Character Analysis in To Build a Fire
The protagonist falls back on concepts of masculinity to affirm the boldness of his actions. London underscores the foolishness in this line of thinking by quickly following up the brash statement with a reflection on the incoming cold.
With this vivid detail, London succeeds in both illustrating the coldness of the environment and telling us a great deal about the character and his carelessness. The man’s brash habit of chewing tobacco and letting the spittle freeze on his beard signifies his unreasonable bravado in the face of life-threatening conditions.
The dog serves as a foil to the man in the story’s expression of the theme of man versus nature. The dog operates in accordance with nature; its instincts indicate the danger of the conditions. The man, out of sync with his environment, marches on.
London introduces a philosophical topic here. By characterizing the protagonist as a man incapable of drawing meaning from his environment, London renders the man more animal than human. The making of meaning, rather than the pure reliance on instinct, is a defining trait of humankind. London’s own work—literature itself—can be seen as the epitome of an alertness to the significance of the things in life.
From the story's start, the differences between the man and the dog are distinct. Now, in this moment, the dog and the man exhibit similar behavior. Although the man reasons based on his intellect, this situation requires him to use innate, animal instinct that is a subconscious reaction.