Describe the main character in "To Build a Fire" by Jack London.

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carol-davis | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Jack London spent time in the Yukon looking for gold. These experiences enabled London to write his classic stories like “To Build a Fire.”  The setting of the story includes temperatures that often drop below 120 degrees below zero. With this kind of problem facing the main character, the conflict involves man versus nature.

The narration of the story is third person omniscient point of view. The protagonist is a newcomer.  The man has made a plan to travel to meet his friends at a mining camp some distance away.

By introducing his reader to the setting from the first sentence of the story, the story's tone is depressed and frightening. Isolated by an environment of frigid weather, the main character is completely unprepared mentally and physically for the challenges that he faces.

Key to the story is the old timer’s instructions that the man chose to ignore: “Do not travel in this kind of weather [50 degrees below zero] by yourself.” Thinking that he is more rugged than this experienced miner, he scoffs at the other man’s advice. Even the man’s companion, the large husky dog, instinctively knows that it is too cold to travel in this weather.

It is important to understand that this story is based on naturalism.  Nature is harsh; however, it does nothing to cause the man his problems because what happens to the man is his own fault. The natural world is not out to entrap the man.  It is nature. If the man chooses to challenge it, then it will be up to him to make the decisions that will get him through.

The man‘s personality is an important aspect of the story:

  • Intelligent-He prepares for his journey with matches and appropriate dress.  He knows that he must be careful.
  • Arrogant-He thinks that he knows more than the more experienced miners.
  • Confident-He believes that he can make the difficult trip through this terrible weather.
  • Alert-Observant, he realizes that he has lost the battle of the temperature.
  • Calm—The man maintains his cool and does not over react.
  • Ill-prepared-The newcomer makes foolish mistakes that cause him to lose his life.

As the man travels, two accidents occur that guarantees his fate.  He falls through ice  and gets his feet wet. Then, he makes his fire under a tree limb covered with snow.  When the snow melts, it falls on the fire and puts it out.  Then, the man cannot longer feel his hands or feet.

...before he could cut the strings of his shoes, it happened.  It is his own fault. He should not have built the fire under the spruce tree, it descended without warning upon the man and the fire, and the fire was blotted out!

Fearful of his death, the newcomer is determined to make it to the old claim. He begins to run in an attempt to get the blood circulating. His mind is racing with the realization that he is facing his own death. The newcomer makes another attempt but falls to the ground.

He even considers killing the dog and using its body to warm his own hands and feet.  The dog instinctively knows that something is not right and refuses to come close to the man.

In an effort to maintain dignity in death, the man sits down in the snow. The dog expecting a fire to be built waits for his master, the fire provider. Finally, the dog realizes that his master, who is no longer moving, has the scent of death upon him. The dog hurries away toward the camp where food and fire awaits him.


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