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 fell into it. This shows that even a prepared and observant person may fall prey to chance. When the man builds a fire, it is extinguished by snow falling from a pine tree, an devastating accident that is both human error and chance: the man could have been more cautious, but the snow might not have accumulated in that area, and might not have fallen in such a way as to put out the fire entirely. The interaction of chance and human error creates the chain of events leading to the man’s death. This theme demonstrates that London’s Naturalism does not prescribe “fault” to either nature or humans, only acknowledging the error in underestimating the power of chance to provide unaccounted for circumstances.
Chance and Human Error ThemeTracker
Chance and Human Error Quotes in To Build a Fire
The creek he knew was frozen clear to the bottom,—no creek could contain water in that arctic winter,—but he knew also that there were springs that bubbled out from the hillsides and ran along under the snow and on top the ice of the creek. He knew that the coldest snaps never froze these springs, and he knew likewise their danger.
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.
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.
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.
He realized that he could not kill the dog. There was no way to do it. With his helpess hands he could neither draw nor hold his sheath-knife nor throttle the animal.
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.