To Build a Fire: Theme


In the story "To Build a Fire" by Jack London, there are three principal themes. They are respecting nature, and considering results of actions. The main theme, or universal truth, is heeding warnings. The themes are shown through the character and his actions. The main character in the story had an attitude that prevented him from heeding internal and external warnings. He did not respect nature's power, and therefore he paid with his life.

His attitude was arrogant and careless. The man had no imagination and only understood facts. He knew it was very cold and his body was numb, but he failed to realize the danger. A newcomer with no experience, he thought he was invincible. Neither the "absence of sun from the sky," nor "the tremendous cold" made any effect on him. For example, the temperature was less than -50 degrees. He did not care about how much colder it was. To him, it was just a number. He did not think of his "frailty as a creature of temperature." When the "old-timer at Sulphur Creek" warned him not to travel alone in such cold, the man laughed at him. The old-timer had experience and knowledge, yet the man called him "womanish." Even when the man knew he was about to die, he thought, "freezing was not so bad as people thought," and "When he got back to the States he could tell folks what real cold was." These quotes show that the man did not take his situation seriously. Instead of dying with dignity, he thought about how foolish he looked "running like a chicken with it's head off." He was ignorant, unimaginative, foolish and doomed. The man learns his lesson the hard way.

The man encountered many internal warnings that it was too cold to be outside. First, his nose and cheeks went numb. His face, feet, and hands followed. His beard and mustache grew icy from his breath. Rubbing his face and beating his hands only temporarily helped his circulation. After he got his feet wet, they froze. His fingers "seemed remote from his body" because he could not move them. The most obvious clues that the man took in were internal. "He wondered whether his toes were warm or numb." It should have worried him. When he lit the last fire, his flesh burned. He knew because "he could smell it." He could not even feel his hands burning. The man thought it was "curious that one should have to use his eyes to find where his hands were." Eventually, no amount of running or thrashing can awaken the feeling in his body. If he had paid adequate attention to his internal signals he may have survived.

If the man did not believe his body, there were also several external signals to guide him. He mentioned the "old-timer at Sulphur Creek" many times. The experienced old-timer warned him of the danger of traveling alone. He didn't listen to the old-timer. The man spat, and it crackled before it hit the ground. This alarmed him of how cold it was, but not of the dangers. "In a month, no man had come up or down that silent creek." Other people were wise enough not to travel. Even the man's dog notices the "tremendous" cold. It wanted to stay by the fire and seek shelter. The man disregarded the warnings of nature, experience, and proof of the dangerous cold. He believed he was infallible.

The story effectively shows that failure to heed warnings will lead to adverse repercussions. In the main character's case, it led to his death. The man's attitude thwarts him from taking advice from people, events, facts, or even himself.