To Build a Fire: Theme Analysis
Pride and arrogance
The pride of the central protagonist is evident in his decision to not listen to all of the advice from the old-timer. As a newcomer to the area, the man is described as having very little knowledge and no experience of surviving such cold temperatures and yet he chooses to travel alone despite what he has been told.
His lack of foresight and imagination is elemental to the arrogance on display and his treatment of his dog serves to emphasise a desire to control nature. This arrogance is punished in the narrative as he comes to recognize that he finally has no choice but to give into death.
Because of his death, the narrative has a moral edge that demonstrates how arrogance and individualism are destructive forces. These two qualities are depicted as being interrelated as the man’s decision to travel alone is in keeping with both his arrogance and the individualistic way of life.
The dangers of the freezing temperature
This thematic concern runs throughout the story and gives it a dramatic context. It is explained and then repeated several times how dangerous it would be if the man should get wet and fail to build a fire to dry out. The coldness is the man’s enemy and is also a symbol of the natural world in competition with humanity. In this instance, the representative man is thwarted.
The need to build a fire
The importance of this theme is first broached in the title and becomes increasingly significant once the man begins to freeze from the effects of soaking his feet and legs. Fire represents humanity’s control over nature, and in this light it may be seen as a form of civilization. With regard to the plot, it is also a life-giving essential.
As a theme, the need to build a fire is imperative to stave off death and when the man fails to do so his danger increases. When his hands become numb and he is unable to separate the matches, the dramatic tension also increases. This is magnified once all the matches are used and the man recognizes how close he now is to dying. By having this as a main theme, the narrative is stripped of everything but sharp associations. The man is alone without any possible assistance and the inability to build the fire means he is facing certain death. The lack of fire demonstrates how ultimately vulnerable the man is.
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