To Build a Fire Theme Analysis

Published: 2021-07-01 08:19:08
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“To Build a Fire” is a short story written by Jack London. This story was originally published in 1902, with the famous version being published in 1908. When London was a student at the University of California, Berkeley, he had discovered the name of his biological father and wrote to him in an attempt to establish a relationship. His letter was returned with the man denying paternity. This denial negatively overwhelmed London, resulting in him dropping out of college and sailing to the Yukon in Canada to pursue the gold rush.
This location had a profound impact on London and has resulted in his naturalist writing type. The Yukon has been the setting in many of his stories including “To Build a Fire. ” This short story details a logger new to the Yukon Territory and his trek down a trail with his wolf dog. While walking down the trail, the man breaks through the ice and plunges shin deep into the frigid water. Knowing frostbite would set in, he is forced to take up camp and start a fire to dry off and warm up. His first fire is extinguished and he is unable to light a new one. Frostbite and hypothermia set in and the man eventually succumbs to his fate.
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This short story showcases the theme of Man vs. Nature. London is able to support this theme with his use of setting, foreshadowing, and irony. This theme is confirmed by the published analysis “To Build a Fire” written by James Welsh, which was published in 2004. London’s detailed use of setting has the greatest influence in showcasing the theme of Man vs. Nature. This story takes place in the Yukon Territory of Canada where “There was no sun nor hint of sun, though there was not a cloud in the sky” (London 127). His initial meticulous detailed setting of the trail and weather virtually puts the reader in the boots of the logger. He spat again. And again, in the air, before it could fall to the snow, the spittle crackled” (London 128). This explanation shows the extreme level of coldness that the man is being challenged with. This detail gives readers the ability to compare the cold that they are used to with the cold that he is facing. This adds to the impending fears that the reader feels, even though the man shrugs it off. This statement also details the isolation the man is facing when he mentions, “A foot of snow had fallen since the last sled had passed over” (London 128). This isolation sets the one man vs. ll of nature impending battle. The trail is also later described to include more of the possible dangers the man is against such as, “He knows the area and realizes the danger of springs hidden beneath the snow, covered only by a thin sheet of ice” (Welsh). This adds more dangers to an already dangerous hike. London’s detailed description of the setting showcases the merciless features of nature and places the environment as the antagonist against our inexperienced logger. When London isolates the character and combines the violent characteristics of the setting, he emphasizes the theme of Man vs. Nature.
Foreshadowing is the literary device used to suggest certain plot events that might happen in the future. London is able to use foreshadowing to enlighten the readers into the possible traps the logger is facing all while building the suspense of the story. The human condition is explained by the logger as the, “frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man’s frailty in general, able to only to live within certain narrow limits of heat and cold” (London 128). This statement exposes the weakness of humans and gives the readers a glimpse of how the logger might face hardship due to weakness to temperature.
Later in the story the dog’s manner changes and he develops a “menacing apprehension that subdued it and made it slink along at the man’s heels… it wanted fire, or else to burrow under the snow” (London 129). This gives readers the feeling that the dog knows that the weather is too terrible to travel and an impending danger is present. Traveling down the trail, the dog breaks through the ice and is forced to lick the ice away to prevent frostbite foreshadowing that the man would be going through the same trials. Before the coming of winter, the old-timer from Sulpher Creek had warned him that one should always travel in winter with a partner and that one should never attempt to travel alone in temperatures colder than fifty degrees below zero. In his ignorance, the tenderfoot had laughed at the old-timer’s advice” (Welsh). This builds on the anticipation that the advice may become used later in the story. “Every time he comes on a suspected trap, he forces the dog to go ahead to see if it is safe” (Welsh). By putting the dog into harms way, it gives a sense of impending karma.
Throughout the beginning and middle of the story, London uses foreshadowing to build the suspense and give readers a look at aspects of nature that may come to challenge the protagonist. Throughout the story, London uses irony to demonstrate Man vs. Nature all while offering some dark comedy. When the man first decides to take a break and eat lunch he stops and builds his first successful fire. “The fire has restored his confidence, but the dog wants to stay by the warmth and safety of the fire” (Welsh). Looking back, one may see the irony of the knowledge level of the dog and understand how the man should have stayed with his fire.
The man also shrugs off frostbite earlier in the story as “a bit painful, but never serious” (London 129). Readers are more aware than the traveler that frostbite can kill and the traveler eventually finds this out. Throughout the story the man was extremely careful and he eventually breaks through the ice “At a place where there were no signs, where the soft, unbroken snow seemed to advertise solidity beneath” (London 131). The man then has to build a fire to dry his feet so frostbite doesn’t set in. He decides to build the fire underneath a tree so that he has fuel readily available and protection for the fire.
This idea backfires and snow from atop the tree falls and extinguishes the fire. When a reader examines the mannerisms of the dog, he or she may see that he has a better understanding of the weather and environment. He wants to set up camp instead of travel. “The dog did not want to go. It hung back until the man shoved it forward” (London 130). The irony being the dog is smarter than the man. London uses these examples of irony to better describe the merciless personality of the setting and add dark humor in an otherwise depressing story. An ironic strain that runs throughout the story is the tenderfoot’s sense of superiority and contempt for the old trapper on Sulphur Creek. The irony is dramatic in that the reader soon realizes that the old man was right, a realization that escapes the tenderfoot until the very end of the story” (Welsh). Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” is an image provoking heart-pounding story and his use of setting, irony and foreshadowing perfectly exemplifies the Man vs. Nature theme. This theme has been also noted in many published literary works such as James Welsh’s analysis.
London’s level of detail and ability to place you in the situation makes this story one that will remain a classic for years to come.
Works Cited

Kennedy, X. J. , and Dana Gioia. "To Build a Fire. " Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing. Twelfth ed. Boston: Pearson, 2013. 127-37. Print.
Welsh, James M. “To Build a Fire. ” Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition. Salem Press, 2004. 1-3. Print.
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