To Build a Fire


Jack London

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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.

Instinctual Knowledge vs. Scientific Knowledge

Jack London’s short story is an example of Naturalism, a literary movement that focuses on the realism of human experiences, and often engages with the broad theme of “man versus nature.” London’s unique take on this larger literary idea is through the topic of knowledge. Two types of knowledge are discussed throughout the short story: instinctual knowledge and scientific knowledge. The first is associated with the dog and the second with the man. These…

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Chance and Human Error

The man’s initial mistake of traveling alone in weather that is far too cold for independent hiking does not ensure his fate of freezing to death. The gradual deterioration of the man’s conditions involves both chance and human error. The man is careful and prepared for the streams of water under the snow that will soak him and threaten his survival. Yet, he stumbles into an unexpected stream that was essentially invisible before he…

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Fight for Survival vs. Acceptance of Death

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…

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The Power of Imagination

Early in the story, the man is identified as not being a “thinker” and as “unimaginative.” He is aware of the world around him and of the terrible cold, but he does not imagine the possible outcomes of this cold. Because the man eventually dies due to his initial mistake of traveling on such a cold day, his failure to imagine possible outcomes of his choice is linked to his inability to survive. Imagination could…

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Indifferent Nature

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

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