Themes in To Build a Fire

To Build a Fire 7
" The man looked down at his hands in order to locate them, and found them hanging on the ends of his arms...."   (To Build a Fire)

In this terrifying image, the protagonist’s dissociation from the natural world intensifies. The man is no longer only disconnected from the world around him; he is beginning to lose his connection to his own body. Considering the story’s themes, this development makes one wonder whether the body belongs to the man or to nature.

"for the absence of sensation in his feet left him unrelated to the earth...."   (To Build a Fire)

The protagonist is “unrelated to the earth” on two levels. On a literal level, the lack of sensation leaves him unable to feel the ground. On a metaphorical level, this numbness describes the character’s broader relationship to the earth. Throughout the story, the protagonist is at odds with the environment, reading it incorrectly and struggling against it.

"He would kill the dog and bury his hands in the warm body until the numbness went out of them. Then he could build another fire...."   (To Build a Fire)

Notice how the character’s sense of morality is guided by personal survival alone. The ethical gravity of killing his companion does not weigh on him. This decision underscores the story’s theme of man versus nature: to the protagonist, the dog is simply another natural resource.

"The cold of space smote the unprotected tip of the planet, and he, being on that unprotected tip, received the full force of the blow...."   (To Build a Fire)

London crafts an expansive image that reiterates the theme of man versus nature. Up until this point, the man’s struggle is depicted as taking place between him and his immediate surroundings. In this passage, we see nature on the scale of the cosmos. The forces working against the protagonist become embodied by the entirety of outer space.

"It did not know this. It merely obeyed the mysterious prompting that arose from the deep crypts of its being...."   (To Build a Fire)

London addresses an epistemological—knowledge-oriented—question at the story’s heart. He suggests that instinct and knowledge are mutually exclusive and that humans alone are capable of knowledge. The story implicitly asks us which of the two are more effective. It is intriguing that London uses the metaphor of “crypts” to describe the source of the dog’s instincts, because he once again uses a metaphor with connotations of death.

"Fifty degrees below zero was to him just precisely fifty degrees below zero. That there should be anything more to it than that was a thought that never entered his head...."   (To Build a Fire)

The protagonist’s lack of instinct here is exemplary of one of the story’s primary themes: man versus nature. The man’s inability to properly read his environment sets him at odds with it. The dropping temperature, along with his naivety, foreshadows events to come.

"an agitation sufficient to bring about the disaster..."   (To Build a Fire)

One of the major themes in "To Build A Fire" is Nature's indifference toward man. Note here that Nature isn't actively out to get the man, nor is the danger he experiences unique to him. These trees would be "freighted" with snow regardless of his presence. His own actions are what cause the disaster.