“To Build a Fire” by Jack London: Theme of Nature and Man


Environmentalists have long theorized and contemplated many different methods to determine the effects of humanity’s innovative nature on the natural environment. Many have asked questions as to how natural resources and natural capital are able to enable resources to the point of sustainability. Productivity, and determining both primary gross productivity and primary net productivity will allow us to determine whether or not a particular environment would be productive or not. It can also determine whether or not productivity can be recovered. However, there is a different view of nature and the story by Jack London named “To Build A Fire” is a theme that manifests the opposite notion. Here we find man and nature in a situation where nature becomes a deadly antagonist.

The theme of a story or art could even be considered something as simple as an action someone has done for a cause or for somebody. If someone holds the door for somebody else, it could be their theme to be generous and gentlemanly. Even acts of crime can be considered forms of theme in a work of art. One can never really limit theme to one thing. Rather, it is a wide arrangement of things. And one can never truly crackdown and say that something is only art if it is of some particular kind of medium because somebody else will disagree to become an art form there must be the presence of a theme. The theme is basically anything that anyone does which has a profound effect on somebody or something else.

From a simple act of kindness to a masterpiece painting that took years out of somebody’s life. Some themes can be considered more complex, and some themes can be considered simpler in contrast. But, the fact of the matter is, in the eye of the beholder, the theme could be anything. So is it possible for us to define what a theme is or can we really set any realistic guidelines as to what is a theme and what is not a theme? It is always possible to create guidelines, but it is often considered an art form in itself to break said guidelines. Simply put, the theme is the fundamental flow or reason of the art form and the central mobilizing factor.

Nature and Man

The theme of the story is the conflict between man and nature. This conflict includes the study of how humanity and the environment interact and what that can do to both the human condition as well as the condition of the environment in which humanity would fail to survive. However, the struggle is reflected all over the story. It starts with the line, “Day had broken cold and gray, exceedingly cold and gray” (London, 301).

The repetition of the adjectives that dine the day indicates the seriousness and severely difficult situation and the challenges the person is an about-face. This description is then emphasized by indicating, “There was no sun nor hint of sun, though there was not a cloud in the sky. It was a clear day, and yet there seemed an intangible pall over the face of things, a subtle gloom that made the day dark, and that was due to the absence of sun.” (London, 301)

Later, we find that the man is attempting to take help from nature in form of spruce trees and fire in order to counter nature. We find in the description that “tangled in the underbrush about the trunks of several small spruce trees, was a high-water deposit of dry firewood–sticks and twigs, principally, but also larger portions of seasoned branches and fine, dry, last-year’s grasses”. (London, 306)

This was another encounter between Man and nature. Here there was a possibility that the tree would provide him with firewood needed for the fire to keep him warm and dry in the midst of freezing cold. However, the possibility was diminished as there was a thick layer of snow over the branches and that kept the fire from burning. It was evident that under such conditions the man would not survive in that below freezing temperature.

The dog

Though there is a character of a wolf-dog, it can be stated that the dog is the link between man and nature or the manifestation of the achievement of humankind. This is because; in the first place the humankind domesticated and tamed a wild and natural creature. However, in the end, we find that the dog runs towards human settlement once the man dies to survive indicates that under such extreme conditions a human being is alone at the mercy of nature and all his accomplishments are of no help to him.

“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.” (London, 312) This is a situation where man and nature are rivals of each other on neutral ground and without any help.

The link of the dog also indicates the vitality of the theme. It is mentioned, “The dog sat facing him and waiting. The brief day drew to a close in a long, slow twilight. There were no signs of a fire to be made, and, besides, never in the dog’s experience had it known a man to sit like that in the snow and make no fire.” (London, 312) The writer indicates that whatever humankind has achieved is due to the cunning strategy of bribery. The dog has been modulated from the wolf in the lure of easy food and shelter and the moment it is available the dog returns or withdraws help. This is the most punishing sub-theme of the entire theme of the struggle between man and nature.

Lastly, it should be noted that the theme of the struggle between man and nature is a wonderful aesthetic approach. Nevertheless, to truly create something that gives off a strong aesthetic presence, one usually must feel some sort of emotional attachment to whatever it is writers are working on. One must have a feeling for whatever it is writers are working on. Only then will one truly pour out everything from your heart and mind. When one can accomplish this, one can create something with true aesthetic value with a meaningful theme.


If one can describe the emotions in artwork such as the story in context, it becomes easier for others to understand what one was trying to do, and more often, give them a stronger emotional sense. In a way, this creates a bond between the artist and the observer, allowing true aesthetic value to be created within a work of art and in this case, the theme of man versus nature certainly touches our heart and mind.

Works Cited

London, Jack. “To Build A Fire”. Richard Fay (ed) Stories and storytellers. Fourth Ed. Wellington: BLT, 2006. P. 301-312

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