The dog is a ‘‘big native husky’’ and the man’s only companion on the trail. While it depends upon the man for food and for warmth from campfires, the dog is ‘‘not concerned in the welfare of the man’’ and obeys him only to avoid being whipped. The dog is motivated by instinct. Critics Earle Labor and Jeanne Campbell Reesman describe the dog as a ‘‘foil’’ to the man. A foil is a character who sets off, or emphasizes, by way of contrast the traits of another character. In this case, the dog’s reliable instincts contrast with the man’s faulty human judgment. Unlike the man, the dog can sense that the temperature is below minus fifty degrees Fahrenheit, and despite the natural insulation provided by its fur coat, the dog does not travel willingly in such weather. After it falls into the water on the river trail, the dog instinctively knows how to save itself by cleaning the ice from its legs and feet. Later, while the man freezes to death as a result of his unreliable powers of reason, the dog instinctively knows how to survive by curling up in the snow; ultimately, it senses the man’s death and saves itself by leaving for camp on its own.
The protagonist in ‘‘To Build a Fire’’ is known simply as ‘‘the man.’’ He is a chechaquo, or newcomer, who undertakes a nine-hour walk in brutally cold weather to meet his companions at an old mining camp during his first winter in the...
(The entire section is 613 words.)
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Themes and Characters
There are three characters in "To Build a Fire," an unnamed man, a dog, and the cold. The man and dog are walking to another camp in weather that is seventy-five degrees below zero. They must battle nature to succeed, but nature in the form of extreme cold defeats the man, and readers watch him as he slowly freezes to death. Having been in the Klondike, London knew that first a person's face, feet, and hands freeze, then the legs and arms, and then the trunk of the body. Before he or she actually dies, a freezing person goes to sleep where the process of freezing is completed, so freezing is considered one of the better ways to die, though the people who assume this have not actually frozen to death.
London has been considered a literary naturalist, which is a technical term that means an author tries to be totally objective and scientific about the characters in a story. That is the reason London does not give the man in "To Build a Fire" a name. The man is a member of his species whom London watches as he struggles with the cold. The author merely reports what happens and does not draw conclusions. It is up to the reader to figure out what London may be trying to tell them.
Naturalism was influenced by Darwin's theory of natural selection, and London was an enthusiastic Darwinian. It is important to understand that Darwin's theory of survival of the fittest does not necessarily relate only to strength. In the twentieth century, fascists like...
(The entire section is 1542 words.)