In Jack London’s story “To Build a Fire”, he describes a tale of man’s journey through a harsh wilderness. The older man is alone except for his companion, a wolf-dog mix. He underestimates the severity and unforgiving characteristic of nature, and begins a battle with the conditions. In this journey of existentialism, London conveys to his readers what loneliness truly feels like. Nature is the victor in this story, leaving the man completely defeated and alone in his dying moments. Through his demonstration of existentialism, London tells the story of a human’s vain attempt to control the wilderness, leading to the extremes of the feelings of true hopelessness, loneliness and despair showing nature is an overarching power and it is impossible to defeat.
True hopelessness is a recurring feeling in Jack London’s short story. Fire, in many senses, is a symbol of hope. It is a token of warmth and security. The security is not the only symbol that offers its bearers hope: eternity is another beacon. Fire represents eternity with the theory of the “eternal flame”. It is a symbolic theory that as long as the eternal flame burns, there is hope in the world. London understands this deeper meaning of fire. His main character, already freezing and suffering in the cruel Yukon wilderness, believes there is a need to build a fire as a means of “protection” (London 466). Although he understands what he must do, he underestimates the unforgiving brutality of nature. He has decided to face this battle alone—other than his canine companion—and he ultimately pays the price for it. At what can be considered the climax of the story, the reader witnesses an utter failure. The man in the story has finally made a fire. He is on the brink of death, and he is beginning to feel an ounce of hope again. Suddenly, a single leaf floats down from above and begins to extinguish the flame. He tries to “push it out with his fingers”, but the man ultimately fails. Here, London discusses a connection with his failure in the wilderness as well. The man is described as “push[ing] it out too far” (London 471). Not only has he literally, through his own doing, doomed himself by ruining the warmth, the man has also pushed too far venturing into nature alone: disrespecting the wild itself. He believes he has the ability to control and handle himself on this journey, and he is proven wrong in this moment. He has no more power, and the theory of the “eternal flame” has been extinguished by the force of nature. London has successfully shown the reader what true hopelessness is.
Hopelessness is not the only feeling that is conveyed through the unforgiving horror of the wild: loneliness is as well. The man is alone except for one creature: a wolf-dog crossbreed. In society, a dog is known as a “man’s best friend”. They are loyal creatures, who will do just about anything for their owners. In the story, the man is loyal to his dog as well. After his companion gets his paw wet, the man sacrifices his glove to help the creature. He does not think twice—once again undermining the power of the wild. After only a few minutes, the man’s fingers went numb. The reader the entire story has a conception that the man and beast will be together till the end; however, this happy ending is not the truth. In the man’s dying moments, the dog abandons him. The animal had one thought in its mind: survival. Even with its fur, it was absolutely freezing, and had the instinctual knowledge—something lacked by the man—to understand that nature will not hesitate to kill him. Now, in the end, the main character is all alone. He is lying down, on the verge of consciousness and freezes to death. The animal witnessed the physical beating nature had delivered to the main character. London uses this moment to point out a simple truth: nature must be respected. The man ignored the severity of the wilderness and failed to build a fire, a key element to survive in the cold. When describing why the dog left the man, London writes “never in a dog’s experience had it known a man to sit like that in the snow and make no fire” (London 478). Through his use of simple reasoning, London conveys to his readers that true loneliness is now felt as a result of underestimating nature.
Through the short story, the audience is showcased how undermining the wilderness has led to feelings of true hopelessness and loneliness, but the man feels one emotion more than any other in his battle with naturalism: despair. This despair is caused by the sheer brutality of the great outdoors. The man is described as a “chechaque” (a newcomer) in the land, and does not believe the temperature of fifty degrees below zero has any real significance on his journey other than some slight discomfort (London 463). He is immediately proven wrong, with his fingers and toes going numb at times, and even the story illustrating he is likely to “lose some toes” soon (London 473). Through his experiences with the harsh conditions, the man is beginning to understand the brutality of nature and, sadly for him, it is too late. In the final scene of the short story, the man is hit with a sudden fear of “death, dull and oppressive” and finally begins to understand nature will actually kill him (London 475). This true despair sends him into a frenzy, and he eventually breaks out in a sprint for the camp. On this run he collapses, has the moment with his dog, and dies. London points out the terrible despair felt as a result of the brutality of Yukon Forest—and nature as a whole—to warn the reader nature is impossible to beat. It is an ultimate power that must be respected.
Within Jack London’s short story, the audience is given a warning about the world around them. Nature is portrayed as an overwhelming embodiment of power, and is shown causing many problems to one man who does not realize that. The wilderness stripped this man of his hope and burnt out his “eternal flame”. The wild has stripped this man of everything, even forcing his dog to abandon the man in his dying moments. “To Build a Fire” represents how a man’s battle with naturalism and existence has led to his demise at the ends of the world around him. Nature—and the world—is not his friend, and is the cause for true loneliness, hopelessness, and despair in this tragic short story. It is one thing: a power that will destroy all that do not respect it. Jack London’s message resonates to society today, warning people to respect the world around them.
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