“To Build a Fire” by Jack London is undoubtedly an exciting, unforgettable yet tragic tale of man versus nature. Justify.
Jack London’s story “To Build a Fire” revolves around a man’s bold yet unsuccessful effort to survive in the bitter cold of sub-zero Tundra areas. The story is set in the Yukon territory of Canada during the “gold rush” which began in 1897 when many people ventured into the Yukon territory in search of quick fortune. In that area the temperature reaches seventy-five degrees below zero. The adventurous journey of the protagonist into such remote location is, no doubt, an exciting and remarkable narrative with the descriptions of the harsh terrain and the extreme weather conditions. The man’s effort to survive by lighting a fire in that lonely bleak region has been the main concern of the story.
One of the most important themes explored in the story has been “man versus nature” – man underestimating nature and the omnipotent power of nature. Throughout the story the author has depicted that unrelenting power of nature and the man who ventured into such remote location without paying any heed to others finally realised his mistake and yielded to the power of nature.
The man in the story was a newcomer in the Yukon territory and planned to travel across the area despite knowing the extreme weather conditions there. He was travelling on foot to join his companions at an old mining camp on a distant fork of Henderson Creek. The man’s only companion in his journey was a dog, a big native husky. The man was indifferent to the tremendous cold and was determined to travel. Irrespective of the final outcome of his effort, it was obviously an act of bravery from a man with extraordinary mental strength.
This bravery as well as the folly and lack of imagination of the man is well highlighted by the author in his presentation of the cold weather. The very first sentence of the story sets the tone with the emphasising motif –
Day had broken cold and gray, exceedingly cold and gray …
The attempt of presenting a perfect picture of the cold goes on –
There was no sun nor hint of sun, though there was not a cloud in the sky.
The man’s spit turning into ice mid-air, his attempt to protect his food from freezing, the ‘fine powder of frost’ on the fur of the dog, the man’s conclusion that ‘it certainly was cold’, his encounter with water traps under the frost, the mention of sub-zero level temperature every now and then – all add to the description of the life-threatening cold.
But the man was determined to overcome all hurdles and reach his destination. He did not pay any heed to the older man, ‘the old-timer on Sulphur Creek’, who warned him about the danger of venturing into those areas alone. He used his intelligence and alertness to avoid the traps on the way. When he reached at the forks of the Creek at half past twelve, he was pleased with his speed and was sure to reach the camp by six in the evening. He then lit a fire to get some warmth, had his lunch sitting on a snow-covered log and even had a smoke.
After half an hour of resuming his trek, the man broke through the ice and got himself wet halfway to the knees. He built a fire again to dry his feet. Though it angered him as it would delay his journey by an hour, he was confident in is ability to travel alone in that area.
But soon after he received a shock when a chunk of snow fell from the tree under which he lit the fire and thus the fire was put out. Now he realised that he should have taken the advice of old-timer on Sulphur Creek seriously and should have journeyed with a trail-mate. The man tried to build the fire again, but failed miserably. His numb fingers couldn’t help him anymore. Though he got hold of the matches, he couldn’t light them. He was mentally down by then and let the matches fall into the snow.
He then thought of killing the dog just so he could put his hands in the warm body and keep himself alive. The man tried to call the dog towards him but something in the look of his eyes or his voice kicked the survival instincts in the dog. The dog walked away from the man and didn’t let him near itself. Moreover, the man realised that his hands were too numb to kill the dog.
Now panicked, the man was running to keep himself warm and hoping to reach the camp anyway. But that was not to be. The dog accompanied him all the way though. The man finally realized his
This story of a man challenging the adverse condition of nature is surely exciting and motivating too. The man’s boldness, determination, adventurous mindset, observation skills and common sense in the time of need are praiseworthy and own him a place in the readers’ heart. But, at the same time, he has been blind to human frailty and too arrogant. As the narrator suggests, the man was ‘without imagination’ to take such unwise decisions to travel alone in that remote area. That is why he met the most unpleasant fate in the end. And the most important thing is that the man finally realised his mistake and accepted the omnipotent power of nature. Thus, the story “To Build a Fire” has been an unforgettable yet tragic tale of man versus nature.