What is the relationship between man and nature in "To Build a Fire"?
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Man's relationship to nature is one of the primary themes of this story. Man is like a speck in the universe compared to the far-reaching power of nature, and for this guy to go traipsing across the Klondike, when he's been warned not to, shows that he doesn't respect the powers of the natural world.
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The man in "To Build a Fire" is fighting an external conflict, nature. Even though the man is well aware of the laws of nature in the Yukon Territory, he defies those laws and begins a battle he cannot win. The odds are not in his favor and one by one they take each part of his body and then his life. It almost seems like nature takes the man's defiance and punishes him every step of the way. As the man's journey continues we can see the progression of nature's wrath: the cold, the numbness, the frostbite, falling in the water, unable to light a fire, unable to feel the outer extremeties of his body, and finally a deep sleep. One cannot beat Mother Nature and should always beware of her power.
Nature is totally indifferent to man in Jack London's story "To Build a Fire." Nature is a simple fact. It doesn't care in the least whether the protagonist makes it to the camp or whether he manages to build a fire or whether he freezes to death. In stories like this in which the conflict is man versus nature, it may often seem as if the mountain, the storm, the flood, the ocean, or other natural element or phenomenon has a conscious motive, but this is never the case, whether man seems to be conquering nature or nature seems to be conquering man. Stephen Crane highlighted the total indifference of nature to human fate in some of his stories, notably in "The Open Boat." Ernest Hemingway was strongly impressed by Crane and must have also been influenced by Jack London. There is a strong suggestion of atheism in stories by men like these. An example of a Hemingway story highlighting the indifference of nature is "The Old Man and the Sea."
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