Brenton Gross October 11, 2012 Paper 3 Central Idea, Characterization, Setting and Conflict for “To Build A Fire” In Jack London’s short story, “To Build A Fire,” he takes readers to the backwoods of the Yukon Trail where a lone man and his dog are out hiking through the backcountry along the creek. The day is extremely cold, but the temperature does not seem to hinder this man, who is a newcomer to the Yukon Territory. Even though other hikers native to the area try to warn the man of the foolishness of hiking alone in these conditions, the man turns a deaf ear to the warnings and continues about his way.
After meeting obstacle after obstacle, the man determines that maybe the old native really did know what he was talking about after all. Heeding the warnings too late, the man fights valiantly to save his life against the forces of nature that he faces with only a dog by his side for companionship. London’s Central Idea is that pride and arrogance often lead to disastrous results. “To Build A Fire” has one main character, the unnamed male hiker in the story. London tells the story from the omniscient point of view, which allows the reader access to all of the character’s thoughts and feelings as he goes along his hike.
He is a man new to the area, with only enough knowledge about the conditions there to be truly dangerous. London describes the man as being “…quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances. ” What makes him even more dangerous is the fact that he’s overly confident in his own abilities. He becomes confident of the good time that he’s making along the trail, instead of focusing on paying attention to the dangers that Nature can have in store along such paths.
Instead of listening to what the old native man in the story has to offer him in terms of advice for how to survive along the Yukon Trail, the man essentially scoffs at the old man as he “…laughed at him…” and goes about his business in his own way. Later on in the story, he clearly recalls the advice given to him by the old man, so the reader knows that he did listen to the advice, but he did not heed the advice, which is what makes the man truly arrogant. At several points during the story, he ame across signs that maybe he shouldn’t be pursuing the path that he was on, yet being prideful and arrogant he pushed on anyway confident in his abilities to overcome any obstacles along his path. His own arrogance leads him to press the dog forward down the trail, even though the dog knows that it isn’t safe and tries to turn back several times. His own pride leads him to a false sense of security for being past the dangerous springs, thinking that there “…did not seem to be so many springs on the left fork of the Henderson, and for half an hour the man saw no signs of any. He believes that he can read the land easily, which is precisely when he falls into a spring and freezes the bottom portion of his legs. Yet even though he has this accident, he manages to get a fire started in order to potentially save his life. Even now, when he has proven that he isn’t invincible to the forces of nature, he remains arrogant. London writes that the man thought to himself “Well, here he was; he had had the accident; he was alone; and he had saved himself. ” His arrogance, combined with laziness, urge the man to build his life-sustaining fire underneath a tree.
He does it this way because he can sit there and pull the twigs off of the tree, instead of going out and gathering them. Yet, his actions cause consequences that he does not foresee when the weight of the snow in the boughs of the tree can no longer be supported because of the loss of some of the smaller branches, causing the snow to fall and douse the man’s fire, which actually just proves his foolishness. Not listening to good advice, thinking that he knew better than those who knew more than he did led him to his death on the Yukon Trail.
His death could have been avoided had he simply taken the advice that he was given. There is a second, supporting character in Jack London’s “To Build A Fire” in the form of the husky dog. Although this is an animal, not a person, the argument can be made that the dog’s role and actions throughout the story also help to emphasize London’s Central Idea. The reader is allowed to understand this character because of the omniscient point of view that the story is told from.
Knowing the thoughts and reasons behind a dog’s actions would normally be unheard of, but having this point of view in London’s short story makes the dog a viable character, essential to the plot and storyline. The dog is in direct contrast to the man in this story. He is a native to the area, where the man was a newcomer. The dog knows that the conditions along the Yukon Trail are not safe for travelling and tries several times to turn back or warn the man of impending danger.
London writes that the dog “…hung back until the man shoved it forward…” and that the dog “…yearned back towards the fire. ” The dog is also smarter than the man when dealing with the freezing temperatures outside, taking care of himself in the conditions, finding shelter when needed and covering up vital parts that need to stay warm as best he can, as seen when he “…curled its tail over its forefeet. ” The dog is also smart enough to sense the danger that he is in from the man, and although he doesn’t leave the man alone, he does keep enough distance between them to remain safe from harm.
In the end, the dog triumphs over the man as he continues along the trail towards warmth, food and company after the man perishes on the Trail from exposure. There is one main conflict playing out in Jack London’s short story “To Build A Fire. ” That conflict is an external conflict of man versus Nature, as all along the man’s path, the forces of Nature do their best to stop him in his tracks. Using the terrain of the setting of the story on the Yukon Trail, London is able to portray Nature at its cruelest.
The harsh terrain, the sub-zero temperatures and the icy conditions are all small conflicts between the weather (Nature) and the man and the natural conditions within his setting. If the man had been a little less prideful and a lot less arrogant, he would have seen those small tests for what they were and stopped his journey to finish another day, which ties back to London’s Central Idea for this story. The first indication of this conflict and the man’s arrogance regarding the conflict is when the man spits and his spit “crackles” before it ever hits the ground.
By the man’s own admission he knows that “…at fifty below spittle crackled on the snow, but this spittle crackled in the air. ” Common sense then told the man that it was colder than fifty below zero, which was a specific temperature when hiking in this area that he had been warned about by the old native man. Yet he ignores that sign and continues on his journey, confident that his abilities surpass those of others. Small conflicts such as this one occur again and again along the man’s journey towards the campground where his friends wait for him.
Time after time, Nature presents an obstacle or warning, and the man ignores it and pushes on. He falls into a pool of hidden water and soaks himself almost to the knees before managing to climb out. He foolishly builds his first fire underneath a spruce tree, which gets extinguished because he pulled too many small branches out from the tree to build the fire and the tree could no longer hold the weight of the snow gathered in its boughs. His uncontrollable shaking from the extreme temperature extinguishes his second fire, which he managed to light only after burning the frozen flesh on his own hands.
Next, the man attempts to catch and kill the dog in order to use the dog’s carcass for warmth, but although he manages to catch the dog, his frozen extremities make it impossible for him to stab or even strangle the dog to death. All of these small trials and tribulations were met with the same arrogance and foolishness that the man started his journey with. Several times before falling in the water, he ignored the signs that he should not be out in the elements and to turn around. Yet he presses on, and lands himself in big trouble before he even realizes it.
At last he seems to accept the fear of dying in this wild, uninhabitable setting and he gives in to his fears by attempting to run along the trail. Yet he does not lack the endurance needed to fulfill his journey this way, for Nature’s cold winds, extreme snow and icy conditions have already taken their toll on him, and he finally begins to accept the inevitable. Nature has won this battle, and he succumbs to death quietly, sitting down and simply falling asleep with the last thought in his head of: “Freezing was not so bad as people thought. There were worse ways to die. ”