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"To Build a Fire" by Jack London provides a conflict which places the main character, a nameless man, against the harshness of nature in Alaska in the midst of winter. the setting is the late 180s during the Gold Rush.
The conflict is man versus nature. This story is the portrayal of nature as unconcerned with man's fate. This is a story of a brutal struggle to survive in an unnatural world for man.
The weather is so cold that when the man spits the juices of his spit freeze and form a beard on the man's face. The man had been warned about going out in this type of weather. He lacked the ability to imagine the impact of such cold: fifty to seventy-five degrees below zero.
The old timer had been very serious in laying down the law that no man must travel alone in the Klondike after fifty below. Well, here he was; he had had the accident; he was alone; and he had saved himself. Those old-timers were rather womanish.
His companion is a large husky dog, whose coat and temperament have made him able to withstand this kind of weather. As the man walks along, two bad things happen: he breaks through the ice and gets his feet wet; and then his fire is put out by snow falling from a limb. Both of these events will doom the man to freezing to death.
The man attempts to pull the dog into him and kill him and put his hands inside the dog's warm body. With no real relationship with the animal, the dog senses something is wrong and will not come closer to the man.
Eventually, the man can no longer feel his feet and his arms and hands. Trying one more thing, the man begins to run thinking that this might warm up his body. Because of the cold and his exhaustion, the man was incapable of continuing to run. He sits down, becomes drowsy, and goes into a permanent sleep. The dog watches him, waits a little while, sniffs the man, and the heads on to the camp to food and warmth.
The dog's knowledge and natural ability to survive is in direct contrast to the foolishness of the man. London depicts the wolf-like dog that carries with him instincts of his past heritage as a juxtaposition to the man who blunders along with no past to rely on.
Another important element in the characterization is that neither the man nor beast has been given a name. The dog views the man as the "food-provider." Through the course of the story, it is obvious that the man is the much weaker character.
One of the themes of the story is that man is at the mercy of nature. Through nature's power, the man has no free will. Nature provides a set of circumstances, and the man has no choice but to try to out do nature which is an impossibility. Nature always wins. The man always seems to know what to do in the accidents, but some natural phenomenon that he neglects to think about turns against him.
Stubborn pride impacts the outcome of the story. The man had been told by old timers that no one should go out in this kind of weather. Despite being a newcomer to the Yukon, his pride in his ability will not allow him to listen to the sage advice. Thus, he must take the responsibility for his actions. The death of the man was no one's fault but his own.
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