To Build a Fire

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Indifferent Nature 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
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in To Build a Fire, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Indifferent Nature Theme Icon

Throughout the story, the natural world is presented as unemotional and unaware of the fate of the man. This literary depiction of nature reflects Naturalism’s understanding of a harsh, yet realistic natural world. Contrary to other literary movements, Naturalism views nature without sentiment and without projecting human characteristics of love, care, and agency onto the natural world. This understanding of nature is clearly embodied in the character of the dog that is indifferent to the man and his fate. To the dog, the man is a source of food and protection only, and not a companion. The dog cannot feel any emotion about the death of the man, and the dog quickly seeks out other humans who will provide the food and shelter it needs. One human is indistinguishable from another in the dog’s mind. Many people who emphasize a unique connection between a specific human and a specific animal view dogs and other pets sentimentally. Therefore, the relationship, or lack thereof, between the man and the dog in this story effectively communicates London’s theme of the indifference of nature. Naturalism rejects the literary movement Transcendentalism, an influential philosophy in American thought, which emphasized unique connections between nature and humanity and focused on the souls of humans as open to the influence of nature as a spiritual force.

Indifferent Nature ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in To Build a Fire related to the theme of Indifferent Nature.
To Build A Fire Quotes

High up in the tree one bough capsized its load of snow. This fell on the boughs beneath, capsizing them. This process continued, spreading out and involving the whole tree. It grew like an avalanche, and it descended without warning upon the man and the fire, and the fire was blotted out! Where it had burned was a mantle of fresh and disordered snow.
The man was shocked. It was as though he had just heard his own sentence of death.

Related Characters: The man
Related Symbols: Fire
Page Number: 185
Explanation and Analysis:

The man has succeeded in building a fire, but the rising heat causes the snow in the above branches to shift and coming tumbling down. This quote describes the acceleration and accumulation of the snow that starts with one small shift and ends with a load of snow that smothers the man’s life-saving fire. This is a critical turning point in the story, in which the man’s emotions crash from a place of self-confidence to near certainty of death. The statement that he felt as if he “just heard his own sentence of death” is the first time that death seems a likely outcome. Up until this point, the man has trusted in his survival skills and has not imagined the possibility of death. 

This turn of events occurs partly through a mistake the man makes and partly through chance. The man makes the choice to build his fire under the trees without imagining the consequences of this decision. On the other hand, the collapse of the snow begins with a tiny chance shift in the tree branches that escalates, and the snow happens to fall directly onto the fire. Many events are the result of both chance and human choices.

The language of this quote emphasizes how the snow gathers momentum, “capsizing,” “spreading out,” and growing “like an avalanche.” This progression mirrors how the man’s situation in the story escalates from a small initial mistake to a tense life-or-death scenario.


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Later, the dog whined loudly. And still later it crept close to the man and caught the scent of death. This made the animal bristle and back away. A little longer it delayed, howling under the stars that leaped and danced and shone brightly in the cold sky. Then it turned and trotted up the trail in the direction of the camp it knew, where were the other food-providers and fire-providers.

Related Characters: The dog
Related Symbols: The Boys, Fire
Page Number: 192
Explanation and Analysis:

The story ends with the dog realizing that the man is dead and continuing on the trail to find the camp. This shift in focus from the man to the dog happens once the man has died and the silence from the man demonstrates his absence from the world and from the story. The dog’s understanding of death is different than a human’s would be. It catches the “scent of death” from the man and it “bristles” and “backs away.” This reaction seems to be an instinctual one to something the dog senses is negative and dangerous without understanding it. The dog waits for a while, but eventually continues on its way. This shows that the man is not unique in the dog’s mind, but equally valuable to any other human that is a source of food and fire. 

The dog’s indifference to the man’s death is echoed in the silent indifference of the natural world. Only in this final passage does London employ poetic language as he describes the stars that “leaped and danced and shone brightly in the cold sky.” In a story that uses description sparsely and practically, this metaphor about the stars stands out. The beauty of the natural world seems to mock the man who was killed by this extreme environment. The natural world is described as “cold,” both literally and metaphorically, for it is indifferent to the man’s struggle for survival and to his eventual fate.