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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How does the theme of Man vs. Nature pertain to "To Build a Fire"?

The theme of Man vs. Nature in "To Build a Fire" is the primary conflict of the story as the inexperienced traveler attempts to journey across the wilderness and survive the dangerous natural elements. The protagonist's main conflict pertains to the treacherous environment, which is minus seventy-five degrees below zero. The unforgiving wilderness is hostile, and the traveler does not survive the journey.

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The theme of Man vs. Nature is the central conflict of Jack London's short story "To Build a Fire," which focuses on an inexperienced traveler's struggle to survive the treacherous Yukon wilderness. In the short story, a newcomer attempts to journey through the forest alone with his dog to reach a camp by six o'clock. In order to arrive at his destination in time, the newcomer must carefully traverse the dangerous wilderness and endure the extremely cold temperatures, which drop to minus seventy-five degrees below zero. The newcomer is depicted as inexperienced, naive, and arrogant. London writes that the newcomer lacks imagination and is "not much of a thinker."

Despite being warned about the dangers of traveling alone in temperatures minus fifty degrees below zero, the traveler ignorantly dismisses the old man's advice and believes that he is too intelligent to make a serious mistake that will cost him his life. During the journey, the newcomer is surprised by the extreme temperatures, and his dog recognizes that they are in grave danger. After accidentally falling through the ice, the inexperienced traveler frantically attempts to build a fire underneath a tree, which is weighed down by snow. Unfortunately, the heavy snow breaks the branch and falls directly on the fire. The newcomer's appendages begin to freeze as he attempts to light matches and build another fire. He completely loses his fine motor skills, is unable to build another fire, and panics when he realizes that all hope is lost. Tragically, the newcomer succumbs to the treacherous environment and dies from hypothermia. Overall, the main theme of the story revolves around a Man vs. Nature conflict as the protagonist struggles to survive the harsh elements of the Yukon.

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The conflict of Man vs. Nature is a main theme in "To Build a Fire." The protagonist, believing in his own abilities over the Yukon weather, sets out on a long walk without a human companion; his dog cannot help him when he gets cold. He is new to the area and does not fully appreciate just how cold it gets, and how much that is a danger to humans.

Fifty degrees below zero meant eighty odd degrees of frost. Such a fact impressed him as being cold and uncomfortable, and that was all. It did not lead him to meditate... upon man's frailty in general, able only to live within certain narrow limits of heat and cold...
(London, "To Build a Fire," eNotes eText)

Because of this failure to recognize the danger of the cold, the man falls prey first to his arrogance in treating Nature as something an individual can tame, and then to his lack of preparation. Without a companion to light the fire, and with only a small number of supplies that are quickly used up in his panic, the man is alone against the elements. He cannot fight nature, only hold it back with fire, and without fire, he is simply an animal unsuited to the harsh environment.

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