To Build a Fire sample essay
The Yukon setting in “To Build a Fire” is used by the author, Jack London, as a sort of “shorthand” whereby even the most casual of readers will be able to understand the potential lethality and bodily danger such a wilderness presents to the main character of the story, an understanding which is essential to the story’s overall theme, plot, and impact. The Yukon setting is also important because it provides and underlying motivation for the story’s protagonist, a “newcomer in the land, a chechaquo” to be in such a hostile environment in the first place: profit.
The all-too-familiar lure of profit, for gold or for other salable resources forms an underlying motivation for the story’s protagonist who is “bound for the old claim on the left fork of Henderson Creek, where the boys were already” and the protagonist himself is going “the roundabout way to take a look at the possibilities of getting out logs in the spring from the islands in the Yukon” all of which begs the question: why is a newcomer choosing to go it alone in the Yukon? (London, 1998, p. 342)
This central question forms the fulcrum upon which the theme and plot of the story turn. Because the reader will immediately “fear” for the fate of the protagonist, from the opening paragraphs of the story, a sense of suspense and character-sympathy is generated. However, in order for reader identification with the protagonist to genuinely take hold, it is necessary for London to reveal just a bit more of the protagonist’s internal state, his personality, beliefs — and flaws.
The following information about the protagonist is revealed on the first page of the story: “But all this-the mysterious, far-reaching hair-line trail, the absence of sun from the sky, the cold, and the strangeness and weirdness of it all–made no impression on the man. It was not because he was long used to it” but because he was “without imagination” and therefore unable to extrapolate from the immediate moment to the probable future. in other words he was unable to understand or visualize the possible consequences of his actions or decisions. (London 341,42)
Such a disadvantage is less of a liability when it pertains to certain logistical capacities, which the character, indeed, uses in a futile attempt to “build a fire” and escape his own death as the perils in the story increase. The protagonist is “quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances”; so, to him, “Fifty degrees below zero meant eighty-odd degrees of frost” and nothing more.
He may acknowledge that the conditions are “cold and uncomfortable” but these realizations fail to alert within him an sense of his “frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man’s frailty in general,” and this seems to indicate that London intends the protagonist of his story to stand, in some ways, for the entire human race: in ecological terms, out of balance with nature and oblivious to the consequences of “ingenuity” and technology (London, 342).
The revelation of the character’s internal flaw increases reader-identification and sympathy, which is essential to the unfolding of the story’s climax and thematic resolution. Because London intends the story to function in some ways as a “cautionary” tale about the perilous consequences of humanity exploiting nature and living out of harmony with nature, the reader must be lured into identifying with the story’s protagonist as deeply as is possible. london accomplishes this by allowing the protagonists ingenuity, intelligence, and determination to win several “small victories” along the way to the story’s tragic resolution. Each time the protagonist is able to think his way to a temporary solution to his challenges and deathly obstacles, the reader is led to identify more intensely with him and “root” for his victory over “indifferent” nature.
In effect, London is leading the reader to root for humanity as represented by the story’s protagonist: the reader is encouraged when the story’s protagonist manages to build a fire against all the odds and begin the process of thawing out his clothes and body; the reader is deeply disappointed and fearful when a small shingle of snow falls on that fire, extinguishing it and with it, all realistic hope of the protagonist’s survival.
Because the reader has been led to identify deeply wit the protagonist, and with his logistical abilities and even his “hard headed” realism, this even in the story, the extinguishing of the protagonist’s fire, lands a symbolically charged “blow” right on the reader’s sense of pride in humanity, revealing that the protagonist’s previously identified flaw: lack of imagination, is actually a variant of pride or self-absorption.
In this way, London makes it clear that the human race’s reliance upon science, technology, capitalism, and — pride — are the very aspects which bring about a discord with nature. This discord is not portrayed as being merely unfortunate, but it is revealed as being the kiss of death, of extinction, for humanity and all of humanity’s achievements. these “vast” aspects are personalized through the story and demonstrated in microcosm through the sue of symbolic imagery.
London’s story is intended not only to engage each individual reader but also the collective of humanity as a whole. The themes of “To Build a Fire” are universal. I have personally been guilty of pride with disastrous consequence on many occasions; it remains to be seen whether or not the ecological aspects of this story will play a constructive or merely ironic role in determining my own future behavior or the behavior of the human race in general.
London, Jack. The Call of the Wild, White Fang, and Other Stories. Ed. Earle Labor and Robert C. Leitz. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
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