The main conflict in this story of survival is between human beings and nature. Another central conflict, however, is that between youth and confidence as opposed to wisdom and experience. The main character is a young man who believes that he knows the frozen wilderness, but he is still a tenderfoot who has not yet learned to respect the power of nature. Jack London shows early in the story that the tenderfoot lacks imagination, an asset he sorely needs when tested to the extreme by the harsh wilderness.
The man’s egotism is in conflict with his common sense. He does not understand humankind’s frailty and is too proud to admit his own. He does not comprehend the danger posed by an alien, hostile environment in which he can only survive by the full exercise of his native wit, instincts, skill, and cunning. Before the coming of winter, the old-timer from Sulpher Creek had warned him that one should always travel in winter with a partner and that one should never attempt to travel alone in temperatures colder than fifty degrees below zero. In his ignorance, the tenderfoot had laughed at the old-timer’s advice. Caught in the bitter cold, he is made to realize the value of the old man’s warning.
The tenderfoot scorns other precautions. Once caught in the wilderness, for example, he realizes the value of having a partner. He realizes, moreover, that a facial strap would have protected him against frostbite. Still, he manages to build a fire after he has broken through the ice, and, his confidence momentarily revived, he laughs again at the old-timer. Ironically, the man is doomed by his egotism and his stupidity. When the fire goes out, he has second thoughts about his superiority.
The plot development is incremental as the tenderfoot’s dilemma gets more desperate and as he unwillingly learns his lesson. His absurd belief in himself and his ability to cope with the situation is retained until the very end. Although he refuses to give up hope, it becomes increasingly clear that he has lost touch with reality. “When he got back to the States,” he fantasizes, as he is freezing to death, “he could tell the folks what real cold was.” Ultimately the man will die and be survived by his dog. The animal, a creature of instinct untainted by pride, is better adapted to the environment than the man.
‘‘To Build a Fire’’ is about an unnamed man who embarks on a nine-hour trek across the Klondike’s harsh winter landscape to meet his companions at a mining camp. Against the advice of an old-timer, the man makes the journey alone, except for a dog, and as a result of a series of disasters, he freezes to death before reaching camp. The man’s behavior and his ultimate fate highlight the story’s themes of survival in the wilderness, the individual versus nature, and death.
Survival in the Wilderness
Early in the story, it becomes clear that the odds are against the man’s chances of surviving in the Klondike wilderness. He is a chechaquo , or newcomer to the region, and has never before experienced its extreme winters. Further, he is ‘‘traveling light’’—on foot rather than by sled and carrying only a bacon sandwich, tobacco, matches, and some birch-bark kindling. What is more, he is outdoors in temperatures well below minus fifty degrees Fahrenheit. Although he has been warned never to travel ‘‘after fifty below’’ without a partner who can help him in emergencies, the man’s only companion on this trek is a half-wild husky—a ‘‘toil-slave’’ who...
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has no affection for him. At the best of times the Klondike wilderness would seem alien to the newcomer because of its vast stretches of snow (‘‘as far as his eye could see it was unbroken white’’ except for the trail). As it is, the man travels with few supplies and without a partner in extreme cold. Under such conditions, it doesn’t matter that he is both ‘‘quick and alert’’ to his surroundings, for without someone to help him, his ‘‘bad luck’’ (which is how the man refers to his fall into the icy river) and ‘‘mistake’’ (which is how he describes the blotting out of his second fire by snow falling from a tree) become full-fledged catastrophes and destroy the man’s chances of survival.
The Individual versus Nature
Closely related to the issue of survival in the wilderness is ‘‘To Build a Fire’’’s theme of the individual versus nature. According to the story, the ‘‘trouble’’ with the man is that he is ‘‘without imagination’’ and therefore never speculates about ‘‘man’s place in the universe,’’ his ‘‘frailty in general,’’ or the fact that people are ‘‘able only to live within certain narrow limits of temperature.’’ Yet during his trek the man is confronted again and again by his weakness as a lone individual against the formidable power of nature in the form of the brutal cold. Each time he removes his gloves, the man is surprised at how quickly his fingers are numbed. He is also startled at how fast his nose and cheeks freeze, and he is amazed when his spittle freezes in midair before it ever hits the snow. When the man stops for lunch, his feet go numb almost as soon as he sits still, a fact that finally begins to frighten him. Even the dog—who is half-wild and thus closer to nature—feels ‘‘depressed’’ by the cold. Thanks to its natural instincts and its dense winter coat, the dog survives the extreme temperature long enough to head for camp, where it knows it will find food and warmth. Without fur or instinct,
Once his fire is blotted out by snow and his body is threatened by hypothermia, the man must come to terms with death. His first reaction is to acknowledge calmly that the advice given to him by the old-timer was accurate: ‘‘If he had only had a trail-mate he would have been in no danger now.’’ This thought occurs to him again as he fails in his effort to rebuild the fire. From there he moves to ‘‘controlled despair’’; next, to apathy; and then to panic as he makes a last, futile effort to save his life by frantically running on his frozen feet in hopes of making it to camp. The man’s ultimate response to death is to try ‘‘meeting [it] with dignity.’’ His final words—‘‘You were right, old hoss; you were right’’—are part of a conversation that he imagines having with the old-timer who had warned him not to travel alone. They are also an acknowledgment of nature’s power over the individual.