Character Analysis in To Build a Fire

To Build a Fire 5
"Any man who was a man could travel alone. But it was surprising, the rapidity with which his cheeks and nose were freezing...."   (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.

"Also, the man was chewing tobacco, and the muzzle of ice held his lips so rigidly that he was unable to clear his chin when he expelled the juice. The result was that a crystal beard of the colour and solidity of amber was increasing its length on his chin. If he fell down it would shatter itself, like glass, into brittle fragments...."   (To Build a Fire)

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.

"But the brute had its instinct. It experienced a vague but menacing apprehension that subdued it and made it slink along at the man's heels,..."   (To Build a Fire)

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.

"He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in their significances...."   (To Build a Fire)

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.

"like a startled horse..."   (To Build a Fire)

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.