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To Build a Fire is one of the early short stories written by Jack London. The plot takes place in Yukon, a land so cold that one's spit freezes before it ever touches the ground. “And, once again, in the cold, before they could sink to the snow, the drops of water turned into ice that broke with a noise” (London 65). The protagonist of this story seems to be a tough individual who requires a great deal of bravery for his behavior. The story's narrator also reveals that the protagonist is too self-assured to recognize the significance of what is going on around him. He is, in reality, blinded by his own faith. The short tale revolves around the hardship and toughness it takes to survive in this cold world. It also teaches its readers the value of humility and staying prepared all the time to face different situations in life.
The critics of To Build a Fire would unanimously agree that alongside the protagonist of the story, the tale’s setting is the most important. The story is set during the Klondike Gold Rush at Yukon, a time when several people flocked Canada trying to make ends meet. The mass migration at this time brought several young men together to struggle for their fortunes. The harsh life that the people experienced here at the mines gave them an idea of the challenges and brutality that they were soon going to face in their quest for financial freedom. London’s audience would tell the importance of the setting of this story from how he describes the ice and the cold wind crusting over the face of the man. "The man's red beard and moustache were likewise frosted, but more solidly, the deposit taking the form of ice and increasing with every warm, moist breath he exhaled” (London 71). Even so, the author still made the story more classic to his readers by making the audience feel how the air was chill.
From the warm pools to the snowy spruce tree, which dumps the snow onto the fire, the setting of the story works against the protagonist, whether it is through the capsizing spruce that spreads out and envelops the whole tree or the hidden spring pools’ traps. Despite being cognizant of the challenges that are awaiting him, the man in the story struggles to overcome nature. Ostensibly, the critical analysis of the tale shows that the setting of To Build a Fire is not merely a physical impression to London’s audience but also a philosophical and spiritual impression. The setting brings a lot of insight to the readers. It is meant to make the readers think beyond their contemporary world. That is, conceptualizing the situation in the narrator’s world and comparing it with the modern world where they live. The narrator in the story juxtaposes the condition of the world where the man lives in, citing that it was too cold with "no sun nor hint of sun, though there was not a cloud in the sky" (London 67). The narrator also gives the readers a clue of how to survive in the harsh world like the one in To Build a Fire, suggesting that people should avoid falling into trouble by learning to appreciate their surroundings.
To Build a Fire is narrated in the third person. There are justifiable claims to believe that the narrator, in this case, is omniscient. In the first scenario, the narrator is not only telling the readers what is going through the man’s mind but also contrasting with what the dog is thinking. "The dog knew that it was no time for traveling. Its instinct told it a truer tale than was told by the man's judgment" (London 69). Again, the narrator apparently shows omniscience through the harsh judgment of the man. In as much as it might not appear to be so severe, it still seems to be judgmental. This assertion is evident in the paragraph where the narrator says, "The trouble with [the man] was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significance" (London 78).
London’s short story takes a dispassionate, and to some extent a judgmental tone. At the start of the tale, the readers might assume that they are getting to understand the thoughts of the man, whose identity has not also been revealed all the way through the story. He does not only find the day cold but also gray. However, the narrator does not express investment or emotion while describing the frozen face of the man. Throughout the tale, there is a single incident when the narrator looked perplexed. That is when an exclamation is put after the snow fell from the tree and the man’s fire is “blotted out!” (Katzbichler 14). The exclamation in the phrase only shows how much the man was shocked though it does not attract the narrator’s concern.
To Build a Fire revolves around the hardship and toughness that an individual might face in life (Katzbichler 9). In this connection, the absence of fire, which has been substituted with the cold snow symbolically shows that life is running out. Just the same way human beings would need oxygen under water, they would also need fire to survive in the snowy regions such as Yukon. Conversely, the fire would also be used in the story to symbolize the comfort that the man is yearning to achieve. Another element of symbolism is also seen in the man’s hands. The hands of the man could have an inner meaning of the difference between death and life. Even though the man loses control of his hands, he cannot also kill his dog. The hands play the role of the man’s power, his prowess. The hands are important to the protagonist, and he does not care whether he feels pain in them or not. It is evident in the statement that states, "After a time he was aware of […] a stinging ache that was excruciating, but which the man hailed with satisfaction" (London 83).
On the other hand, the presence of the dog in the essay has been used as imagery. The behaviors of the dog depict the image of slavery. Other than hoping to be out of the cold, the dog also depends fully on the man for its survival. Concisely, To Build a Fire is an educative and entertaining short story, which does not only teach the readers the hardships that people go through in their quest for a better life but also instructs the readers on how to relate to different people in the society.
Katzbichler, Stephan. Naturalism and Naturalist Elements in Jack London's Short Story “To Build a Fire” (1908)., 2013. Print.
London, Jack. To Build a Fire. , n.d. Print.
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