ISC Echoes workbook answers’To build a Fire’ as a struggle for survival


To build a Fire : by Jack London

Question: Discuss Jack London’s short story ” To Build a Fire ” as a struggle for survival in a harsh environment by a man, who was ignorant of the frailty of human beings.

Answer: In Jack London’s ‘To build a Fire’ the main theme is the struggle for survival in harsh environment by a man.  The man was travelling alone,except for his dog, a native, husky wolf- dog. The man was a newcomer to the region, he had no idea how cold it really might be in Klondike wilderness. Even his dog knew that it was too cold to be travelling. The theme revolves around the newcomer’s experiences and his struggle for survival in the  extremely cold weather. 

       The man was a newcomer ‘a chechaquo’ who was without imagination how cold it really might be in winters in Yukon territory of Klondike region.
” He was quick and alert in things of life but only in the things and not in significance. ” He could not even figure out the coldness as he estimated seventy five below zero as fifty five below zero.

       This much cold did not bother him to contemplate about the life and death. He only considered it  as cold – a mere inconvenience.  He believed that harsh Klondike winter could be easily taken care of by the use of mittens, ear – flaps, warm moccasins and thick socks.

       The man was startled to see his spittle crackled in air. ” He knew that at fifty below below spittle crackled on the snow , but this spittle had crackled in the air .”
     He realised that it was much colder than fifty below. But he was determined to reach his destination in time, the temperature did not matter.  It did not discouraged him, ” He was bound for the old claim on the left fork of Henderson Creek, where the boys were already. ” 

    The man was adventurous as he was willing to take risks. At the same time he was too proud to pay the heed on the advice of an old timer that ” no man must travel alone in the Klondike after fifty below. ” 

      He considered it rather womanish and undertook a journey alone in the brutal cold and “travelled light” without a trail mate.

       The man was too proud of human being’s capabilities. At one moment he was regretful that he was not wearing a nose- strap to  prevent his cheeks from frost bite. But the very next moment , for him frosted cheeks were just painful, ” that was all; they were never serious. ” 

      From the beginning it was made clear that the nature was against the man’s chances of survival. Though the man did not  meditate upon his physical frailty as a creature of temperature . It was so cold that his nose and cheek bones were numb, the juice that was being expelled from his mouth on chewing tobacco was instantly freezing , his fingers went numb when he unbuttoned his jacket and shirt to take out his lunch.

     For the first time he became frightened at the intensity of the freezing weather. He thought of the man of Sulphur Creek’ who told him how cold it sometimes got in  this country . Knowing that  numbness preceeds hypothermia he planned to build a fire “and thaw out ” before trying to eat.

  It was his first step to struggle against the bitter cold.
   Even his dog knew how cold it was. “The dog had learned fire and it wanted fire.” It knew  ” it was no time for travel.”  and expected the man to go to the camp and seek fire.

    But the man ignored the animal instinct and continued his journey much to the dog’s disappointment as it longed to remain by the fire.

    Although the man was ‘keenly observant’ about the springs under the snow which  might be traps for one, he became less aware of his surroundings and stepped into a hidden spring which wet him halfway to the knees.
 “He was angry and cursed his luck aloud” not because he was frightened for his life but because this would delay him an hour, for he would have to build a fire and dry out his foot gear. He built another fire. His fire was a success and he was safe.

     This time his hubris made him to conclude that any man can travel alone as long as he keeps his head. He was sure of his abilities to reach the camp safely in time. But the nature is much more powerful than man can ever think.

   As soon as the man started to untie his moccasins to dry his feet, the tree under which he had built the fire blotted out the fire.

    ” The man was shocked. It was as though he had just heard his own sentence of death.” 

   Then, his chances for survival became slim. He had to face the harshness of nature as a lone individual. The man decided to rebuild the fire in the open space. He gathered dry grasses and tiny sticks. When the time came to light the matches his lifeless fingers could not hold them and the whole pack fell in the snow. He somehow lit the matches but burnt himself badly in this process.

   The man changed his goal from reaching the camp, to warding off frostbite, to merely staying alive.

     The man even thought of killing the dog to thaw his hands in its carcass, but when he approached the dog it instinctively recoiled and backed away.

     He finally realised that it was no longer a mere matter of freezing his finger and toes, or of losing his hands or feet but that ” it was a matter of life and death with the chances against him.” 

    The fear of death made him lose control of himself and in frenzy he began to run along the creek bed. He ran frantically, hoping to regain the feeling in his feet and to reach the camp, but he failed to do so.

    He finally resigned to his fate. He thought of accepting death with dignity and slipped into frozen sleep and died.

    The question of his survival in this bitter cold was based on his ability to build a fire. Only the fire could give him the life. He was too proud to the advice of old timer at Sulphur Creek’. Had he listened to the advice and travelled with a trail mate, he wouldn’t have died of extreme cold. His vain belief that a man could do anything if he keeps his head, shattered with his failure to build a third fire for himself.


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