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To Build a Fire: Theme Analysis

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1 To Build a Fire: Theme Analysis

2 Pride and arrogance The pride of the central protagonist is evident in his decision to not listen to all of the advice from the old-timer. As a newcomer to the area, the man is described as having very little knowledge and no experience of surviving such cold temperatures and yet he chooses to travel alone despite what he has been told. His lack of foresight and imagination is elemental to the arrogance on display and his treatment of his dog serves to emphasize a desire to control nature. This arrogance is punished in the narrative as he comes to recognize that he finally has no choice but to give into death. Because of his death, the narrative has a moral edge that demonstrates how arrogance and individualism are destructive forces. These two qualities are depicted as being interrelated as the man’s decision to travel alone is in keeping with both his arrogance and the individualistic way of life.

3 The dangers of the freezing temperature
This thematic concern runs throughout the story and gives it a dramatic context. It is explained and then repeated several times how dangerous it would be if the man should get wet and fail to build a fire to dry out. The coldness is the man’s enemy and is also a symbol of the natural world in competition with humanity. In this instance, the representative man is thwarted.

4 The need to build a fire The importance of this theme is first broached in the title and becomes increasingly significant once the man begins to freeze from the effects of soaking his feet and legs. Fire represents humanity’s control over nature, and in this light it may be seen as a form of civilization. With regard to the plot, it is also a life-giving essential. As a theme, the need to build a fire is imperative to stave off death and when the man fails to do so his danger increases. When his hands become numb and he is unable to separate the matches, the dramatic tension also increases. This is magnified once all the matches are used and the man recognizes how close he now is to dying. By having this as a main theme, the narrative is stripped of everything but sharp associations. The man is alone without any possible assistance and the inability to build the fire means he is facing certain death. The lack of fire demonstrates how ultimately vulnerable the man is.

5 Classwork With your partner, look through the story and find passages & quotes that show reference to the theme you were given. With your partner, look through the story and find passages & quotes that show reference to the metaphor you were given. With your partner, look through the story and find passages & quotes that show reference to the character you were given.

6 To Build a Fire: Metaphor Analysis

7 Building a fire In terms of the narrative, it is imperative that the man builds the fire after soaking his feet and legs as otherwise death will ensue. The ability to build the eponymous fire represents the man’s difference from the rest of nature; his failure to do so is a sign that his death will come soon. The extreme environment makes it all the more difficult to build it and this symbolizes how although humans have learned to take some control over nature, the man will finally succumb to it.

8 The dog The dog is the man’s only companion and is seen to be in thrall to his master. This is apparent in the descriptions of how the dog has only been shown the ‘caresses’ of the whiplash. This dog also acts as a symbol of nature and its instinctive awareness of its environment operates in contrast with the man’s arrogance. Whereas the dog knows it is too cold to be travelling far, the man believes it is possible to reach the camp he is heading for despite being warned against this by the old-timer. The contrast is heightened by the detail that the dog is a native of the Yukon, but the man is a newcomer. The man has come from a different environment and fails to adapt, as the dog has done, to the surroundings. This lack of adaptation and the death of the man by what may be argued is natural selection is in keeping with Darwinian influences.

9 The temperature The freezing temperature highlights the folly of the man who chooses to travel alone in it. As extreme as it is, and as unused as the man is to this degree of cold, he still chooses to venture out and attempt to reach the camp he has decided on. This weather also symbolizes the insignificance of this man, and humanity generally, in relation to nature. He is unable to survive after his fire is extinguished by the snow and dies because he was arrogant enough to assume humankind is invincible.

10 Traveling alone The death of the man who chooses to travel alone could be interpreted as a figurative criticism of individualism and a guarded argument in favor of socialism. In terms of the plot, the man is depicted as arrogant for railing against the advice of the old-timer. If one reads this symbolically, however, the death of the man comes from his lack of imagination and foresight and this is tied to his streak of individualism.

11 To Build a Fire: Character Profiles

12 The dog The dog is described as a ‘big native husky, the proper wolf-dog, grey-coated and without any visible or temperamental difference from its brother, the wild wolf’.  In this short story of few characters, the dog acts as a symbol of nature and is a contrast to the man. The dog unlike the man is aware of the dangers of the freezing temperature and knows this is not a day to be out walking.

13 The man The unnamed man is the central protagonist and little background information is given about him. He is, however, depicted as lacking in imagination and does not take on board the implications of the advice he received earlier from the man he describes as the old-timer.  He is not from this region and is, therefore, lacking in knowledge of how to proceed. By not listening to advice and proceeding on his trek without another (human) companion, he has left himself even more vulnerable to the elements. He also symbolizes the arrogance of humans, as opposed to having the instinctive awareness of the dog, and his death highlights this.

14 The old-timer The old-timer is so named by the man and only appears in the story with the references the man makes to him (as the old-timer from Sulphur Creek). He had advised the man on how cold the weather gets, on how he must build a fire if he gets wet and on the necessity of traveling with a companion if it is colder than ‘fifty below’.

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