To Build a Fire Setting: Importance & Analysis

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  • 0:03 Absence of Sun
  • 0:54 The Yukon
  • 1:49 Snow and Ice
  • 3:04 Freezing Temperatures
  • 4:20 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 paints a bleak picture of the Yukon landscape in 'To Build a Fire.' The harsh conditions serve to confound the man on his journey to camp. The man must prove to be master of this setting if he hopes to survive.

Absence of Sun

When the sun stays behind the clouds, a certain gloom descends. There is no warmth and no light and makes the day appear dreary. From a literary standpoint, this type of setting indicates depression or an omen of doom. In Jack London's ''To Build a Fire,'' the absence of sun helps create the sensation of a harsh environment, one that is not caring or forgiving. This is what greets the main character when he begins his short journey across the Yukon.

As the man prepares for his journey to a mining camp, he notices that ''Day had broken cold and gray, exceedingly cold and gray.'' The man believes that he already accustomed to wintery days, but it turns out he is not prepared for the gloomy darkness of the Yukon. As a reader, this type of setting prepares us for the fact that a dangerous threat is on the horizon.

The Yukon

A the time that London wrote his story, the Yukon was still mostly uninhabited, but a great number of men were racing there due to the discovery of gold. The man is here for that very reason. He is checking on some other prospects before meeting his friends at a mine. As he begins his journey to camp, he sees ice and snow as far as he can see in all directions. All the land before him was ''a mile wide and hidden under three feet of ice.'' Besides snow and ice, the only thing the man sees are trees. The landscape appears barren and uninviting.

Perhaps this is an indication that the man is not wanted here. He definitely doesn't belong there and is unfamiliar with the ferocity of the winters, but he will become acquainted quickly. The land is unforgiving. It has no concern for the man's safety. He is here encroaching where he doesn't belong, yet the man doesn't care.

Snow and Ice

Snow and ice blanket the Yukon. This is yet another obstacle thrown before the man. This setting in the Yukon throws everything possible at the man to discourage his travels. But there is more to this environment than just a challenge for the man to overcome. The snow and ice hide the danger of the warm springs that flow beneath, which could kill a man if he fell in. But this vast and untamed landscape should encourage the man to wonder.

Here he is, a lone man attempting to traverse a relatively short distance, but through extremely harsh conditions. In looking at this expansive, untamed area, the man should consider what this means and how it relates to him, but he did not imagine the consequences. The man doesn't pause to consider the ''conjectural field of immortality and man's place in the universe.''

In a setting such as the Yukon, the man is small and insignificant. The Yukon does not show any concern or care for the man's safety. It will continue to exist whether he is here or not. The man does not respect the harsh setting he is visiting. He shows the folly of man when he does not take caution when confronting nature unprepared. The man learns his lesson about his foolishness. Unfortunately, his realization came too late.

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