Jack London’s Use of Literary Elements in To Build a Fire

April 28, 2022 by Essay Writer

In “To Build a Fire,” by Jack London, the various literary elements present in the story are a crucial part of the story of a man fighting for his life in the wilderness. They add to complexity of the story while also allowing for a better visualization of the author’s descriptions. They also create a better understanding of the characters and what they are feeling. The setting, repetition, and similes in “To Build a Fire” all enhance the story in one way or another while also adding to the vivid descriptions of a man resorting to his primal instincts.

The setting is arguably the most important element in “To Build a Fire.” The setting is constantly mentioned, and is what creates the situations that the man in the story is attempting to survive through. In the very first paragraph the land is described as “a mile wide and hidden under three feet of ice…it was all pure white” (London 110). This is one of the first descriptions of the cold Yukon land, and it is not the last. The cold and desolate landscape is mentioned on every page and is what progresses the story while testing human’s limits. Because of this, the setting becomes personified as the antagonist of the story. The cold attacks the man’s body and causes his mind to shut down. His every action shows how he is unable to “produce an adequate response to a temperature of seventy-five below zero” (Berliner 1). His inadequate response eventually leads to his death. This is all because of the setting that he is placed in and what he chooses to do in it. The setting seems to be constantly attacking the man from all directions without stopping. However, there are points in the story where it seems like there is hope for the man. This is seen when “the day was at its brightest” (London 114). This should be a good thing, however, in the next sentence hope is lost when the author writes that “the sun was too far south on its winter journey to clear the horizon” (London 114). Details like this show how powerful the setting is and how it is working against the man. The setting has a major role in “To Build a Fire” and without it, there would be no story.

Perhaps the most prominent literary element in “To Build a Fire” is the author’s use of repetition. Specific words are mentioned many times throughout the story and “repetition establishes a compelling pattern in London’s Arctic for reasons that are neither simple nor straightforward (Mitchell 80). This pattern is what makes the language so effective and powerful in this story. Words that emphasize the cold or the despair of the situation that the man is in are mentioned frequently. These words have a greater meaning throughout the story and they add to powerful effect of what the man is enduring. One example is the word cold, which “occurs in the first half of this short story more than twenty-five times” (Mitchell 80). If an author is putting a word in the first half of the story twenty-five times, one can assume that the author had a reason for doing so. At first, many of the words that are repeated have something to do with his surroundings and the cold. However, since the man has been in the freezing temperatures for so long, words such as frozen and numb became more prominent. There is a point in his journey where “it struck him as curious that he could run at all on feet so frozen…then the thought came to him that the frozen portions of his body must be extending…until it produced a vision of his body totally frozen.” (London 121). The word frozen applied to the land at first, but as it slowly took control of the man, the word applied to the himself as well. It takes control of his whole body and leads him to do anything he can do to survive. Repetition is used in addition to the other literary elements in the story to add to the feeling of hopelessness and pain that is present through the entire story.

Similes are used multiple times in the story to help describe what the man is going through and what exactly he is feeling. They help to create an image of a situation that nobody will ever have to go through. An example of this is seen when the man unties his shoes. The narrator writes that “they were coated with ice; the thick German socks were like sheaths of iron…and the moccasin strings were like rods of steel” (London 116-117). The descriptions of the socks being like sheaths of iron and the shoe strings being like rods of steel paints a very vivid image of the situation and helps to show just how cold and hopeless it really is. The author’s intentional use of language such as similes “[separate] the man from his desire at an even more radical, grammatical level, transforming the personal into the impersonal” (Mitchell 88). The imagery and repetition can only do so much, and elements such as similes are very effective when it comes to giving the descriptions of what the man had to go through. This is seen vividly when the narrator mentions that “no sensation was aroused in the hands. He had an impression that they hung like weights on the ends of his arms” (London 120). This is one of the most effective uses of simile within the story. The idea of someone’s arms feeling like weights at the end of their arms because of the cold is another example of how miserable he feels. Examples like this are found throughout the story and they all help to visualize the world the author is trying to create.

Many literary elements can be found in “To Build a Fire” and they all have a big effect on how the story is told. However, the author’s use of setting, repetition, and similes are the most effective when it comes to showing the cold and deadly conditions that one man is trying to endure. Without those elements, it would be a very different, less effective story.


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