In Jack London's short story, "To Build a Fire," does the setting such function as a kind of character or antagonist in the story's plot?

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Jack London based his story “To Build a Fire” on his personal experiences. London spent a year in the Yukon searching for gold beginning in 1897. The narration is limited third person. There is only one nameless human character with a large husky dog as his companion. 

The setting of the story arises from the gold rush in the Klondike.  The weather for the story is abnormally cold dropping to seventy-five degrees below zero.  The man has been warned not to go out into this kind of weather by himself however, he is a newcomer, and in his arrogance, chooses to ignore an old-timer’s advice.  He believes that he can make it and that he is prepared for anything that could happen. 

Initial answer to question-

The conflict in the story is man versus nature.  Although nature would be classified as the antagonist, it must be understood that London did not intend to show that nature was out to get the man. London does not portray nature as a character only the environment and force in which the man must survive.  

Using his naturalistic belief, London held that nature is indifferent.  The environment does not help nor work to hurt the individual.  The weather is unbelievably cold and would be whether the man was there or not.  When the man struggles in the abnormal cold, the weather does not cease in order to assist the man in staying alive.

The man himself has to make the adjustments.  He has two accidents: he falls into the water and gets his feet wet; and his fire which he foolishly places under a snow covered limb is put out by the snow. From attempting to reach a camp to keeping from losing his feet to frostbite to surviving, the man has to make adjustments; and nature does nothing.  Both times that the man has an accident, the author seems to indicate that these events were inevitable.  The implication is that man has made a mistake and that it is his fault not the responsibility of anything or anyone else.

A certain fear of death, dull and oppressive, came to him. This fear quickly became poignant as he realized that is was no longer a mere matter of freezing his fingers and toes, or losing his hands and feet, but that it was a matter of life and death with the chances against him.

The man is purposely not given a name. His inability to think about the future and its consequences brings his downfall. Because he is unfamiliar with the Klondike,  he tries to think in terms of temperature and degrees.  These are only numbers.  The danger of the weather is more to the point.   

Ignoring all of the warninngs given to him, the man's  hubris brings him to his life or death circumstances.  He never uses his instincts as does the dog.  The dog does not need the thermometer to know the danger of the cold. When the man dies, the dog’s instinct tells him to go on toward the food and the warmth.

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To Build a Fire

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