In Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” we see a classic story of man against nature. In this story, however, nature wins. One reason that this is such a compelling and engrossing story is the vivid descriptions of the environment the nameless main character endures. Plot and characterization are brief, and the theme is simple. Yet this story is still a very popular story, and it has a mysterious quality that makes it great.
Jack London starts early in the story to set a foreboding feeling: “Day had broken cold and gray, exceedingly cold and gray, when the man turned aside from the main Yukon trail and climbed the high earth-bank, where a dim and little traveled trail led eastward through the fat spruce timberland.” (London) It is this feeling of doom and gloom that accompanies us throughout the reading of the story, and also is typical of the wonderful language of the story. With this London is foreshadowing the ending of the story where the man dies, a victim of his own pride and stupidity. Also creating the dark and dreary theme is London’s “ability to create a gripping narrative based on realistic detail and on a sense of atmospheric gloom reminiscent on the work of Edgar Allan Poe.” (Hogge) The manner in which London tells his story is what makes the story great.
Another tool that London uses to make this a great story is the way he uses the character of the dog to illustrate the failings of the main character. He describes the dog as a simple creature, a product of its instincts. The dog knows of the foolishness of being out in the open, and only wants to shelter itself from the cold. Because of the cold the dog “experienced a vague but menacing apprehension that subdued it and made it slink along at the man’s heel,” (L…
…ce a great and entertaining read. “To Build a Fire” is rich with lessons for us all, and even without seeing the depth of the story, the reader is moved and engaged by the story. It is this quality that makes “To Build a Fire” an excellent and timeless story.
Hogge, Robert M. Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 212: Twentieth-Century American Western Writers, Second Series. Ed. Cracroft, Richard H. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. The Gale Group, 1999. 172-184
Labor, Earle. Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 78: American Short-Story Writers, 1880- 1910. Ed. Kimbel, Bobby Ellen, Ogontz Campus and William E. Grant. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. The Gale Group, 1989. 245-271.
London, Jack. “To Build a Fire” Literature: an Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia. 8th Ed. New York: Longman, 2002. 117-128