The existential theme in Jack London's "To Build A Fire" | (2023)

Jack London's short story, To Build a Fire, is the tragic story of a man who chooses to travel alone through the harsh environment of the sub-zero Yukon and falls victim to the relentless and unforgiving force of nature. During his journey, the man's feet get wet when he falls through the ice into the water of a hot spring (London 122). Due to the severity of the cold, around "one hundred and seven degrees below [freezing] point", the man's life depends on his ability to light one fire at a time to prevent his feet from freezing ( 122-23). After a near-successful arson attempt and several other pathetic attempts, the hopelessness of one man's lone fight against the hostile Yukon environment begins to become apparent. After a prolonged panic attack in which the man desperately tries to regain feeling in his extremities by “running around like a headless chicken” (128), the man finally “calms down and decides to face death with dignity. . .” (Work 66). Many existentialist authors present the central theme of the story: that man leads a solitary life exposed to the unforgiving and unforgiving forces of nature; Part of this theme, however subtle, is that man's goal is to find meaning in his existence.

The wordexistentialist, like the question of existentialism itself, defies definition. Davis McElroy points to this problem by comparing the act of defining existentialism to trying to "explain human existence in a single sentence . . ." (xi) For the sake of brevity, perhaps a short and simple definition would be better; in accordance with theAmerican Heritage Dictionary(3ra ed.),Existentialismit is "a philosophy that emphasizes the uniqueness and isolation of the individual in a hostile or indifferent universe." This statement defines the theme of Jack London's tale: the lonely man traveling through the desolate and hostile expanses of the Yukon can be seen as such. lonely individual inhabiting a cruel and indifferent cosmos. Finally, at the end of the story, we see the man come to the conclusion, indirectly, that the best he can do is face his fate with dignity, and thus make sense of a cruel and meaningless death. This existential theme in To Build a Fire is not coincidental, but seems to be part of conscious design in London. According to Charles Child Walcutt, Jack London was strongly influenced by the ideas of men such as Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, and Friedrich Nietzsche, all leading thinkers of the London period (5). So it's no coincidence that an existentialist theme is at the center of the story.

London emphasizes the existential theme in To Build a Fire in a number of ways, the most important of which is the choice of setting for the story to unfold. The story is set in the frozen Yukon desert during the harsh winter months when "there was neither a sun nor a glimmer of sun" (118). London places his lone human character in the dangerous environment of the Yukon wilderness, which is enough to illustrate his theme, but when London combines that unforgiving environment with the deadly cold of a Yukon winter, he creates an environment that is quintessentially hostile. , existential. ambient. The remoteness of the Yukon wilderness and man's lack of a human travel companion exemplify the existentialist notion that man is alone in the universe. To further emphasize this idea, London did not give the protagonist a name, instead simply referring to him as "the man" throughout the story. By not naming the character, London has further removed him from the reader in his own mortal environment, further isolating him in a desolate and hostile universe.

(Video) PSEC- To Build A Fire: Existentialism in the story

Images are an important element that London uses to illustrate and emphasize its theme. Earl Labor sees the "mood and atmosphere conveyed by repetitive images of cold, gloom, and whiteness" as "key to the story's impact" (63). In fact, London relies heavily on imagery to set the mood of the story, and in doing so paints a picture of the unforgiving environment her character must endure. London uses imagery so skillfully that the reader can almost feel the severe, deadly cold of the surroundings and almost hear the "high-pitched, explosive crack" if the man's saliva were to freeze in midair (119). Through the use of such vivid imagery, London brings the reader to the realization of the theme of the story; the reader can imagine man "losing in his battle against the frost" and so he can imagine man in his conflict with a cruel and ruthless universe (128).

London also uses irony to illustrate and emphasize his existential theme. The man is "very alert" as he navigates the treacherous terrain of the Yukon (120). He is constantly looking for signs that point to the hidden dangers he is trying to avoid, but ironically, the man "falls through the ice" in an area free of "treacherous signs" (Perry 227). Man gets another dose of the capricious and stolid nature of the universe when, after struggling to start a fire, life support is ironically shut down by falling snow just as his icy feet are about to thaw. King Hendricks sees irony in "that, despite all knowledge of him, [man] remains a helpless victim of the forces and forces of nature" (22). Hendricks further points out the irony in the fact that man "could not survive in the 75-below-zero arctic [sic] climate, while the dog lived on instinct alone, without gloves, without earmuffs, without a coat, without lunch, and without "fire, he saved himself" (22) In order to preserve the existential theme of man's loneliness in an indifferent cosmos, the reader should not be confused with the presence of the dog as man's traveling companion; instead, the The reader must see the dog for what it really is: a further extension of the apathetic and indifferent environment.The dog is not a sentient being like humans themselves and therefore cannot be seen as a soul mate sharing the bitter existence of the lonely and lost soul who is the protagonist.Stressing with irony the essential parts of his story, London draws the reader's attention to the ruthless indifference of nature and, therefore, to the existential theme of man's solitary existence in a uni capricious and pernicious verse.

In his classic style, Jack London has created a gripping and hauntingly tragic story that illustrates a modern philosophical theme. The theme of this story speaks of man's need to find meaning in the sufferings of his solitary existence in an environment that is both hostile and indifferent to his sufferings. London illustrates and emphasizes this theme in three ways: through his choice of setting, his imagery, and his clever placement of irony within the story.

Works Cited

(Video) "To Build a Fire" by Jack London

"Existentialism."Das American Heritage Dictionary. 3rd Edition New York: Dell, 1994.

Hendricks, König.Jack London: Master of the Story. Logan: Utah state up,

1966. Rpt. AndJack London: Critical Essays. . . . ed. Ray Wilson Ownbey. Santa Barbara:

Walker, 1978. 13-30.

(Video) Erik Satie - Gymnopédie No.1

work, Earl.Jack London. . . . New York : Twayne , 1974 .

London, Jack. "To make a fire."Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama.

6th ed. X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia. New York: Harper Collins, 1995. 118-29.

McElroy, Davis Dunbar.Existentialism and modern literature. Westport: Greenwood, 1968.

(Video) How to recognize a dystopia - Alex Gendler

Perry, John.Jack London: an American myth. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1981.

Walcutt, Charles Kind.Jack London. Minneapolis: U von Minnesota P, 1966.

-Richard F. Robbins


What is the moral lesson in the story to build a fire by Jack London? ›

The morals of the story are that an inexperienced person should always listen to an expert and that nature is cruel and unforgiving.

What is the philosophy in to build a fire? ›

The main theme of this story which is portrayed by many existentialist writers is that man lives a lonely life which is shown by the unrelenting and unforgiving forces of nature; a subtle part of this theme was the goal that the man set for himself to find the meaning of his existence.

Which of the following best describes a central theme of the text to build a fire? ›

"To Build a Fire": Which of the following best describes a central theme of the text? In the struggle of man against nature, nature always wins.

What is the main conflict of the story to build a fire? ›

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.

What is the theme of existentialism in to build a fire? ›

The story's central theme is one portrayed by many existentialist writers—that man lives a solitary existence which is subject to the relentless, unforgiving forces of nature; an ever so subtle part of this theme is that it is man's goal to find meaning in his existence.

What is the lesson that the writer wants the main character to learn from the story? ›

The plot is simply what happens in the story and the order of the story's events, and the moral is the lesson that the writer wants the main character (and by extension, you) to learn from the story.

What is the central theme of To Build a Fire quizlet? ›

What is the theme of To Build A Fire? In To Build a Fire, one theme is survival in the wilderness. The man who is traveling alone, except for his dog, is a newcomer to the region.

What are the main ideas of To Build a Fire? ›

  • Nature Is Indifferent. The main character inhabits an unforgiving and indifferent natural landscape that does not care if he lives or dies. ...
  • Survival in Extremes. ...
  • The Limits of Self-Reliance.

What is the central theme of To Build a Fire Commonlit answers? ›

The main theme of the short story “To Build a Fire” by Jack London is the conflict between man and nature, in which nature triumphs.

What is the theme and central idea of the poem Fire and Ice? ›

The poem "Fire and Ice" by Robert Frost is a metaphor for human perceptions of desires and hatred. The fire symbolises burning desires, while the ice, on the other hand, describes ice-cold hatred. It describes how we humans will be the end of our own race.

What does fire mainly symbolize in this story? ›

In "To Build a Fire," the fire symbolizes life and survival. After he steps into water, the man knows that building a fire "to dry out his footgear" is "imperative." Without the warmth and heat, he will die of exposure.

What is the irony in To Build a Fire? ›

The irony in "To Build a Fire" is the lack of knowledge and experience of the character, a man. The presence of what literature defines as dramatic irony suggests that there is a situation from which the character knows nothing, but the reader, on the other hand, does.

What is the main issue or conflict in the story? ›

Conflict in a story is a struggle between opposing forces. Characters must act to confront those forces and there is where conflict is born. If there is nothing to overcome, there is no story. Conflict in a story creates and drives the plot forward.

What does To Build a Fire symbolize? ›

Building a fire is an act of technical skill and technology, and fire in literature has also often been used as a symbol of knowledge. The building of a fire thus symbolizes life in the story, but also life through human knowledge, skill, and technology.

What are the existential themes? ›

Themes in Existentialism
  • Importance of the individual. ...
  • Importance of choice. ...
  • Anxiety regarding life, death, contingencies, and extreme situations. ...
  • Meaning and absurdity. ...
  • Authenticity. ...
  • Social criticism. ...
  • Importance of personal relations. ...
  • Atheism and Religion.

What is the central theme of existentialism? ›

Existentialism emphasizes action, freedom, and decision as fundamental to human existence; and is fundamentally opposed to the rationalist tradition and to positivism. That is, it argues against definitions of human beings as primarily rational.

What is the existentialist message? ›

Existentialism is the philosophical belief we are each responsible for creating purpose or meaning in our own lives. Our individual purpose and meaning is not given to us by Gods, governments, teachers or other authorities.

What is the moral lesson of the story answer? ›

The moral of a story is the lesson that story teaches about how to behave in the world. Moral comes from the Latin word mores, for habits. The moral of a story is supposed to teach you how to be a better person.

What is the overall lesson of the story? ›

A theme is the message, or lesson, that the reader learns by reading the story. Sometimes a story has a particular kind of message, known as a moral.

What is the author's purpose in this story explain? ›

An author's purpose is his reason for or intent in writing. An author's purpose may be to amuse the reader, to persuade the reader, to inform the reader, or to satirize a condition.

What is the message from To Build a Fire? ›

In "To Build a Fire," London's main message is that nature is more powerful than man's arrogance and lack of foresight.

What is the main theme of the story To Build a Fire how does it appeal to you? ›

The main themes in "To Build a Fire" are humans and nature, the cost of masculinity, and the limits of individualism. Humans versus nature: The man's attempts to survive in the bitter cold and his dog's easy abandonment of him illustrate nature's apathy in response to human suffering.

What is the theme of To Build a Fire man vs nature? ›

The theme of Man vs. Nature applies to 'To Build a Fire' because the central conflict of the story is between the man and the unyielding, cold expanse of the Yukon. If the man wishes to survive, he must overcome the challenges that the Yukon sends his way, such as a smothered campfire and plummeting temperatures.

What is the conflict and theme in To Build a Fire part two? ›

What conflict is resolved, and what theme is conveyed in this passage? The conflict resolved is between the man and nature's elements. The theme conveyed is that wisdom can be gained by listening to those who have gone ahead.

What is the main conflict of the story build a fire Brainly? ›

What is the main conflict of the story build a fire Brainly? Answer: The man faces the conflict of surviving a harsh environment in order to reach his camp by the end of the day. The resolution of this conflict is that the man does not win in his struggle against nature.

Why is it important to have all 3 elements present to create a fire? ›

The 3 things a fire needs are heat, fuel and oxygen. These three elements work together to help a fire start and take over. However, if any of the three elements are removed from a fire, then it will extinguish and no longer pose a threat.

Which option is the best statement of one of the themes of To Build a Fire apex? ›

The best answer is C. Miner is quite proud of himself and does not heed to the advice of experienced professionals. Under -50 degree centigrade, he fails to find fire and dies.

What is the message from to build a fire? ›

In "To Build a Fire," London's main message is that nature is more powerful than man's arrogance and lack of foresight.

What is the moral value of the story Jack? ›

The moral for Jack and the Beanstalk would be make the best of a bad situation, and when opportunity knocks, take advantage of it. Jack does both.

What does the man finally learn from his experience in to build a fire? ›

He learns that no man can defeat nature. An arrogant man, unmindful of nature. s might, will easily fall victim to its wrath. He thought of the old-timer on Sulphur Creek, imagining him warm and comfortable and smoking a pipe, he said to himself, "You were right, old hoss, you were right.. .

What is the purpose of the story to build a fire? ›

Answer and Explanation: In "To Build a Fire," London's basic purpose is to entertain. However, his larger purpose is to develop the theme that nature is larger than man and must be approached with care.

What is the main moral of the story? ›

The moral of a story is the lesson that story teaches about how to behave in the world. Moral comes from the Latin word mores, for habits. The moral of a story is supposed to teach you how to be a better person.

What was the theme of Jack story? ›

One major theme in the story is the concept of good versus evil. Jack is representative of the good and the giant is representative of evil. When Jack chops down the beanstalk and kills the ogre, the good triumphs the evil.

What is the moral of the story question answer? ›

The moral of a story is the message contained in the story. The framework of a story is called its structure. The headline is the title. The characters are the people in the story.

What does the dog symbolize in to build a fire? ›

In To Build a Fire, the dog symbolizes instinct and natural attunement.

What does man symbolize in the story to build a fire? ›

The man symbolizes industrialized humanity, ignorant of the hidden depths of nature.

What happens to the dog at the end of the story to build a fire? ›

In the end, when nature has defeated the man, the dog briefly takes over as the protagonist of the story. More connected to nature and its natural instincts, it survives and sets out to complete the man's journey.

What is the conclusion To Build a Fire? ›

At the end of the story, the man decides that he's been acting shamefully by trying to make an impossible run for the camp. For the first time in the story, he's completely given himself to panic, but it's not long before he regains control and decides to die with dignity.


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