illustration fo a man in winter clothes lying on the snow under a tree with a dog standing near him

To Build a Fire

by Jack London

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Why is it significant that the main character has no name in "To Build a Fire"?

The man in "To Build a Fire" is not given a name because he is intended to be a generalized representative of mankind in conflict against nature rather than a particular individual.

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During the Alaskan Gold Rush thousands of mostly nameless men sought their fortune in a harsh environment and lost. This character is but one of many who died alone and probably undiscovered. By the time his body might be found, there would be no way to identify who he was. As the man got colder, his first sign of hypothermia would be loss of reasoning. He sat down to eat on a frozen surface. That would rob him of body heat. He forced the dog to go where the dog knew it was not safe. He sought shelter under the boughs of a tree holding snow. As his fire raised the temperature, the snow collapsed putting out the fire and his hope of survival. To go out alone in the winter wilderness is a big mistake; to go without proper preparation is fatal. The dog is a part of nature, and as such, its instincts protect it. Man has no instincts and mistakenly thinks his intelligence makes him superior. Another fatal error was not carrying flint and steel for fire-making. Matches can get wet and be useless, but flint and steel, though harder to use, are usually far superior.

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I assume that Jack London deliberately made the main character of "To Build a Fire" anonymous to show just how insignificant the man was in the vast, brutal world of the Yukon. Since the man was travelling alone--and against the knowledgeable advice of others--there was little need to give him a name. It also allows the narration a bit of emotional distance from the man, for without a name, the reader is less susceptible to feel sympathy for his predicament. The other characters mentioned were also given no specific names--probably for the same reasons mentioned above. Remaining nameless also made his death seem all the more insignificant.

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The short story "To Build a Fire" has as its main theme Man vs. Nature.  In this story, the juxtaposition of the man with the dog points to the strength of animal instinct against the rationality of man.  So, the absence of a name for the character extends him from the particular to the general--Jack London's intent in this naturalistic story in which a human being is subject to natural forces beyond his control.

Against the advice of the "old-timer," the man, whose "trouble...was that he was without imagination," ventures out on a nine-hour trek across the Klondike.  With him trots a dog,

a big native husky, the proper wolf dog, gray-coated and without any visible or teperamental difference from its brother, the wild wolf....Its instinct told it a truer tale than was told to the man by the man's judgment.

Clearly, the natural forces, ones that the man ignores, win out against the human who ignores an intuitive sense that he may have. 

As a naturalist, Jack London was among a group of writers who went beyond realism in an attempt to portray life exactly as it is. Naturalists were infuenced by Charles Darwin's theories...

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of natural selection and suvival of the fittest which held that huan behavior is determined by heredity and environment.  Relying on new theories in sociology and psychology, the naturalists dissected human behavior with detachment and objectivity, like scientists dissecting laboratory specimens.  "To Build a Fire" is the recording of such an "experiment."  And, as such, there is no need to give the man a name, since he represents any man who behaves as he did, any man who does not understand that fur and instinct are necessary for survival in the Klondike in the winter.

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Why is the man not given a name in "To Build a Fire"?

Jack London's short story "To Build a Fire" is a work of brutal, unrelenting naturalism, portraying the conflict of mankind against nature. The man is not given a name because he is not intended to be an individual in whom the reader is interested because of any personal characteristics or attributes. He is merely "the man" because he represents mankind in the abstract, not for any particular type of person.

London constantly stresses the representative nature of his protagonist. For instance, when informing the reader that the temperature is fifty degrees below zero, he adds that the man has failed to "consider his weaknesses as a creature affected by temperature." He has also failed to consider the general frailty of mankind, which is only able to survive "within narrow limits of heat and cold."

The reader is given little idea of the man's interior life. The author focuses principally on what the man does and what he observes. This laconic style of writing does not preclude human sympathy, but it does affect the nature of that sympathy. Because the man is an everyman figure, it is easy for the reader to imagine his position. The lack of internal description helps to achieve this effect, but it creates a generalized form of sympathy for physical suffering and desperation.

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