What are some ideas for an essay on "How to Build a Fire" by Jack London?

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billdelaney's profile pic

William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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I would like to offer another suggestion. What impresses me the most about this story, which I have read several times over the years, is the sophisticated way in which Jack London uses the omniscient third-person narrative technique. The man is completely alone in the wilderness. He cannot talk to his dog, not only because the dog wouldn't understand him, but because they don't have the cordial relationship that some men have with their animals. (An example of such a cordial relationship would be in the story "Misery" by Anton Chekhov.) But London, who had little formal schooling and wrote this story over a hundred years ago, tells the reader what the man is thinking and even what the dog is thinking. This is not stream-of-consciousness writing but close to it. The reason the story is so effective is that the reader is able to go right inside the man's mind and share directly in his thoughts, feelings, hopes, plans, fears, etc. So what happens to the man, who is in no way a likeable person, happens to the reader in the reader's imagination. Also, the way London handles the dog's impressions, instincts, desires, etc., is also very impressive. After all, this is only a dog! How can the author know what is going on inside that animal's brain and nervous system? Yet it is completely believable. We sympathize with the dog just as we sympathize with the man. We feel outraged when the man gets the idea of killing his faithful companion just so he can warm his hands in the dog's dead body. This story shows that Jack London was a great writer. It is a pity that he died when he was only forty years old.

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sciftw's profile pic

sciftw | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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If the essay topic is wide open, then I recommend your essay be a character analysis.  In order to do that, you will need to make the dog a character.  Then focus one paragraph about how they are similar, and one paragraph about how they are different.  Every time that I look critically at that story, I always come out thinking that the dog is way smarter than the man.  It makes sense that Jack London would do that.  He seems to have a thing for dogs.  Don't forget to have an introduction and conclusion paragraph too.  

If you don't want to do a character analysis, perhaps you could write an essay that focuses on the key mistakes that the man makes.  Your thesis could be something like "Although the man is clearly experienced at wilderness survival, he makes three key mistakes that doom him to die."  That allows you, the writer, to focus on which parts of the story show the man as extremely knowledgeable.  It also allows you to focus on how his overconfidence or his ignoring of specific signs eventually leads to his death. 

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