To Build a Fire by Jack London

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In Jack London's "To Build a Fire," how does the setting help create the mood of the story?

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carol-davis eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Jack London spent time in the same area that "To Build a Fire" takes place: Yukon in  Alaska. The temperature in that area in the winter has gotten as low as 120 degrees below zero. In the story, the weather drops to about 75 degrees below zero which is life threatening.

The two characters in the story are an unnamed man who is traveling to another mining camp and his companion, a large husky dog. A newcomer to the area and the weather--the man has chosen to ignore advice from old-timers to never travel alone in this kind of weather.

Setting and Atmosphere

The atmosphere of the story is based on the situation in which the man finds himself. The first sentence of the story describes the day as  dark and gray. Later, the mention of the lack of sun and its melacholy atmosphere sets the mood for the story.

It was a clear day, and yet there seemed an intangible pall over the face of things, a subtle gloom that made the day dark, and that was due to the absence of sun. This fact did not worry the man. He was used to the lack of sun. It had been days since he had seen the sun.

Obviously, with the initial descriptive words, London was utilizing the weather to create and prepare the reader for the challenges that the protagonist was going to encounter as he travels through the unbelievably cold day. The foolish man is ready to avoid the natural signs, and in his hubris, attempt what should not have been tried.

Another important aspect of the story to understand is the narration of the third person omniscient point of view. The narrator is able to see into the thoughts of not only the man but the dog as well.

The man faces a conflict of with nature. Nature is not out to get the man; however, it does nothing to help him. The environment is neutral. Man makes his own problems and must find his own solutions. When the man spits his tobacco juice, it is so cold that it freezes in mid air and cracks apart.

If the man had only listened to the old-timer, he would have waited and survived.  Instead, he tries it alone and dies.

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Beth Sullivan eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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In Jack London's "To Build a Fire," the cold, desolate setting of the story creates a mood of hopelessness and desperation that persist throughout the story. The story takes place in the Yukon along a "little-traveled trail" off the main trail. The main character in the story, a man traveling alone except for his dog, notes that while it is a clear, cloudless day, there is no sun in the sky. This is an unusual experience for most people, which contributes to the story's desolate mood.

Looking around him, the man sees nothing but snow in every direction, highlighting the mood of loneliness and isolation in the story. The man continues to hike through familiar, yet alien, terrain, noticing landmarks and avoiding hazards, such as water flowing under the ice. He notes that "to get his feet wet in such a temperature meant trouble and danger." The unpredictability of the setting contributes to the growing anxiety in the mood of the story, as the reader begins to realize just how far from safety and civilization the man is traveling and how much uncertain terrain lies ahead of him before he is safe.

Eventually, the man's feet break through thin ice in spite of his caution, and he hurries to build a fire to warm and dry his socks and shoes. Snow on a heavy pine branch smothers his fire, another example of the wild, unpredictable setting of the story contributing to the mood of growing fear in the story. The man struggles against the relentless cold to light another fire, but the story ends with a mood of growing hopelessness as the man's numbness and stiffness grow worse, preventing him from lighting a fire. Finally, the man succumbs to hypothermia and dies, surrounded by the harsh setting of the isolated, snowy trail in the long winter evening.

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