What is the central symbol in the story "To Build a Fire"?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Without question, the central symbol in Jack London's story is fire. Fire is a natural force which can provide warmth and light while it can also be destructive.  Like Nature itself, it is indifferent to the needs and wants of man. And in London's grimly naturalistic tale, the man who goes forth in the brutal cold is not prepared for the uncaring environment.  London describes him,

He was a newcomer in the land, a Chechaquo, and this was his first winter. The trouble with him was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in their significances.

While the man understands the importance of quickly building a fire when he steps into the frozen water, he has been foolish in traveling alone in the unforgiving cold.  For, he has no margin for error in his lighting of the fire; he has lacked the imagination to consider possibilities, and he fails to understand the "significance" of lighting the fire under the snow-laden branches. When he does so, the fire that should save his life then becomes a destructive force instead.  Clearly, there is a dichotomy to the symbolism of this elemental force, but both are simply natural forces that exist apart from the domain of man as fire changes from a symbol of life to one of death.