To Build a Fire

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Fight for Survival vs. Acceptance of Death Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Instinctual Knowledge vs. Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Chance and Human Error Theme Icon
Fight for Survival vs. Acceptance of Death Theme Icon
The Power of Imagination Theme Icon
Indifferent Nature Theme Icon
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Fight for Survival vs. Acceptance of Death Theme Icon

As the man’s situation deteriorates, his emotional state oscillates between determination and acceptance. In certain moments, he seems to foresee his approaching death and in other moments he seems to have faith in his survival. These shifting reactions represent universal human themes of optimism and denial. When the snow falls on his fire, the man’s initial shock reflects his certainty of his death, but his calm reaction and productive response seem optimistic. As a living being, he instinctively wants to continue to live, and so he refuses to give up, and fights for his survival. As he repeatedly drops the matches, he attempts to innovate. When the matches fail, his thoughts quickly turn to the price he’d pay for survival: killing the dog to warm his hands. This thinking reflects a man in a desperate situation, forced to think quickly and willing to kill for his own survival. After he is unable to kill the dog, a “certain fear of death” comes over him. This fear causes him to panic and run, an act of desperation. His repeated running and falling shows the back-and-forth between his fight and his acceptance. His final fall triggers his acceptance of death and he sits in the snow, waiting. His final imaginative visions resemble accounts of near-death experiences by survivors of such situations. The shifts between the man’s perspective on his life and death, his need to struggle and his stages of acceptance, reflect the larger aspects of Realism in London’s work. The story traces the internal response of any human to a life-and-death situation, engaging with universal ideas of how humans react with fear and acceptance.

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Fight for Survival vs. Acceptance of Death ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Fight for Survival vs. Acceptance of Death appears in each chapter of To Build a Fire. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Fight for Survival vs. Acceptance of Death Quotes in To Build a Fire

Below you will find the important quotes in To Build a Fire related to the theme of Fight for Survival vs. Acceptance of Death.
To Build A Fire Quotes

He knew there must be no failure. When it is seventy-five below zero, a man must not fail in his first attempt to build a fire—that is, if his feet are wet. If his feet are dry, and he fails, he can run along the trail for half a mile and restore his circulation. But the circulation of wet and freezing feet cannot be restored by running when it is seventy-five below. No matter how fast he runs, the wet feet will freeze the harder.

Related Characters: The man
Related Symbols: Fire
Page Number: 184
Explanation and Analysis:

After the man falls through a running stream and gets his feet wet, he immediately begins to build a fire. He knows that he is in a risky situation because he must successfully build a fire on his first attempt. This quote also foreshadows the man’s later failure to build a fire, and his failure to warm his body up by running. When the man fails to build a fire and when he tries to run, later in the story, we understands the consequences of these actions as they unfold because of the information revealed here.

The man knows the consequences of failing to build a fire and he thinks about these consequences as he works. The man (who, we remember, is "unimaginative") primarily considers mistakes he could make, and not chance events that could hurt him. He doesn’t accept failure because he is confident in his own survival skills. Because of his confidence, he doesn’t think about aspects of his dangerous situation that might be beyond his control, despite the fact that falling through the snow into the running stream was a chance event that occurred even though he was prepared for this possibility.

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The blood was alive, like the dog, and like the dog it wanted to hide away and cover itself up from the fearful cold. So long as he walked four miles an hour, he pumped that blood, willy-nilly, to the surface; but now it ebbed away and sank down into the recesses of his body.

Related Characters: The man
Page Number: 184
Explanation and Analysis:

Once the man has stopped moving, his blood is no longer circulating and keeping his body warm. This quote shows one risk of the man’s situation: now that he is wet he has no choice but to build a fire, but to stop moving puts him at even greater risk. Although the man doesn’t react with immediate fear to the accident, the language of the story shows that this situation is very serious. The man thinks that he can survive in the wilderness with his own skills, but there are things that are beyond his control, like the circulation of his blood and other natural behaviors of the body.

This is a key quote because of the simile that compares the behavior of the man’s blood to the behavior of the dog. The blood is presented as independent from the man’s will and actions, with a “life” of its own. Referring to the blood as “alive” highlights the blood’s natural characteristics. Throughout the story, the dog stands in contrast to the man because of its instinct for survival. By comparing the blood and the dog, this quote shows that the blood is also “instinctual.” The body behaves in a natural way, despite the man’s rational thinking that contradicts the signals from his body to hide away from the cold. The language choices of “ebbing away” and “sinking down” are ominous, as if the man is losing the blood that keeps him alive.

And the man, as he beat and threshed with his arms and hands, felt a great surge of envy as he regarded the creature that was warm and secure in its natural covering.

Related Characters: The man, The dog
Page Number: 186
Explanation and Analysis:

The man tries to build a new fire after his first fire is smothered under falling snow. He claps his hands and tries to warm up his arms in order to be able hold the tools he needs for making his fire. He is quickly losing feeling in his limbs, a complication that prevents him from succeeding in doing the one thing that can help him recover. This quote describes the man’s emotional reaction as his body fails him: he is envious of the dog because its body is better prepared for the cold. This passage is significant because it shows that the man is beginning to see that his survival skills may not be sufficient in these conditions. Instead he considers, for the first time, the advantages the dog has in its natural state.

This quote describes the man’s realization of his own physical insufficiency as a “great surge of envy” directed at the dog. This character has already been established as an unimaginative man, and in this moment he can only think in terms of survival—his or the dog's.

He cherished the flame carefully and awkwardly. It meant life, and it must not perish.

Related Characters: The man
Related Symbols: Fire
Page Number: 188
Explanation and Analysis:

The man is unable to hold an individual match, but in a desperate moment he ignites the whole bundle of matches in order to start a fire. Earlier in the story, fire was described as key to warming up the man’s numb fingers or preventing his feet from freezing. In this quote, the language shows the the much higher stakes of the man’s situation. The fire now means life, and the alternative means death. The narrator also says the fire “must not perish,” which brings the language of death into the passage. If the fire perishes, the man will likewise perish. Furthermore, this personification of fire gives the fire a life of its own, as an earlier passage gave the man’s blood independent life. This literary technique shows that the man is not in total control of the situation. His blood will cower from the cold against his will, and the fire could perish against his will.

The care the man takes in this passage as he “cherishes” the fire shows his increasingly desperate struggle for survival. Early in the story, the man does not appreciate the risks he’s taking. As he begins to realize the danger, he fights valiantly to survive. Eventually, he moves beyond struggling to an emotional place in which he accepts death.

The sight of the dog put a wild idea into his head. He remembered the tale of the man, caught in a blizzard, who killed a steer and crawled inside the carcass, and so was saved. He would kill the dog and bury his hands in the warm body until the numbness went out of them. Then he could build another fire.

Related Characters: The man, The dog
Page Number: 188
Explanation and Analysis:

The man’s hands have grown too numb to build a fire, but another idea occurs to him: killing the dog and using its body as a source of heat. This gruesome passage shows the man’s imaginative powers activating finally in the face of death—but too late. Whereas once he ignored the advice of the old man at Sulphur Creek, now he is willing to latch onto another overheard story as an idea for his survival. He sees the dog as his last hope, and this quote shows that he is more than willing to sacrifice the dog’s life for his own. The man is still in an emotional and mental place where he is fighting against death. This idea is described as “wild,” which emphasizes that the man is reaching for every possible way to survive, unwilling to give up.

The straight-forward descriptions and the tone of this passage presents a situation that is both gruesome and realistic. Author Jack London does not linger over this idea or play up its graphic nature. The style of the language is as practical as the man’s thinking. The man does not have any sentimental feelings about the dog, and likewise the passage states that he will “kill the dog” without dramatizing, judging, or sugar-coating this idea.

A certain fear of death, dull and oppressive, came to him. This fear quickly became poignant as he realized that it was no longer a mere matter of freezing his fingers and toes, or of losing his hands and feet, but that it was a matter of life and death with the chances against him. This threw him into a panic, and he turned and ran up the creek-bed along the old, dim trail.

Related Characters: The man
Page Number: 190
Explanation and Analysis:

After the man tries and fails to kill the dog, he fully comprehends his situation for the first time. Although the dog and the old man from Sulphur Creek were aware of the risks of severe cold from the beginning of the story, only at this point does the man accept that he is likely to die. This quote captures the man’s realization and subsequent panic. The language used to describes the man’s fear of death—“dull,” “oppressive,” and “poignant"—are all words that convey metaphorical weight. The man has been burdened by the weight of his realization, but he still rebels against it. His panic causes him to try to run to warm up. He is unwilling to lie down and die, despite the seeming inevitability of death.

In this struggle for survival, the man is no longer a carefully measured and thoughtful survivor. He runs despite knowing, as the reader does, that he will not be able to warm up his freezing body without a fire. He has lost his rationality in the face of this panic. While the man is guided by is reason throughout the story, when he is confronted with death he behaves instinctively, as the dog did all along. The man is guided more and more by his emotions and instincts as the story progresses.

It was his last panic. When he had recovered his breath and control, he sat up and entertained in his mind the conception of meeting death with dignity.

Related Characters: The man
Page Number: 191
Explanation and Analysis:

The man trips and falls for a final time and does not try to stand up again. This quote shows a turning point in the man’s thinking, as he moves beyond a struggle for survival to an emotional place where he can accept death. The panic that came over him ends and is replaced by self-control. The man exhibited self-control early in the story when he was guided by rational thinking, and now he is able to approach the idea of death as the rational problem of “meeting death with dignity”: if one must die, it follows that one should try to improve one’s remaining time and the death itself as much as possible. The man hopes to achieve this by refusing to panic and by meeting death calmly.

This passage shows the man at his most imaginative. He is able to consider a possible future and to analyze a complex concept: dying with dignity. He has regained his self-control, but he is growing increasingly able to imagine the future and consider new possibilities. It seems that his extreme circumstances allow him to think and reflect in ways he didn't do when he was just focused on the end of his journey, meeting the boys, and having a meal. London is describing a universal human experience here: humans think about their lives in new ways and ponder abstract ideas when they are confronted with their mortality.