221London’s use of setting in “To Build a Fire”
In “To Build a Fire,” Jack London uses many details of setting to illustrate the gravity of the protagonist’s situation. The story is a detailed description of the dangers of intense cold and the stages involved in the process of freezing to death. The man in “to build a fire” is a very dogmatic and arrogant person who believed in his own abilities and took everything at face value. He didn’t analyze and scrutinize over every detail. He definitely wasn’t one to philosophize and his conceptions were rooted in the tangible not the surreal. At the end, though, he realizes his own deficiencies and finally dies. The magnitude of the man’s situation is fully illustrated and established through London’s descriptions of the landscape, snow, ice, and intense cold.
The height of London’s graphic portrayal is the story’s explicit description of the intense cold of the arctic winter that the man is travelling through. The “sharp, explosive crackle”(pg. 119 para. 2) that occurred in the air before the man’s spit could even hit the snow is just an example of the vicious cold that the man was travelling through. The frozen moisture of the man’s breathing that forms ice on his beard and mustache. The “crystal beard of the color and solidity of amber”(pg. 120 para. 1) that transpires when the man chews tobacco and the speed in which the man’s appendages become numb and unusable are further examples of London’s account of the cold.
The journey through the unbroken white “north and south, as far as the eye could see” (paragraph 2) was another striking account of the wonderful use of setting in this story. Without a doubt, the concept of a world of ice is a major factor in the greatness of this story undermined only by London’s graphic depiction of the man’s death. This is depicted in great detail throughout the latter part of the story.
The terrain of the Yukon, to the man, is just an obstacle that could easily be overcome with knowledge of your surroundings and a pragmatic attitude, but in truth it is the executioner of the man. The anxiety of falling in the water, the relief when the fire is built, and the shock when it is put out are all situations that build to the tension of the story. The panic when he is unable to build a second fire and the conclusion that is bound to happen are more thoroughly realized when the man is unable to even light a match. The wild rush through the snow and the idea to kill his dog to use its body as warmth are further graphic details of the break down of the man.
The innovation of “meeting death with dignity”(pg.128 para. 3) is the final stage to the man’s realization that he was to die. The idea to “sleep off to death”(pg.128 para. 3) and the statement, “Freezing was not so bad as people thought. There were lots worse ways to die.” is an additional step towards the conclusion we had all suspected when the fire was put out. The setting is further developed by these accounts and the harshness of the Arctic winters are even more realized.
Thus, London’s setting within the unfeeling Yukon is both descriptive and arousing. The major action takes place after the fire is put out, leading to the climax of the story when the man begins his realization that death had found him. In this way, London uses setting to show the extent of the man’s situation and the death that will surely follow if you underestimate it. The events of the story, the unrelenting cold, and the man’s final death are all tied together by London’s expert control of setting.