old-timer is. The man may have been experiencing some sort of mid-life crisis and needed to prove to himself that he was stronger than Mother Nature

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Jack London: To Build a Fire. (2019, Jun 19). Retrieved from