To Build a Fire Characters: Description & Analysis Video

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  • 0:04 Fifty Below Zero
  • 0:56 The Dog
  • 2:04 The Man
  • 3:25 Nature
  • 4:31 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joseph Altnether

Joe has taught college English courses for several years, has a Bachelor's degree in Russian Studies and a Master's degree in English literature.

Jack London pits man against nature in his short story 'To Build A Fire'. A lone man faces the extreme cold as he treks through the Yukon to meet his friends. The only other character is his dog, who shows a greater amount of respect for Nature than the man does.

Fifty Below Zero

How many of us would be concerned about traipsing through snow? Since most populated areas have encroached on nature and paved over the earth, there really aren't too many hazards other than the occasional pothole. In Jack London's ''To Build a Fire'', the main character, only named 'the man,' walks through the untouched landscape of the Yukon. In this frozen landscape, there are many hazards.

When the man sets off on his journey, the weather is at least fifty degrees below zero. Snow is everywhere, and beneath this snow is a layer of ice. The thickness of the ice might vary, but there are also springs which ''the coldest snaps never froze.'' These pose the greatest threat to the man, as the springs might be ''three inches deep, or three feet.'' Stepping into one of these springs in temperatures as cold as this could very well lead to his death. While not necessarily a character, the landscape of the Yukon does pose a threat to the man.

The Dog

The dog, ''a big, native husky,'' which shows no ''visible or temperamental difference from its brother, the wild wolf,'' is a supporting character in ''To Build a Fire.'' The dog relies on instinct, the innate behavioral pattern in response to certain stimuli, to survive. It knows that the temperature is much colder than the measurement of fifty below. When it's this cold, it's ''no time for traveling.'' The dog's instinct is a ''truer tale than was told to the man by the man's judgment.''

Author Jack London emphasizes the animal's instinct on a number of occasions with a particular purpose. Each time, it's in regard to a threat from nature or man. When the dog drops into some water, it instinctively begins ''to bite out the ice that had formed between the toes.'' When the man acts differently toward the dog, it recognizes danger because ''somewhere. . . in its brain arose an apprehension.''

All these examples show the dog reacting as if it already knew what to do and is reacting to environmental stimuli. It's as if this recognition has passed from one generation to the next. In addition, the dog respects the forces of nature and knows better than to challenge them. The dog knows that when it's bitter cold, it's better to be next to a fire with plenty of food instead of walking alone through the snow.

The Man

The man is the main protagonist of ''To Build a Fire.'' It's his thoughts and actions that dominate the story. He's traveling alone to meet others at an old claim ''on the left fork of Henderson creek.'' To get there, he will travel quite a distance through the bitter cold. He believes he's prepared for this journey, but he really has no idea what he is in for. For starters, he disregards the advice of an ''old timer on Sulphur Creek. . . after fifty below, a man should travel with a partner.'' Traveling alone will cost him dearly.

The man doesn't have much respect for nature. This is due in part to a lack of understanding of ''his fragility as a creature of temperature.'' He understands the meaning of cold, and that fifty degrees below zero ''stood for a bite of frost that hurt and must be guarded against'' but he has no experience living in these conditions. He's a ''newcomer in the land.'' As such, he should have greater respect for the forces of nature.

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