ISC Echoes To Build a Fire theme of Man vs.Nature


To Build a Fire: by Jack London

Question: The central theme of the short story,’To Build a Fire’ concern the struggle of man versus nature. Discuss.

Answer: One of the themes of the story is the conflict between Man and Nature, where the man initially underestimates the power of nature, while by the end the nature overpowers the man, his reasons and his arrogance.

  •  Man Underestimating Nature

               The unnamed man in the story was a newcomer in Yukon territory and decided to travel alone across the area despite knowing the extreme weather conditions there.

      The author presents the cold weather as 
“Day had broken cold and gray, exceedingly cold and gray…….”
    and also

      ” a subtle gloom that made the day dark and that was due to the absence of sun. “

   In Yukon region, the earth was ” hidden under three feet of ice. On top of this ice were as many feet of snow.”

     The man 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 wolf – dog. 

     The man was not only a newcomer, who was unfamiliar with Klondike’s harsh winter landscape but was “without imagination” also. Unaware of the fact that fifty degrees below zero meant eighty odd degrees of frost, the man undertook the challenging journey alone, except for a dog and was “travelling light” on foot rather than by sled. This didnot ” lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature. ” He was indifferent to the fact that man can only live within certain narrow limits of heat and cold.

     It was tremendous cold as his spittle crackled in the air. He knew that ” at fifty below spittle crackled on the snow, but this spittle had crackled in the air.”  Undoubtedly it was colder than fifty below  actually it was seventy five degree below zero. 

    The man assumed he would overpower the nature. He believed that this brutal cold would be easily taken care of by the use of mittens, ear- flaps, warm moccasins and socks. 

      During his trek, the man was confronted again and again by his weakness as a lone individual against the formidable power of nature in the form of the brutal cold. Each time the man removed his mittens, he was surprised to find his fingers freezing instantly. He was also startled at how fast his nose and cheeks froze. When the man stopped for lunch,his feet went numb almost as soon as he sat still,he wondered whether the toes were warm or numb, a fact that finally began to frighten him. 

   In spite of all odds the man was determined to reach his destination in time. He underestimated the power of nature and did not pay any heed to ‘the old timer of Sulphur Creek’ who warned him about the danger of venturing into those areas alone. 

     The man was “keenly observant”, he was very careful about the streams under the ice that never freeze. He used his intelligence and alertness to avoid these traps on the way.

     At half past twelve, he reached at the forks of the Creeks, he lit a  fire to get some warmth and had his lunch sitting on a snow covered  log.

     After half an hour of resuming his trek, the man broke through the ice and got himself wet halfway to the knees. ” He was angry, and cursed his luck aloud” As this would delay him an hour for      ” he would have to build a fire and dry out his foot-gear. ” 
This was imperative at such a low temperature. But he was confident in his ability to travel alone in that area.

   When he built the fire for the second time successfully to dry him out, he made fun of the old timer’s advice that ” no man must travel alone in the Klondike after fifty below”. He  called it womanish advice.

  • Nature overpowering the man’s Arrogance

          The story depicts that how nature has the ability to overpower man – the brutal, intense cold killed the man but the four footed brute, who displayed his instinct and wisdom survived. 

      The man was too proud of his abilities that he did not pay any  attention to the old timer’s advice. But the nature is much more powerful than man can ever think and it was then that the “treacherous tree” under which he lit the fire blotted out the fire.  Now he realised that he should have journey with a trail mate.

       The man tried to build the fire again but failed miserably.  His numb fingers could not help him any more. Though he got hold of the matches, he could not light them. He was mentally down by then and let the matches fall into the snow.
   He became fearful as “he realized that it was no longer a mere matter of freezing his fingers and toes,……but that it was a matter of life and death with the chances against him”.
        The man panicked , ran about the Yukon wilderness, he could not warm himself
  ” He ran blindly, without intention , in fear such as he had never known  in his life.”
     Thus he  resigned himself to fatal nature.

           Therefore, it can be said that the story’s main concern is the struggle between man and nature.

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