To Build a Fire: Essay Q&A
1. Outline the relevance of the title.
The necessity of building a fire is the driving force of the latter stages of this short story because without fire, the man knows that he will freeze once his feet and legs are wet. When the fire he builds is extinguished by snow, and he still needs to get dry, the title becomes an urgent command as he knows he is facing death if he fails to re-build it.
The title is repeated in the narrative and this reiterates its importance to the story and to the man’s survival. It also highlights how spare the story is as it focuses on one unnamed man and his dog; fire is instead made central because if one is lit the man will be able to live. The ability to build a fire is often cited as the reason why humans are superior to animals and suggests that humans are capable of mastering nature. In this case, nature overpowers the man and the story is a reminder that the ability to build a fire does not necessarily indicate humankind’s empowerment.
2. Consider the man’s treatment of the dog.
The dog is used to being treated harshly by the man and is wary when the man changes his behavior in the hope of getting closer to kill it. It is ironic that the man’s previous cruelty means that the dog does not trust his kindness, and the man is critiqued and condemned for this.
It is possible to argue that the dog is treated with more sympathy in the narrative than the man and the man’s cruelty is in keeping with his arrogance. The desire to master the dog by subjecting it to his will has a parallel with his decision to travel alone and both examples demonstrate a wish to subdue nature to his will.
The dog, however, is depicted as a symbol of nature and unlike the man it has adapted to its environment. It is more aware of the dangers of travelling in this freezing temperature and the man’s cruelty to it emphasises his false sense of superiority all the more.
3. Examine the implications of the man not taking the old-timer’s advice.
The old-timer, who is named as such by the man, has already imparted his greater knowledge of the area and how to travel in it before the story begins. It is of interest that the man does not heed this information because this highlights his arrogance as an outsider, a newcomer and as a younger man.
The term ‘old-timer’ may be seen as condescending even if possibly affectionate and suggests that the man is not fully convinced by this help from the older generation. It is poignant and ironic that he only comes to realize the import of the advice once it is too late.
4. Analyse the use of nature and its relationship with humanity.
By having the Yukon as a backdrop for this story, an extreme climate is used to demonstrate the potential force of nature and the insignificance of humanity. The freezing winter temperatures of north-west Canada are depicted as a sharp contrast to what the man has previously known and, therefore, remind the readers of how the will of man – and woman – is potentially under threat by the environment.
Nature is given the role of the man’s enemy and the dramatic tension arises from the battle he has with the freezing cold. His attempt to survive in these conditions, and his failure to do so, mean that the story is given a final element of poignancy. As he approaches death and at first panics and then decides to sleep, it is possible at last to feel empathy for him.
5. Consider the style of this short story and how it affects the content.
The style of this story may be described as spare and driven by the central premise of the man attempting and failing to reach the camp. Its sparseness is exemplified in the use of few characters and those that appear are not given a name. Only a character called Bud is mentioned in passing when the man wishes he had devised a protective mask as Bud had done before.
The focus rests mainly on the man, the dog and their surroundings. The effects of the cold are given the majority of the space and this emphasizes how dangerous it is as well as showing the arrogance of the man in presuming he would be able to travel this distance without a human companion.
Repetitions are used as a stylistic effect and this allows the attention to remain on the main narrative thread: that the man is in mortal danger from the freezing temperature and only realizes this gradually. His reported lack of imagination is re-enacted in the story to a degree at least, as the narrative is as purposely restricted as the man’s way of thinking. It is only when he accepts the likelihood of his death that his imagination comes to life. Similarly, it is only at this point that the narrative switches to encompass the scene of his death.