To Build a Fire Questions and Answers

Jack London

Read real teacher answers to our most interesting To Build a Fire questions.

Why do we identify with the protagonist of "To Build a Fire"?

It is especially interesting to note that there is nothing at all likable about the solitary man in Jack London's story, and yet this man engages our sympathy. He is portrayed as brutal, selfish, and not particularly intelligent. He treats his poor dog with cruelty, and toward the end he tries to kill it so he can warm his frozen hands in the dead body. The author gives him an unpleasant appearance with his shaggy beard filled with frozen tobacco juice. And yet we identify with him because he is the only human being in the whole picture. There is a conflict between man and nature, and, being human ourselves, we find ourselves identifying with the man. Furthermore, we are held in his point of view from the beginning until he is dead in the snow. After that we identify briefly with the dog, because now it is a conflict of an animal against nature, and we are closer to the animal than to the blinding-white, ice-cold, forbidding landscape. The story shows that a viewpoint character does not have to have any good qualities, any redeeming features, in order to evoke reader identification. The reader sometimes identifies with a character on the basis of his or her motivation and the problems created by that motivation; and the reader almost always identifies with the character through whose point of view the story is revealed.

It is, of course, significant that the man is all alone in the frozen wilderness. This symbolizes nature's indifference and man's essential loneliness in a godless universe.




What does "To Build a Fire" suggest about death?

In both Jack London's "To Build a Fire" and Leo Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilyich," the protagonists fear death and resist giving in to death until the last moment. Then they both discover that death is something different from what they feared. 

In "To Build a Fire," when the anonymous protagonist is freezing to death in the snow, he has the following epiphany:

Well, he was bound to freeze anyway, and he might as well take it decently. With this new-found peace of mind came the first glimmerings of drowsiness. A good idea, he thought, to sleep off to death. It was like taking an anesthetic. Freezing was not so bad as people thought. There were lots worse ways to die.... Then the man drowsed off into what seemed to him the most comfortable and satisfying sleep he had ever known. 

And in "The Death of Ivan Ilyich," when Ilyich has gone through all the stages of his terminal disease and has reached the end, he has a similar epiphany:

And suddenly it grew clear to him that what had been oppressing him and would not leave him was all dropping away at once from two sides, from ten sides, and from all sides. He was sorry for them, he must act so as not to hurt them: release them and free himself from these sufferings. "How good and how simple!" ... He sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it. "Where is it? What death?" There was no fear because there was no death. In place of death there was light. "So that's what it is!" he suddenly exclaimed aloud. "What joy!" 

Neither of these men is religious. They do not die with any hope of an afterlife. But both come to realize that nature itself is pitiless and merciful, totally indifferent but not in the least punitive or sadistic. Both stories end by giving the reader reassurance about his own inevitable fate.