Themes in 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.