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To Build a Fire

by Jack London

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What is the moral lesson in Jack London's "To Build a Fire"?

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The moral lesson of "To Build a Fire" is that humans must respect nature and know their place within it. The protagonist has been advised not to travel alone when it gets colder than fifty below. He does it anyway, overly confident in his own ability to stay safe, and his pride leads to his death.

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The moral lesson in Jack London's short story "To Build a Fire" is that people should not think they are more powerful than nature. In addition, people should listen to others who have more experience than they do. London writes of the protagonist of the story, "The trouble with him was that he was not able to imagine." Though the man is new to the Yukon Territory, he ventures out on a sunless day while thinking that he can survive the cold. Though it is fifty degrees below zero, he has no real conception of what that means to him, his body, and his safety. As London writes, "It did not lead him to consider his weaknesses as a creature affected by temperature. Nor did he think about man’s general weakness, able to live only within narrow limits of heat and cold." The man is limited by his previous experience, so he thinks, without any evidence or reason, that he can outwit the cold, though people have warned him that he can't. In reality, the temperature is even colder than 50 below zero, and as the man dies, he thinks, “You were right, old fellow. You were right" about the old man in Sulphur Creek who had warned him not to venture out. In the end, the man realizes that nature is more powerful than he is and that he should've listened to people with more experience in the region. 

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The moral lesson implicit in Jack London's short story "To Build a Fire" is a stern and cheerless one. It might be expressed as follows. Man is alone in a pitiless, godless universe. He cannot look to any supernatural power for any kind of assistance. The best thing that humans can do because of their mutual human predicament is to cooperate and work together to make existence as comfortable and secure as is possible. But in the long run we are all doomed to the same extinction that occurred to the unnamed protagonist of London's story. Jack London was a socialist, and his story has a socialistic as well as an atheistic theme. London might also be called an existentialist, but he lived long before that term was coined by the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.

The story calls to mind "The Open Boat" by Stephen Crane, as well as the essay by Sigmund Freud titled "The Future of an Illusion." Crane and London both resemble the pessimistic author Ambrose Bierce, whose best-known story, accessible in e-notes, is "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." The same theme can be seen in a number of Ernest Hemingway's stories, most notably in "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place." Jack London's stark, fatalistic view of life might well be summarized by quoting this very short poem of his contemporary Stephen Crane.

A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”

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What is the moral lesson of "To Build a Fire"?

The lesson of “To Build a Fire” is that humans must show proper deference to nature and understand that it cannot be overpowered. In addition, humans must not allow excessive pride to cloud their judgment. The protagonist of the story received sound advice from an “old-timer” who had lived in the Klondike for a long time; the old man said that “no man must travel alone in the Klondike after fifty below.”

However, the protagonist embarks on his journey despite being well aware that it is likely colder than fifty below zero; indeed, when he spits into the air, the spit freezes even before it hits the ground. The narrator says that even the dog knows that it is too cold to be “walk[ing] abroad” outside:

It was the time to lie snug in a hole in the snow and wait for a curtain of cloud to be drawn across the face of outer space whence the cold came.

Nevertheless, the man’s pride and lack of forethought compels him to carry on with his travel plans. After he has his accident and falls into a pool of water, he successfully makes a fire, which he plans to use to thaw out. This success causes him to feel quite smug, and he thinks,

All a man had to do was to keep his head, and he was all right. Any man who was a man could travel alone.

Ironically, in his pride, the man has in fact failed to "keep his head," and he has built the fire under a tree whose branches are full of snow. The snow falls onto the man and his fire, dousing the flames immediately. The rest of the story—which shows the man's frantic and failed attempts to start another fire—amply illustrates the consequences of such pride and poor judgment.

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