To Build a Fire by Jack London

In To Build a Fire by Jack London we have the theme of struggle, obedience, stubbornness, arrogance, nature, conflict, survival and acceptance. Narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator the reader realises after reading the story that London may be exploring the theme of struggle. The man at the centre of the story does not find it easy as he travels towards his friends at Henderson Creek. He is beaten by cold weather and despite the advice of the old-timer the man continues to travel in the hope that he may reach his destination. It may also be significant that the man appears to be stubborn. He won’t give up on his journey though he is ill prepared for it. Even his dog knows that it is too cold to travel but nonetheless the dog through obedience follows the man. Which is interesting considering that the man at no stage in the story shows the dog any affection. In fact things get so cold that the man begins to think about killing the dog in order for the man to warm his body. This too may be important as some critics might suggest that the man is being practical. The dog is not a pet but more of a work dog. It serves several purposes all of which the man can take advantage of in order to survive.

What is also interesting about the story is that the man’s stubbornness is the direct cause of his death. Not willing to take the advice of others (the old-timer) the man sets out on his journey believing that he has what it takes and all he needs in order to reach his friends in Henderson Creek. There is no sense that the man has taken into consideration the conditions he finds himself in and if anything he appears to be travelling light. There are also two conflicts in the story which might be worth noting. The first is man versus man. The man is challenging himself to reach Henderson Creek by a set time that may not be reasonable considering his condition. The second conflict is man versus nature with London highlighting how nature will ultimately prevail in any conflict it has with man. There is a third minor conflict between the man and his dog. The dog is only too aware of the man’s objectives and as such protects himself by moving away from the man.

The man also has a lack of respect not only for what the old-timer tells him but for the weather itself. It comes as no surprise to the reader that the man is in a perilous position. Yet this is only something that the man realises when it becomes too late. If anything the old-timer represents wisdom and experience. Two things that are lacking when it comes to the man’s character. He appears to know what is best which may leave some readers to suggest that the man is full of his own self-importance. He will not listen to the advice he has been given and believes his own advice is better than the old-timers. Though very little if anything is said about the man’s background it would not be wrong to conclude that he has never experienced the conditions he has been met with before. Just as the old-timer represents wisdom the man represents arrogance and an unnatural and unhealthy belief in his own abilities. He really is not suited to the conditions he finds himself in.

The end of the story is also interesting as the man appears to accept his fate and the fact that he will die in the snow. He no longer runs or walks towards his destination. His body giving up on him. Which in many ways provides a strange comfort to the man. He knows that he is dying. That he has taken a risk that has not paid off and accepts this. The struggle that the man had went through while walking through the snow is no more. Rather a calmness comes over the man as he falls asleep for the final time. How calm the dog is might also be important as the dog is being practical. He sees no point in staying with the man and dying himself. Which may leave the reader to suggest that survival is the first instinct for an animal (or man). Unfortunately for the man he has been beaten and can go no further. The conflict between him and nature is over with nature prevailing once again. In a world of the survival of the fittest the man had been defeated. Through his arrogance and ignorance when it comes to heeding the old-timer’s advice. The man has lost his life. With the reader left suspecting that he may not be the only one or the last one.

Cite Post
McManus, Dermot. "To Build a Fire by Jack London." The Sitting Bee. The Sitting Bee, 27 Oct. 2018. Web.


  • I think there will be a correction in line 13 of first paragraph: “Even his dog knows that t it is too cold to travel”. There is an extra “t” after “that”. Also in line 5 of second paragraph: “There is also two” I think “is” should have been “are”.

  • A really good existentialism text showcasing the conflict between the flesh and the hostile universe it inhabits and nature’s indifference towards Human existence.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *