The Individual Versus Nature: The central conflict in “To Build a Fire” revolves around a man’s ability to survive in the harsh, cold conditions of the Yukon Territory. His survival is dependent upon his ability to identify warm springs beneath thin ice, build a fire in adverse conditions, and keep frostbite at bay. Whereas some American writers present nature as a source of transcendent bliss, London presents nature as brutally indifferent and destructive to humans.
- For discussion: What is the man’s attitude toward nature? How does his attitude change over the course of the story?
- For discussion: Invite students to personify nature as a character in the story. What seems to be nature’s attitude toward the man? Does nature’s attitude change over the course of the story?
- For discussion: Is the dog an uncontrollable element of nature? Or is the dog a tool the man can harness for his own survival? Or is the dog a willful agent in his own right? How does the relationship between the man and his dog develop over the course of the text?
The Protagonist as a Tragic Hero: For Aristotle, a tragic hero was an ill-fated man who came to tragedy through his own error in judgment, evoking pathos from the audience. In a classic example of hubris, or excessive pride, the man in London’s story ignores life-saving advice not to venture into the extreme cold. This error in judgment brings about his death. Even as he loses feeling in his extremities, he continues to deride the advice as “womanish.”
- For discussion: Why does the man venture out into the cold? Is it pride, or is there another motivational factor or characteristic?
- For discussion: What choices does the man make in the text? Which are errors of judgment, and which are logical steps? To what extent do you view the man as a tragic hero?
- For discussion: Does the man evoke pity? If so, how? If not, what emotions does the story evoke for you?
- For discussion: Is there a relationship between the man’s pride and his masculinity? If so, how are the two related?
The Human Capacity to Persevere: The man goes to great lengths to survive his ordeal, even after he realizes that his chances for survival are very low. The man loses feeling in his face, his hands, and his feet, yet he still attempts to run to his destination and save his life. Stories of such perseverance in the face of dire conditions have become widespread, and “To Build a Fire” is a quintessential example of American survival literature.
- For discussion: What is the relationship between the man’s pride and his desire to persevere? Is one dependent on the other? How so?
- For discussion: Is the man’s attempt to kill his dog justified given his threatened circumstances? What would you have done in his position?
- For discussion: Do the man’s attempts at survival give the story a hopeful mood? Or does their futility deepen the story’s tragedy?
- For discussion: Why do you think survival stories are common in American literature?
The Role of the Narrator: A third-person omniscient narrator gives readers a cool, objective view into both the man and his dog, revealing their contrasting points of view toward their conditions and their need for fire. Early on, the narrator criticizes the protagonist directly, saying that “the trouble with [the man] was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in their significances.” The narrator solidifies “To Build a Fire” as a naturalist text by...
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using a dispassionate tone that holds the man at a critical distance.
- For discussion: What does the narrator mean by describing the protagonist as “without imagination?” How does the man’s lack of imagination bring about his downfall?
- For discussion: How does the narrator use literary elements such as foreshadowing and dramatic irony to develop themes in the text?
- For discussion: What is the narrator’s attitude toward the protagonist? What is the narrator’s attitude toward the dog? How do these views develop over the course of the text?
Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching
The Ending Is Pessimistic: Despite the protagonist’s best efforts, his attempts to survive result in his death.
- What to do: Point out the man’s character flaws and choices that led to his tragic ending. Ask students to consider what the man could have done to prevent his death.
- What to do: Discuss the power of the natural world. Ask students to offer examples of nature’s power, drawing from their own lives, contemporary news, and history. Have students share their attitudes towards the forces of nature.
The Man Favors and Embodies a Destructive Masculinity: The man derides the advice to travel with a companion as “womanish” and suggests that masculinity is stronger and tougher than femininity.
- What to do: Point out that the man’s idea of masculinity is self-destructive, because it fuels his pride and leads to his own death.
Alternative Approaches to Teaching "To Build a Fire"
While the main ideas and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving this text, the following suggestions represent alternative readings that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the story.
- Focus on syntax and style. London is known for combining forceful diction with relatively simple syntax, making for a lively yet easy read. What are London’s most notable uses of diction in the text? When does he make use of simple syntax, and when does he use complex sentences or rhetorical questions?
- Focus on “To Build a Fire” as an allegory. Can “To Build a Fire” be considered a cautionary tale? What lessons does it hold for readers today?
- Focus on the relationship between the man and his dog. How do the man and his dog work together in the story? In what ways do they benefit from each other’s company, and in what ways are they indifferent to each other’s suffering?