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Themes in To Build a Fire
Humankind’s Insignificance Compared to Nature’s Power: Through both the story’s descriptions of landscape and its characters’ interactions, the story emphasizes humankind’s smallness and insignificance in comparison to the vast and harsh realities of nature. Though the man views himself as intelligent and competent, his efforts prove ineffectual when pit against the Yukon’s land and snow. It is clear, however, that nature is not out to get the man; he simply wandered into somewhere that he didn’t belong, unprepared.
Man’s Erroneous Judgment vs. Animal Instincts: The man’s interactions with the dog point to this theme; though the dog is a better indicator of danger than the man’s rational judgment, he too often follows faulty reasoning, failing to notice—or care about—his dog’s hesitance. The dog is indifferent to him, only wanting to continue its own survival. Out in the wilderness, instinct, the result of years of adaptation and hereditary experience, is far more valuable than rationality.
Youth’s Ego vs. Wisdom’s Experience: A clear contrast is set up between the old-timer’s advice and the actions taken by the man. Due to the man’s ego and shortsightedness—his main concern is what time he’ll be meeting his friends, not ensuring his safety—he does not follow any of the old-timer’s advice well enough. Though the man is intelligent, he is not adapted, physically or in terms of experience, to survival in the inhospitable environment, unlike the old-timer.
Themes Examples in To Build a Fire:
To Build a Fire
"Suddenly he found himself with them, coming along the trail and looking for himself...." See in text (To Build a Fire)
In his dying moment, the man undergoes an out-of-body experience, a separation of the consciousness from the body. London has prepared us for this division throughout the story. The character’s consciousness is typically characterized as existing outside of himself in such phrases as “the thought of it drove him on.” The division between the character’s body and mind brings up again the theme of man versus nature. The passage suggests that the character’s consciousness is part of nature, as opposed to his human body.
" The man looked down at his hands in order to locate them, and found them hanging on the ends of his arms...." See in text (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...." See in text (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...." See in text (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...." See in text (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...." See in text (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...." See in text (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..." See in text (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.