To Build a Fire Themes

The main themes in "To Build a Fire" are humans and nature, the cost of masculinity, and the limits of individualism.

  • Humans versus nature: The man’s attempts to survive in the bitter cold and his dog's easy abandonment of him illustrate nature's apathy in response to human suffering.

  • The cost of masculinity: The man’s ideas of masculinity drive him into conditions that someone with less pride and arrogance may have avoided.

  • The limits of individualism: In his insistence to travel alone, the man accentuates the dangers of the Yukon and precipitates his own death.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 22, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 933

Humans Versus Nature

As an example of the naturalist literary movement, London’s “To Build a Fire” presents a power struggle between humans and nature. The supreme struggle of the story is that of survival in extreme conditions. The dog’s instincts tell it that “it was the time to lie snug in a hole in the snow,” but the man does not believe the cold to be a serious danger. The temperature only strikes him as something cold to endure, not a danger in itself: “Such fact impressed him as being cold and uncomfortable, and that was all.” His knowledge of the temperature and terrain does not help him against the harsh winter, because he believes himself impervious. At the beginning of the story, the narrator comments that “he was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances.” There is an intellectual dissonance in the man’s ability to apply his knowledge to practical survival. He does not see the extremely low temperature as a problem; he merely understands that “it certainly was cold.” The man cannot discern the danger in the natural environment, and that lack of discernment proves to be his undoing.

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This theme also highlights the dichotomy between instinct and intellect, as represented by the dog and the man, respectively. The dog’s instincts serve its survival. Even if it does not know what temperatures are, the dog has an innate understanding that if it remains cold, it will die. On the other hand, the man understands the concept of temperature but does not acknowledge its consequences: “It did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon men’s frailty in general, able only to live within certain narrow limits of heat and cold.” At the end of the story, it is the dog who remains alive, leaving the man’s body behind in the snow. However tragic the man’s death, nature is indifferent to it. Ultimately, London portrays the immense power of nature over humans and the arrogance of those who think otherwise.

The Cost of Masculinity

Although only briefly mentioned, ideas of masculinity play an important role in the story. They shape the man’s attitude towards the decisions he faces, and they inform his inflated perception of his own abilities. For example, his belief that “any man who was a man could travel alone” is shaped by his internalized understanding of what a man should be capable of. It is the standard against which he holds himself and his decisions; it is also arguably what leads to his demise. The man’s sense of superiority when he “saves” himself highlights the extent to which ideas of masculinity shape his view of the world:

Well, here he was; he had had the accident; he was alone; and he had saved himself. Those old-timers were rather womanish, some of them, he thought. All a man must do was to keep his head, and he was all right.

London’s own experiences as part of the Klondike Gold Rush informed “To Build a Fire.” As the majority of the prospectors were male, the region took on an extremely imbalanced gender dynamic. The protagonist’s attitude toward masculinity in the story is typical of the Gold Rush era, wherein men were expected to be self-sufficient adventurers who were capable of surviving in harsh conditions. In calling the old man who tries to warn him “womanish,” the protagonist demonstrates a belief that relying on others for help, even in extreme conditions, is unmasculine. It is because of this belief that the man fails to take so many of the dangers he faces seriously. 

The Limits of Individualism

The story’s protagonist repeatedly asserts his ability to travel alone and believes himself capable of surviving the extreme wintry conditions. His refusal to travel with a companion, despite the warnings of the old man at Sulphur Creek, plays a crucial part in his inevitable demise. Nature is unforgiving of his mistakes, and he has no one to help him: “If he had only had a trail-mate he would have been in no danger now. The trail-mate could have built the fire.” The man does not realise the importance of accepting help from others and believes that his individual capabilities will ensure his survival. The man’s sense of his own abilities is so inflated that he is consistently surprised when his fingers and toes are numb, and he often remarks on the fact that it is cold.

One of the only pieces of background information readers are given about the unnamed man is that he is American and unfamiliar with the Yukon territory. American culture is known for its emphasis on individual freedoms and liberties, and London’s story is an extreme example of the dangers these values might lead to. The man chooses to travel alone and therefore brings about his demise. Aside from refusing to take a companion, the man displays individualism by ignoring the old man’s wisdom, turning his back on experience and advice. In doing so, London presents individualism as something which is capable of causing great damage. Unlike the dog, with its ancestral instinct survival, the man chooses to rely only on himself and is therefore a fool. The story emphasizes the importance of accepting help and working with others. Humans are presented as at the mercy of nature, and so London highlights why individualism is so dangerous and foolish, especially in extreme environmental conditions such as those of the Yukon.

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