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.
Fight for Survival vs. Acceptance of Death ThemeTracker
Fight for Survival vs. Acceptance of Death Quotes in To Build a Fire
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.
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.
He cherished the flame carefully and awkwardly. It meant life, and it must not perish.
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.
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.