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The Theme of Existentialism in to Build a Fire by Jack London

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Jack London writes a tragic story about a man who has decided to journey along through excruciating sub-freezing temperatures of the Yukon and how that man becomes victim to the power of nature that happens to be unrelenting and unforgiving in the short story “To Build a Fire.” The man in the story ended up falling into ice and into water that was in a hot spring and getting his feet wet. With the bitterness of the cold, “one hundred and seven degrees below freezing point” (London). To save his life he needed to get a fire started to be able to keep his feet from freezing in which turned out to be one partly successful attempt at starting a fire and a few pitiful attempts, resulted in the noticeable lonely struggle the man was enduring against the hostile environment. The man went into panic to try to bring back any feeling at all to his limbs by “running around like a chicken with its head cut off” (London). The man finally becomes calm and faces the reality of death that faced him. The main theme of this story which is portrayed by many existentialist writers is that man lives a lonely life which is shown by the unrelenting and unforgiving forces of nature; a subtle part of this theme was the goal that the man set for himself to find the meaning of his existence.

Philosophy that puts its entire focus on the difference and solidarity of a sing person in a hostile and ordinary universe is existentialism. This type of philosophy is what the theme of this story is because it is just a lone man traveling across huge amount of land which has cruel and indifferent environment to test his limits. When the story is being wrapped up, London writes about how the man final comes around to realize that he should meet the fate that is awaiting him with some dignity, in return giving an actual meaning to what would have been a cruel and meaningless death. The existentialism theme of “To Build a Fire” was put in the intentional design by London than rather being a mere coincidence. So it is no mistake that the heart of the store lies in an existentialist theme.

The theme of existentialism was done in multiple ways by London. The biggest and most important was the selection of where the story takes place. The setting for this story takes place in the frozen wilderness of the Yukon, where its winters are intense and “there was no sun nor hint of sun” up in the sky (London). How London places this lone character in this terrible and brutally cold environment, there was a creating of that seeing that the epitome of existential. Since the wilderness of the Yukon is absent of individuals that could have served as a traveling companion for the man, which paints the picture that the man is by himself in the universe for the existentialist idea. London did not even give the man a name which put a distance between the reader with the setting that is deadly, thus putting the man more alone in the bleak and hostile universe.

Another important element that London used to draw a picture and emphasize the theme was by using imagery. Imagery was relied on heavily by London to being able to create the mood this story, and it helps draw the terrible environment that the man has to endure. London had the ability to illustrate how deadly and severe the harsh weather of the region was where a reader could almost hear the “sharp, explosive crackle” when the man spit and it froze before hitting the ground. With such vivid imagery, London was able to lead the read visually along the path with the man was “losing in his battle with the frost” (London), and being able to envision the conflict the man endured with the cruel and uncaring universe.

Lastly London uses irony to help stress the existential theme. As the man is traversing, he is trying to find signs of dangers that he would like to avoid but then falls through ice where there was no signs to warn him. After the man was able to start the fire to thaw out his feet the universe had snow fall and snuff out the fire. To help keep the existential theme of the man being alone in the uncaring universe, the reader must not see the dog as a companion but as an expansion of the uncaring environment. When the dog was introduced it was able to save itself without clothing, fire, or food. The dog is not like the man due to the fact that it cannot share the same burden of a lost soul. By being able to emphasize on the essential parts with irony, London was able to direct the attention of the reader to the terrible indifference of the nature and showing the existential theme of the man living alone in the harmful and indifferent universe.

Jack London’s style is on a classic side and was able to create an exciting story that had a tragic unforgettable tale that illustrated a modern philosophic theme. The theme of the story is a journey that a man takes to find a since for the sufferings of his lonely life in an environment that is aggressive and mediocre to his sufferings. London was able to paint us a picture and highlights the theme in three different ways: by the choice that was picked for the setting, through imagery, and the artful placement of irony throughout the story. 

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The Theme Of Existentialism In To Build A Fire By Jack London. (2021, March 18). GradesFixer. Retrieved July 28, 2021, from
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