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To Build a Fire: Conflict & Resolution

Instructor: SCARLETT BROOKS

Scarlett has a Ph.D. in English and has taught literature and composition for both high school and college.

This lesson will analyze conflict in Jack London's short story 'To Build a Fire.' At the end of this lesson, you will be able to define conflict and analyze its role in story structure and suspense.

The Importance of Conflict

Think back over all the stories you have ever read and all the movies and television shows you have ever watched. Every single one of them involved some kind of conflict. Conflict is the problem in a story; without it, there is no story. Conflict drives the plot, or sequence of events, and develops character because the way characters contribute or respond to the conflict develops their personality.

Conflict in stories generally falls into one of four broad categories: man versus man, man versus nature, man versus society, and man versus self. The conflict in 'To Build a Fire' is man versus nature, because the protagonist has to battle the harsh conditions of the Yukon in a fight for survival.

Conflict and Plot Structure

Let's take a closer look at how the conflict drives the plot. Plot has traditionally been broken down into five main parts: the introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. In the introduction, the writer presents the main characters and establishes the setting and basic elements of the conflict. In 'To Build a Fire,' we are told that the setting is the Yukon territory, and that a man has set out at 9 o'clock in the morning bound for an encampment nine hours away. His only companion is a dog. We are told that 'there was no sun or hint of sun,' so it is winter time and very cold - 75 degrees below zero. All of these elements of the introduction establish the man versus nature conflict; we understand that the man has undertaken a dangerous journey and might encounter serious difficulties along the way.

Rising Action

The rising action is comprised of events that intensify the conflict and force the protagonist to make a decision that will seal his fate. In 'To Build a Fire,' the rising action consists of mistakes that threaten the man's survival. First, the man exposes his fingers to get his lunch and attempts to eat, but his numb fingers and frozen face make eating impossible. He quickly realizes he should have made a fire first to thaw out. He makes one quickly and without incident, and proceeds to eat his lunch. Although the man does not experience any real difficulty yet, his initial inability to eat his lunch frightens him. That this confident and somewhat nonchalant man feels fear is an ominous sign.

Perhaps the most significant event in the rising action is that the man breaks through the ice and snow, wetting his feet in a spring below the surface. The man knew that such traps existed and how to read signs of their presence. As an extra precaution, he would send his dog ahead to test the surface when he suspected the presence of such a trap. However, after lunch, he comes to a place where the usual signs aren't present, and he breaks through. As the man builds a second fire, we are told that 'he worked slowly and carefully, keenly aware of his danger.'

The man is able to build his second fire successfully, but he makes the mistake of building it under a tree freighted with snow. His pulling out twigs disturbs the snow, and the tree sheds a load onto the fire and puts it out. The man realizes he has to build a third fire, and because his hands are already numb, he begins to panic. Through the man's increasing fear, London signals the intensification of the conflict.

Climax

The conflict starts to build to the climax as the man experiences great difficulty separating a match from the bunch and lighting it because his hands are too numb to execute fine movements. He succeeds in lighting one but drops it because its acrid smell hurts his nose. He then succeeds in lighting the whole pack at once and setting the kindling on fire, but the reader knows he is in great danger now because he doesn't have any matches left if the fire fails.

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