To Build a Fire Questions and Answers
by Jack London

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Who is the protagonist in "To Build a Fire"?

The protagonist in "To Build a Fire" is an unnamed man, representative of humanity in conflict with nature. He dies of hypothermia because he does not recognize the danger of the journey he embarks upon.

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In Jack London's "To Build a Fire," the only two characters are a man and a dog, alone and freezing to death in the Yukon territory. The protagonist is the man, who remains unnamed throughout the story and is given very few individual characteristics. This lack of individuality allows the man to stand as a synecdoche for humanity in general. The antagonist, therefore, is nature, which slowly defeats the man over the course of the story.

The man in the story is an extreme example of the realist or naturalist protagonist. The reader is not informed about his background, his hopes and dreams, his conscience, or his internal struggles. His struggle is simply for survival in a harsh world, and even in this, he is not successful.

Although he is very different from the elaborately-drawn protagonists of the nineteenth-century fiction which preceded the realist and naturalist movements, he draws the reader's sympathy to him in a different and more generic way, almost as the helpless protagonist of classical tragedy does. His very lack of individual characteristics means that every reader is able to imagine himself or herself suffering in the cold as the man does. He therefore serves as a reminder of shared humanity in the most basic physical sense.

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