Explain the point of view in the story "To Build a Fire" by Jack London.

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Jack London spent time as a young man in the unforgiving cold of the Yukon. He was in search of gold as a prospector.  After his experiences in the wilderness, London wanted his readers to understand the life of those obsessed with finding gold and defying nature.

His story “To Build a Fire” uses the conflict of the inexperience of man who arrogantly feels he can conquer the natural world versus the harshness of nature. The characters in the story are an unnamed man who is new to the Yukon and a dog who has no allegiance to the man. 

To the dog, the man is the fire and food provider.  The difference between man and animal issues from the instinctual ability of the dog and the foolish pride of the man. The dog knows that the weather is too  severe to travel; on the other hand, the man, given advice not to travel in the unbelievable cold  by an old timer, believes that he can survive anything with preparation.

The point of the view of the story is third person omniscient.  The narrator tells the story through the thoughts of the man; however, he also can see what goes through the point of view of the dog.  The contrast between the man and the dog’s thoughts allows the reader an unusual perspective:

"It [the dog] knew that it was no time for traveling.  Its instinct told it a truer tale than was told by the man’s judgment.”

When the man can go no further after his hands and feet freeze, the dog realizes that something is wrong with the man. After a time, it sniffs the man and smells death.  Then, the dog instinctively knows that it must go on and find the camp, fire, and food.

As an omniscient narrator, the author can actually made judgments about the decisions of the man.

“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 the significance.”

The narrator allows no sympathy for the man since he overlooks the advice of an experienced prospector. In addition, the man makes careless mistakes which were fatal despite his arrogantly striking out against the indiscriminate deadly weather.  

Over one hundred years later, London’s story still makes his statement: No matter how much preparation a man makes to challenge nature--- if it chooses to send a tornado, tsunami, earthquake, or 100 degrees below zero--- the natural world will win.