illustration fo a man in winter clothes lying on the snow under a tree with a dog standing near him

To Build a Fire

by Jack London

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What are examples of imagery in "To Build A Fire"?

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Imagery can be a description of any information we can glean with our senses. One visual image is created by the narrator's description of the landscape. One tactile image is created by the narrator's description of the main character's lunch, protruding from underneath all of his clothes. One auditory image is created by the sound of the man's spit as it freezes mid-air. There are many images to be found in this story.

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London's use of imagery helps emphasize the harshness of the environment and the man's solitude in a vast landscape. For instance, the initial description of the trail emphasizes the blank whiteness of the landscape, as well as its scale:

The Yukon lay a mile wide and hidden under three feet of ice. On top of this ice were as many feet of snow. It was all pure white. North and south, as far as his eye could see, it was unbroken white.

The total blankness of the landscape is in contrast to the man, who appears to be the only moving thing as far as the eye can see.

Other images are used to show just how cold it is. There is the famous image of the man's spit explosively freezing before it can hit the ground—this is explicitly an image meant to convey information about the temperature (seventy-five below!). Also, there is this description of the ice in his beard:

The ice held his lips so tightly together that he could not empty the juice from his mouth. The result was a long piece of yellow ice hanging from his lips. If he fell down it would break, like glass, into many pieces.

In this case, the image at once is disgusting and shows how the cold can transform common objects. The man's tobacco-infused spit is transformed by the cold into something beautiful (yellow glass).

Later, in a remarkable passage, London imagines the blood of the man to be like the dog.

The blood was alive, like the dog. Like the dog, it wanted to hide and seek cover, away from the fearful cold.

The image of the blood trying to bury itself in the snow to get away from the cold, brief as it is, is very powerful. Not only does the image suggest that the man's body has an animal awareness of danger that the man's brain disregards, but it suggests that it is somehow independent of the man's consciousness. This reinforces the principal theme of the story, that one's ego and the need to rationalize bad decisions can cause instinct to be disregarded, sometimes with fatal results.

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Imagery in literature refers to language that describes sensory experience; therefore, an image can be visual (for sight), auditory (for sound), tactile (for touch), gustatory (for taste), or olfactory (for smell). Here is one example of a visual image from this story: the narrator describes the sight of the Yukon, saying, "It was all pure white, rolling in gentle undulations." We get a really clear mental picture of what the landscape looks like, covered in snow, with subtle dips and peaks created by the ice underneath. There is enough detail in the description to create this vivid picture in our heads.

One example of a tactile image is when the narrator describes the main character's lunch, tucked underneath all his clothes to keep it from freezing. "He pressed his hand against the protruding bundle under his jacket. It was also under his shirt ... and lying against the naked skin." The feeling of pressing something that protrudes from underneath several layers of cloth presents a tactile image, as we can imagine what touching this bundle feels like based on the description provided. We may even be able to imagine how it would feel against our skin, like the man does.

One example of an auditory image occurs when the narrator describes the way the man's spit freezes in the air and the sound it makes. He says that the man hears a "sharp, explosive crackle" after he spits into the air. This description of a warm liquid freezing almost instantly not only creates an image of something we can imagine hearing, it also uses onomatopoeia with the word "crackle," a word which actually mimics the sound it describes.

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Remember, imagery is any form of language that paints a picture by evoking as many of the five senses as possible. Of course, the visual sense is the one that most authors use most, but good examples of imagery will try and combine other senses to give a full, rounded description and therefore paint a vivid picture of what they are trying to represent. There are lots of examples in this great short story.

Consider the following quote:

As he turned to go on, he spat speculatively. There was a sharp, explosive crackle that startled him.

Note the sound that is described, the "sharp, explosive crackle" that enables us to imagine the sound of his spit freezing and then falling to the floor. "Crackle" is also an example of onomatopoeia, which helps evoke the crackling sound of the frozen spit smashing upon impact.

Another example is used to describe the accompanying dog:

The frozen moisture of its breathing had settled on its fur in a fine powder of frost, and especially were its jowls, muzzle, and eyelashes whitened by its crystaled breath.

Note the description of how the moisture from its breath froze and clothed the dog in "a fine powder of frost", and also note how a metaphor is used to describe the process of what is happening: "a crystaled breath". Of course, the breath literally doesn't transform into crystals, but the ice that it creates can be compared to crystals.

Consider this last example describing the intense cold:

Once in a while the thought reiterated itself that it was very cold and that he had never experienced such cold. As he walked along he rubbed his cheekbones and nose with the back of his mittened hand. He did this automatically, now and again changing hands. But rub as he would, the instant he stopped his cheekbones went numb, and the following instant the end of his nose went numb.

Note how the ferocity of the cold is conveyed through the feelings of his skin - even rubbing his face is only enough to stave off the cold until he stops, when numbness descends again.

Those are three examples - now re-read this excellent short story and try and find some more. Good luck!

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What is an example of metaphor in "To Build a Fire"?

"To Build a Fire" is written in the Naturalist and Realist styles, where events and prose are detailed realistically. This means that there are not many metaphors; there are no need for them, as the reader is presented with exactly what is on the page, without comment or interpretation. For example, in the introductory paragraph, the omniscient narrator states:

It was a clear day, and yet there seemed an intangible pall over the face of things, a subtle gloom that made the day dark, and that was due to the absence of sun.

This is in contrast to a metaphorical reading of the dark-yet-clear day, which might compare it to, for example, a clear pond which is still opaque in its deeper areas.

One good example, one of the very few that exist in this story, refers to the customary tone that men use to talk to their sled-dogs. Since the dogs are working animals, the men do not speak to it as a pet, but as an employee or slave, and the dog has associated the sounds of human voices with punishment.

His erect position in itself started to drive the webs of suspicion from the dog's mind; and when he spoke peremptorily, with the sound of whip-lashes in his voice, the dog rendered its customary allegiance and came to him.
(London, "To Build a Fire," jacklondons.net)

The man's voice is not literally built of whip-lashes, nor does it sound like one. However, since it symbolizes the sting and sound of the whip to the dog, it is likened to that consequence. The man's voice is one of the things that make him an unsympathetic protagonist; since he doesn't care about the dog, or about anything but the "Real," it is hard to empathize with his situation. When he thinks about killing the dog to use its warmth, the reader sees the ultimate pragmatism of his position; his voice, equated with whips, is not comforting to the dog, and so both the reader and the dog understand that his intent is entirely selfish.

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