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 is the central idea in "To Build a Fire"?

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I feel that a theme (main idea) of London's "To Build a Fire" is a theme that he frequently uses in his writings.  That theme is the theme of nature's indifference to humans.  Granted, the man ignored advice to not go out, because he figured he was good enough, strong enough, and smart enough to conquer nature.  That wasn't the case, and the man paid the ultimate price.  I would be tempted to believe that the main idea being stressed to readers is "be prepared," but the dog ruins that for me.  

Then it turned and ran along the trail toward the camp it knew, where there were the other food providers and fire providers.

For me, the dog represents nature.  The dog is not human; therefore, he is nature to me.  The dog sticks around for a bit after the man dies, then the dog simply moves on in search of other providers.  I feel that this shows a cold indifference on the dog's part.  He liked the man, as long as the man could provide something for him.  The storm is a lot like the dog.  It exhibits a sense of cold indifference to the man's efforts.  It doesn't matter how hard the man tries to warm himself and curse at the storm.  The storm simply carries on without a care in the world.  The story has always reminded me of Crane's poem "A Man Said to the Universe."

A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”
In the poem, like in London's story, nature flat out doesn't care about man and his efforts.  
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The overall theme or message of “To Build a Fire” by Jack London deals with stubborn idealism.  During the time period in which the story is to have taken place men flocked to the Yukon in order to strike it rich and cash in on the gold that had been found there.  The main character in the story had been given advice that advised him not to travel to the Yukon because he was not prepared.  Traveling with his dog, the main character sets out to meet him friends at a camp however, he makes many mistakes along the way that prevent him from reaching the camp and attaining his final goal.  Therefore, the author is trying to tell his readers how important it is to be prepared and to listen to those who might know better; instead of believing too much in something that is completely unattainable.

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What is the narrator's role in conveying a central idea in "To Build a Fire"?

London uses an omniscient narrator in "To Build a Fire" to help convey both naturalism and the idea of man versus nature. The narrator shows that the man is a newcomer, and "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 significances." The narrator then goes on to explain that while the man realizes that fifty degrees below zero is cold, he is unable to see the significance of this cold in relation to his own mortality. The man, according to the narrator, is unable to see "man's place in the universe," which becomes his downfall. It is this, and his arrogance in ignoring the old-timer's advice about  not traveling alone when it was fifty below or colder, that causes the man's death.

Conversely, the narrator is also able to show the thoughts of the dog. The narrator shows that "the animal was depressed by the tremendous cold. It knew that it was no time for traveling. It experienced a vague but menacing apprehension that . . . made it question eagerly every unwonted movement of the man as if expecting him to go into camp or to . . . build a fire." Here, the narrator shows us that the dog has a natural instinct which the man lacks. At the end of the story, after the man dies, the dog heads toward camp where it knows there will be fire. As in naturalism, man succumbs to the indifference of the universe and nature survives.

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