Tone in To Build a Fire

To Build a Fire 3
"And all the time, in his consciousness, was the knowledge that each instant his feet were freezing. This thought tended to put him in a panic, but he fought against it and kept calm...."   (To Build a Fire)

In many types of fiction, the narrative merges with the consciousness of the character in a third-person point of view known as “free indirect discourse.” London’s writing, particularly in this story, is notable for how separate the narrative is from the mind of the character. The language of the narrative only tells us of the character’s mental states of panic and calm without imitating those states. This style reflects the character’s lack of awareness of his environment.

"He wondered whether the toes were warm or numb. He moved them inside the moccasins and decided that they were numbed...."   (To Build a Fire)

London employs a carefully controlled prose style. Notice the calm, repetitive nature of the sentences. London’s purpose here is to reflect the protagonist’s lack of concern. Despite the horrific nature of these events—frostbite, numbing cold—the character is calm, and therefore so is the language of the narrative.

"COLD and grey, exceedingly cold and grey..."   (To Build a Fire)

Note how London uses repetition throughout the story. By repeating certain words and actions, such as the cold and the numbness he later feels, London emphasizes not only the intense coldness of the setting but also the danger the man is in.