To Build a Fire eText - eText

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Reading Pointers for Sharper Insights

Readers of To Build a Fire, should be careful not to be fooled by its apparent simplicity and straightforwardness. While the plot is as simple as a plot can be, Jack London is using this narrative to illustrate what he considered to be a universal truth: that nature is neither benevolent nor malevolent, and that humankind is merely a part of the natural order, not a separate order apart from it. The presence of the man's dog is a constant reminder that animal instinct is often better suited for dealing with the uncaring and unconcerned forces of nature.

  1. Notice how London does not give his characters individual names or personal characteristics (the man, the dog, “the old-timer,” “the boys at camp”) in order to set them up as archetypes in a universal struggle, rather than individuals in a unique story.

  2. London was a Naturalist. Elements of Naturalism include:

    Consider how To Build a Fire differs from the work of London's literary predecessors, the Romantics, who were pre-occupied with the beauty of nature, the essential equality of all humans, and a search for the “ideal.” Locate elements in To Build a Fire that contrast the Romantic view of the world.

  3. Notice the errors that create the man's present situation. Consider what character trait ultimately contributes most to the end of the story.

  4. Determine how satisfying you find the end of the story. What does this reaction tell you about your own personal philosophy?

  5. Pay attention to the repetition of certain words, phrases, and incidents:

    • the frequent mention of the temperature

    • the dog's distrust of the man

    • the amber beard on the man

    • the man's previous mistreatment of the dog

    • the building of two fires

    • the frequent references to safety and how near it is

    • the man's confidence in his own wisdom, despite his plight

    • “Sulphur Creek and “sulfur matches”

    • “mittened hands”

  6. While most literary devices are absent in this short story, London does consistently emphasize certain themes. Look for some of these as you read:

    • Mistakes will compound themselves, creating dangerous consequences, especially in difficult situations.

    • Human “intelligence” cannot overcome Natural Law.

    • Wise words should not be ignored.

    • Humans should not underestimate the power of Nature.