The Fight of Survival in "To Build a Fire"
The short story “To Build A Fire” by Jack London is an adventure story about survival and is written in a narrative format rather then from the view point of the main character. The man plans to travel 10 miles across the Yukon Valley in temperatures dropping to seventy-five degrees below zero to go meet his friends who are waiting at camp for him. It is written with focus on setting, conflict, and mood.
This a story of survival instinct over brains. The reader is dropped into the Tundra, more specifically to the wilderness of Yukon Valley of Alaska. Jack London uses this setting to impose a dark and lonely mood. The reader is made aware that the main character is understanding to the cold, dark and treacherous terrain he has chosen to concur. “The man flung a look back along the way he had come… as far as his eye could see, it was unbroken white.” (“To Build a Fire, Jack London). The reader feels the main character is not prepared and lacks experience with traveling through the Yukon Valley. From this description, the reader gets the impression that the man is about to face some very horrifying realities. The main charter’s start of his journey implies a decline in his ability to survive the harsh environment he has chosen to throw himself into.
London paints the main character as an unintelligent man, as he describes him as a man “without imagination.” London states that “the strangeness and weirdness of it all made no impression on the man.” and that “it was not because he was long used to it.” He was a new -comer in the land.” (To Build a Fire”, Jack London). London again hints that something terrible is about to happen to the man if he continues his journey because London states directly that this is the “trouble” with him. He is heading out into weather that is fifty degrees below zero at ten o’clock in the morning. The reader is made to believe that the man is foolish and should turn back, because London hammers in the fact that the man is completely unaware of how fragile living human beings are to such low temperatures. The reader now believes that the man may be stubborn, because he is driven by the prospect of claim. The man was headed to stake his claim on the left fork of Henderson Creek. The urge to stake his part of a claim overrules his smarts, because it is very clear to the reader these weather conditions are not meant to be challenged by man. This conclusion is supported by the following from London: “He knew that at fifty below spittle cracked on the snow, but spittle had crackled in the air. Undoubtedly it was colder than fifty below – how much colder he did not know. But the temperature did not matter. He was bound for the old claim.. where the boys were already.” (“To Build a Fire”, Jack London).
The main character is accompanied by a dog, but not just any dog. He was accompanied by a gray coated husky. This wolf dog was saddened by the cold weather but followed at the heels of the man. The husky followed the man for hours waiting and hoping they would soon seek shelter. The husky breed has good instincts, the dog knew they needed to find shelter and build a fire for warmth. “The dog had learned fire, and it wanted, or else to burrow under the snow and cuddle its warmth away from the air.” (“To Build a Fire”, Jack London).
The man and the husky did not have a strong bond of love between the them, but instead their relationship is more like an owner to worker, a bit distant. This fact makes the setting of the story a little less lonely, however still makes the story dark because of the lack of friendship between them. “On the other hand, there was the toil-slave of the other.” The dog is more intelligent than the man because even the dog a native husky seemed more aware of the gloomy situation, they were in. “The animal was depressed by the tremendous cold. It knew that it was no time for travelling. Its instinct told a truer tale than was to the man by the man’s judgement.” (“To Build a Fire”, Jack London).
London just keeps pushing hard how dumb the man is being, yet observant the man seems to be observant as well, as he marches on his journey. “Empty as the man’s mind was thoughts, he was keenly observant. And he noticed the changes in the creek, the curves and bends and timber-jams, an always he sharply noted where he placed his feet.” (“To Build a Fire”, Jack London). These descriptions seem contrary, and they are, but he needed to be very aware of his surroundings without being impeded by outside intrusive thoughts. Here under these circumstances, the man had to be completely focused on reaching his destination alive. His plan was to be at the camp by six o’clock to meet his friends. There he knew they would have a fire going and dinner ready for him to eat after his long journey. As the man continued his journey, he continued walking among the big spruce trees. He was traveling light, only taking with him his wrapped lunch. The mas was already starting to feel the effects of the cold cold temperatures as his cheeks and nose were already numb. His red beard and moustache was not going to protect his face. Even though the man knew the creeks had to be frozen clear through he was very careful to avoid walking on the creek in certain areas of the ice because he knew that there were bubbling springs from the hillsides that ran under the snow and on top of the ice. Here again the readers are given details as to the weather conditions and the man’s surroundings. The readers are shown here that instinct beats smarts.
As the story unfolds, London seems to speed up the pace of the action. With each step the man takes, the danger grows and grows, and the elements of nature seem to attack him with huge force. The cold frigid temperatures were dropping by the minute. The seemed to think he was making good time. He was making four miles an hour, with this thought in mind he decided to stop and eat his lunch in celebration. However, the reader understands that London is presenting the idea of a combined conflict of man verses self and man verses nature, hence the Fight of Survival. London uses the husky to emphasize this. We will soon learn that he husky is smarter than the man.
As the man continues his travels, he is very careful and tries to watch exactly where he is walking. The man knows that if he were to get his feet wet this mean a huge delay, as he would need to build a fire, take his moccasins and socks off to dry them. This would mean his feet would no longer be protected from the cold. The man paused to study the creeks and banks, He again began to walk very softly and slowly testing his footing with every step. The man seemed confident in his path, so he begins to pick up his pace and takes another pinch of chew tobacco continuing his journey for another two hours again continuing to find himself having to pause and reevaluate his surroundings and steps. At one point he ordered the husky to walk in front. The husky did not want to as he hesitated, the man finally shoved the dog in front of him making walk in front of him.
The first horrible event soon takes place when the man, believing he had past all the bubbling springs under the ice, takes another step and breaks through the ice into the water. Now being wet and freezing the man knew he had no time to waste in starting a fire. The man began to panic. “He was angry and crushed his luck aloud. He had hoped to get into camp with the boys by six o’clock, and this would delay him an hour, for he would have to build a fire and dry out his foot-gear.” (“To Build a Fire”, Jack London). This six o’clock time frame he had given himself that he once thought was realistic was now not going to happen, six o’clock did not seem so realistic any longer. Now the man had to build a fire and build it fast especially because the chilling temperatures were dropping again. He decided to build the fire under a spruce tree where he stood, which was not so smart as he would soon find out. The flames would soon touch the branches that were covered in snow and ice beginning to melt the snow and ice off the branches. The branches had not moved in weeks as there had not been any wind. The tree branches were completely full of fresh white powdery snow. Here London writes, “High up in the tree one bough capsized its load of snow… This process continued, spreading out and involving the whole tree. It grew like an avalanche, and it descended without waring upon the man and the fire, and the fire was bottled out! Where it had burned was a mantle of fresh and disordered snow.” “The man was shocked. It was as though he had just heard his own sentence of death.” (“To Build a Fire”, Jack London).
It was now up to the man to try and rebuild the fire once again, and this time he needed to build the fire without failure. His life was depending on it, he was now in a life or death situation. The man knew he was now forced to remove his mittens and try and use his hands to build another fire. Soon after he removed his mittens his fingers went numb. The man knew that the four miles he had been keeping up with would soon come to an end. The pace he had kept up throughout his journey was keeping his blood flowing to all of his body parts. His wet feet froze, and fingertips went numb. After many attempts the man finally got the fire slightly started again. “He cherished the flame carefully and awkwardly. It meant life, and it must not perish. The withdrawal of blood from the surface of his body now made him begin to shiver, and he grew more awkward.: (“To Build a Fire”, Jack London). As the man tried to get the fire to burn stronger a piece moss fell onto the fire. Poking the fire to much by the man and his frozen hands put the fire out again. Another mistake made by the man causing the fire to fail yet again. As the man’s emotions and frame of mind ran wild, he caught a glimpse of his companion, the husky. The husky laid across from the man looking warm and comfortable.
The man’s instinct to survive grew so strong that sadly he began thinking about killing the dog and using his dog’s coat to help protect him from the subzero weather conditions he is now facing. He thought he would kill the dog and then use its coat to warm his fingers and body so that he could attempt another fire. After calling to the dog and trying to get the dog to come to him the man realizes he cannot kill the dog as his hands were frost bitten and he had no strength to hold and kill the dog. “helpless… he could neither draw nor hold his sheath-knife nor throttle the animal.” (“To Build a Fire”, Jack London).
The readers know at this point in the story that the man’s death is unavoidable. The man will lose to nature and his own, foolish greed and stubbornness. How much more could this man endure? He had tried several times to rebuild a fire, he had no supplies left, He could not feel or use most of his body parts. What else could happen to the man other than death? After hours of trying to build another fire, hours of trying to push on, and hours of trying to warm his body, panic began to set in once again for the man. The man once again decides to try and run and push on. He ran and ran, stumbling, tires to walk and tries to catch his breath. The husky followed him every which way he ran, walking, and stumbling. The man even sat and rested for a bit in hopes of regaining some energy to continue on. However, reality was beginning to set in for the man. The man began to yell “You were right, old hoss: you were right,” the man mumbled to the old-timer of Sulphur Creek.” (“To Build a Fire”, Jack London).
In the conclusion of the story, the man finally gave in to his certain death. Giving in, the man sat up where he fell and began to think in his mind the concept of meeting death with dignity. As he sat the dog sat facing him and waiting. Jack London continues “Then the man drowsed off into what seemed to him the most comfortable and satisfying sleep he had ever known.” The dog sat and waited, no fire was burning, no food to be eaten, and no movement was made. The long day ended. The dog moved closer to the man whining softly. The dog leaned in to smell the man, he smelled death. A smell the animal had never smelled before but knew what it was. The dog backed away in fear startled. Soon after the dog began howling. The dog knew the man’s Fight of Survival had ended.
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