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"To build a fire" - Analysis of the man's character

FredParisFrance 61 / 7  
May 15, 2007   #1

could you please read my essay and give me some feedback?

the prompt is:

Students will write an original essay analyzing the man in "To Build a Fire" (Jack London) Students will convey their sense of the man's character and what details in the story led them to this view. Students will use quotes from the text to support their thesis.

thank you in advance.

To build a fire: To live and let die

The illustrious author Jack London journeyed to Alaska in 1897. Eleven years later, he wrote one of his most appreciated works, "To build a fire", based on his rich experiences in this sub-polar area. Although, at first sight, "To build a fire" appears to be a simple adventure story, the hero's end is rather puzzling. Actually, the finale paragraph takes aback: why is the main character suddenly desirous to die whereas he has strived to survive along the whole story? The man's intentions are not obvious at first glance. Nevertheless, traces can help the reader to discover the man's desire. The purpose of the subsequent analysis is to demonstrate that the man's character is a person with suicidal tendencies and therefore his plight is not the fruit of a thoughtless behavior.

Right after the first two paragraphs, which introduce the reader with a description of the situation, Jack London asserts that the man "was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances". This sentence's aim is to present the man's character as a person who does not realize the consequences of his actions.

However, the fourth paragraph proves he is far from being irresponsible. Indeed, the man's character conducts an experiment. He spits several times to verify that spittle "had crackled in the air". As a result, that test convinces the man that "undoubtedly it was colder than fifty below". Since he carries out experimentation and he is able to reach a conclusion, he confirms he can have a mature reflection and therefore he is responsible.

The next paragraph provides clues of his will to minimize his chances to achieve his travel. Actually, the man "was glad" to undertake a journey "without a sled, traveling light" whereas no evidence is given in the story that explains why this is an asset for him. The reader only knows that "a foot of snow had fallen since the last sled had passed over". The man never affirms that this amount of snow or a weighty load could slow down or hamper him. On the other hand, such an amount of snow exhausts a trekker who is not equipped with snowshoes and London never mentions such items in the text. Consequently, since the beginning of the story demonstrates he is fully responsible. He most likely wants to enter the forest with the deliberate intention to expose himself to serious danger.

Moreover, the reader is informed in the fifth paragraph that the man "carried nothing but the lunch" and the fourth paragraph stresses his food is only made of some "biscuits". In addition, in the eighth paragraph, the man is not particularly hungry but "he decided to celebrate" an event "by eating his lunch" although it could have been more valuable to him to restrain from eating at this time and keep his biscuits for a later meal. Therefore, once more he jeopardizes his survival because he deprives himself from keeping a reserve and deliberately runs the risk of lacking alimentary supplies in the future.

From the onset of the story, he is fully aware he is on the verge of commencing a progression in the forest although the temperature is extremely cold and he is bound to be short of supplies. At this very moment of his journey, not only did he ignore the advice of the old-timer from Sulphur Creek, who warned him that "no man must travel alone in the Klondike after fifty below", but he also makes every efforts to reduce his chances of success. He could have decided not to engage in this journey and he can still make the choice to turn back. No forms of determinism govern the man because he can take his own choices and he can anticipate the consequences of his actions. Furthermore, he is presumably preparing his future predicament and his subsequent death. A strange parallel could be drawn between the not so evident London's suicide and the man's fate. One could argue that the man's character embodies Jack London and thus, the author could express a secret desire to lay down arms after enduring fights during his life. Could the short story "To build a fire" be a kind of swan song from a man who desires to "live and let die" his existence?
EF_Team2 1 / 1,708  
May 15, 2007   #2

You've written a very insightful take on the man's character! I remember that when I read this story years ago, my main impression of the man was that he was stubborn to the point of stupidity--but you have delved deeper and discerned a very plausible motive for his somewhat implausible actions.

I'll make just a few editing notes:

Actually, the final [no "e"] paragraph takes one [or, the reader] aback: why is the main character suddenly desirous to die [better would be "why does the main character suddenly want to die"] whereas he has striven to survive along the whole story? - This brings up a good point: very few native English speakers know the past tense and past participle of "to strive." In fact, I had to look it up to be sure! It's strive, strove, has striven. Very strange word!

Consequently, since the beginning of the story demonstrates he is fully responsible, he most likely wants to enter the forest with the deliberate intention to expose himself to serious danger. [make it into one sentence]

he also makes every effort [delete "s"] to reduce his chances of success.

And a note re: British vs. American English, for any students who might be confused: in British English, the punctuation goes outside the quotation mark, unless the punctuation is part of the quote: "no man must travel alone in the Klondike after fifty below",

In American English, periods and commas always go inside the quotation mark, unless it's a single letter, such as "a". For example, "no man must travel alone in the Klondike after fifty below," but...

As usual, your essay is outstanding! Great job!


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