What is the common theme of London's two stories, "To Build a Fire" and "The Law of Life"?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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London's two stories that are set in the formidable Arctic illustrate the theme of Man vs. Nature; for, both protagonists are pitted against an indifferent universe in their efforts to survive and, ultimately, face death.

  • "To Build a Fire"

In this story, the inexperienced man sets out on an extraordinarily cold day despite warnings from an old man who is very experienced. Because he is inexperienced and "lacks imagination," the man does not understand the forces he is against while the wolf-dog's instinct

...told a truer tale that was told to the man by the man's judgment.

After he unknowingly does not avoid a spring that the dog does, he must try to quickly dry his foot. But, lacking "imagination" he does not think about how the fire he builds will melt snow on an overhanging branch of the tree near his fire; consequently, the snow extinguishes the fire. Exposed too long to the brutal cold, his fingers become too numb to light a match.

This man did not know cold....But the dog knew; all its ancestry knew, and it had inherited the knowledge.

When the man fails to light another fire, he is shocked. "It was as though he had just heard his own sentence of death." Futilely, he struggles against this end and tries to kill the dog, but it escapes him; then, he runs, but he can only go about a hundred feet before collapsing. Finally, after tremendous fear, he accepts the fact that he will freeze to death: "He did not belong with himself anymore" as nature overpowers him.

  • "The Law of Life"

In this story, an Inuit chief, blinded by old age, sits and listens to the tribesmen break camp. He has been given wood to burn a fire and his son comes to say good-bye to him. Closely in tune with nature, this old hunter understands the laws of life:

Nature did not care. To life she set one task, gave one law.  To perpetuate was the task of life, its law was death.

And, so, as the old man waits for death, he reflects upon this law, remembering how the dogs were able to fell a great moose because he was old.  Even though the moose himself killed some of the dogs as he fell on them and struggled up, he was ultimately killed by the others because of his debility. Then, the old chief hears wolves, and like the moose, he is attacked. But, as he envisions the last stand of the old moose, the man "dropped his head wearily upon his knees," knowing "the inevitability of death"

What did it matter after all?  Was it not the law of life?

Against the forces of an indifferent nature, man must accept "the law of life" and face death when he does not have the power to overcome these adversarial forces.