To build a fire theme

To build a fire theme DEFAULT

Essay about To Build A Fire: Theme

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In the story "To Build a Fire" by Jack London, there are three principal themes. They are respecting nature, and considering results of actions. The main theme, or universal truth, is heeding warnings. The themes are shown through the character and his actions. The main character in the story had an attitude that prevented him from heeding internal and external warnings. He did not respect nature's power, and therefore he paid with his life.His attitude was arrogant and careless.

The man had no imagination and only understood facts. He knew it was very cold and his body was numb, but he failed to realize the danger. A newcomer with no experience, he thought he was invincible. Neither the "absence of sun from the…show more content…
The man learns his lesson the hard way.The man encountered many internal warnings that it was too cold to be outside. First, his nose and cheeks went numb. His face, feet, and hands followed. His beard and mustache grew icy from his breath.

Rubbing his face and beating his hands only temporarily helped his circulation. After he got his feet wet, they froze. His fingers "seemed remote from his body" because he could not move them. The most obvious clues that the man took in were internal.

"He wondered whether his toes were warm or numb." It should have worried him. When he lit the last fire, his flesh burned. He knew because "he could smell it." He could not even feel his hands burning. The man thought it was "curious that one should have to use his eyes to find where his hands were." Eventually, no amount of running or thrashing can awaken the feeling in his body.

If he had paid adequate attention to his internal signals he may have survived.If the man did not believe his body, there were also several external signals to guide him. He mentioned the "old-timer at Sulphur Creek" many times. The experienced old-timer warned him of the danger of traveling alone. He didn't listen to the old-timer. The man spat, and it crackled before it hit the ground.

This alarmed him of how cold it was, but not of the dangers. "In a month, no man had come up or

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The movement of naturalism was greatly influenced by the 19th-century ideas of Social Darwinism, which was in turn influenced by Charles Darwin's theories on evolution. Social Darwinism applied to the human environment the evolutionary concept that natural environments alter an organism's biological makeup over time through natural selection. Social Darwinists and naturalists cited this as proof that organisms, including humans, do not have free will, but are shaped, or determined, by their environment and biology. Naturalists argued that the deterministic world is based on a series of links, each of which causes the next (for more on these causal links, see Causal links and processes, below). In "To Build a Fire," London repeatedly shows how the man does not have free will and how nature has already mapped out his fate. Indeed, both times the man has an accident, London states "it happened," as if "it" were an inevitability of nature and that the man had played no role in "it." The most important feature of this deterministic philosophy is in the amorality and lack of responsibility attached to an individual's actions (see Amorality and responsibility, below).

A curious revision occurs when London writes that the man's second accident with the snow was his "own fault or, rather, his mistake." While both are damning words, "fault" is much more serious; it implies an underlying moral responsibility and role in future consequences, while "mistake" suggests an isolated incident outside of one's control. Likewise, the man believes his first accident is bad "luck," another word that connotes lack of free will. "Accident," too, insinuates an unforeseen or unanticipated event out of one's power.

If naturalism maintains that an individual has no free will (see Determinism, above), as London's careful phrasing suggests, then it is logical that the individual should not bear responsibility for his actions: if humans are not even in control of our own actions, why should we take responsibility for them?

The answer is that one should take responsibility for one's actions if one can anticipate potential consequences. Since the naturalistic world is based on causal links (see Causal links and processes, below), it should be possible, to an extent, to predict the consequences of our actions. The man could not have anticipated his falling through the snow, and therefore it is merely bad "luck." However, he should have anticipated that his other action--building a fire under a spruce tree--could carry potentially significant consequences: the snuffing out of the fire. Only in this anticipatory sense is he somewhat responsible. That London revises his judgment from "fault" to "mistake" suggests the gray area in the man's responsibility; while he should have anticipated the results of his actions, and thus be held liable, he did not, so he cannot be held liable.

"To Build a Fire" is, among other things, a virtual instruction manual on how to build a fire. It details specifically how one goes about gathering twigs and grasses, assembling them, lighting them, and keeping the fire going. The story, like many naturalist works, is obsessed with processes. These processes can be viewed as causal links--each event causes the next one. Causality is another preoccupation of naturalism, which grounds itself in the philosophy of determinism (see Determinism, above).

While the man in the story is adept with physical processes, he cannot make associative mental leaps and project causal links in his mind. London tells us this from the start, describing how the extreme cold does not make him meditate in successively larger circles on man's mortality. He has also ignored advice about avoiding the cold, not thinking ahead to what might happen in such harsh conditions. This deficit hurts him most when he builds the fire under the spruce tree; he does not think ahead that he might capsize the tree's load of snow and snuff out the fire. Only by the end of the story, when he is near death, does he mentally process causal links, thinking about his own death and how others might come across his body. The ability to process these mental causal links is the only way one can be held responsible for his actions in naturalism (see Amorality and responsibility, above). Since the man does not make these mental links, he is not fully responsible for the accidents that befall him.

Though the man is hardly an "intellectual," he exercises intellectual properties more than instinctive ones. He uses complicated tools (matches) to build a fire; he understand how cold it is through temperature readings; he identifies where he is (Henderson Creek, the Yukon) through language on a map. The dog, on the other hand, is pure instinct. It remains warm through its fur coat or by burrowing into the snow; it has an innate understanding of the cold and its dangers; it could not point out its location on a map, but it knows by scent where to find the nearby camp with men. In the Yukon, instinct is far superior to intellect. The man's intellect backfires on him. His ability to light the matches with his numb fingers suffers in the extreme cold, and both his fingers and the matches are examples of man's naturally selected advantage of intellect: man has fingers to operate tools, and his larger, more complex brain allows him to create such tools. The dog is much wiser, aware that the cold is too dangerous for them; it even knows when the man is trying to deceive it somehow (he wants to kill it and bury his hands in its warm carcass). Accordingly, only the dog survives, and though it may not be able to take care of itself fully, it instinctively knows to go to "the other food-providers and fire-providers" in the nearby camp.

Naturalism not only maintains that the environment is deterministic (see Determinism, above), but indifferent. The environment does nothing to help its inhabitants; in fact, it is coldly indifferent to their existence and struggle. In "To Build a Fire," the Yukon would be bitterly cold without the man, as well, and it does not cease when the man struggles to stay alive. This indifference makes survival itself a critical goal for naturalist characters. As the story goes on, the man changes his goal from reaching the camp, to warding off frostbite, to merely staying alive. Naturalism thus elicits profound conflicts, man versus nature being one of them.

Naturalism maintains that the world can be understood only through scientific, objective knowledge. In "To Build a Fire," the reader receives a number of these hard facts. For instance, temperatures lower than negative fifty degrees Fahrenheit demarcate the danger zone of traveling alone. London tells us the exact amount of matches the man lights at once (seventy). Moreover, the man is preoccupied with the distance to the camp and the time he will reach it. These hard facts should arm the man with enough information to assess competently the deterministic environment (see Determinism, above), but he fails to do so before he is in mortal danger.

Naturalist fiction writers devised new techniques and subject matters to convey their ideas. Generally, they focused more on narrative rather than character. "To Build a Fire" has a nearly nonstop narrative drive, and we only occasionally enter into the mind of the man--who does not even have a name in the story, indicating how little London is concerned with him as a unique person. Naturalists often used sparer, harder language to complement their plot-driven stories; this tendency can be seen as a verbal corollary to naturalism's preoccupation with objectivity (see The objective power of numbers and facts, above). Finally, naturalism usually turned its attention to the often-ignored lower classes. The man in the story is a lower- to middle-class drifter trying to strike it rich; no one with any wealth would risk his life in such brutal conditions.

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Instinctual Knowledge vs. Scientific Knowledge

Jack London’s short story is an example of Naturalism, a literary movement that focuses on the realism of human experiences, and often engages with the broad theme of “man versus nature.” London’s unique take on this larger literary idea is through the topic of knowledge. Two types of knowledge are discussed throughout the short story: instinctual knowledge and scientific knowledge. The first is associated with the dog and the second with the man. These…

read analysis of Instinctual Knowledge vs. Scientific Knowledge
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The man’s initial mistake of traveling alone in weather that is far too cold for independent hiking does not ensure his fate of freezing to death. The gradual deterioration of the man’s conditions involves both chance and human error. The man is careful and prepared for the streams of water under the snow that will soak him and threaten his survival. Yet, he stumbles into an unexpected stream that was essentially invisible before he…

read analysis of Chance and Human Error
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Fight for Survival vs. Acceptance of Death

As the man’s situation deteriorates, his emotional state oscillates between determination and acceptance. In certain moments, he seems to foresee his approaching death and in other moments he seems to have faith in his survival. These shifting reactions represent universal human themes of optimism and denial. When the snow falls on his fire, the man’s initial shock reflects his certainty of his death, but his calm reaction and productive response seem optimistic. As…

read analysis of Fight for Survival vs. Acceptance of Death
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Early in the story, the man is identified as not being a “thinker” and as “unimaginative.” He is aware of the world around him and of the terrible cold, but he does not imagine the possible outcomes of this cold. Because the man eventually dies due to his initial mistake of traveling on such a cold day, his failure to imagine possible outcomes of his choice is linked to his inability to survive. Imagination could…

read analysis of The Power of Imagination
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Throughout the story, the natural world is presented as unemotional and unaware of the fate of the man. This literary depiction of nature reflects Naturalism’s understanding of a harsh, yet realistic natural world. Contrary to other literary movements, Naturalism views nature without sentiment and without projecting human characteristics of love, care, and agency onto the natural world. This understanding of nature is clearly embodied in the character of the dog that is indifferent to the…

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Analysis, Synopsis and Themes of "To Build a Fire" by Jack London

Howard is an avid short story reader who likes to help others find and understand stories.

"To Build a Fire" by Jack London is one of the most frequently anthologized short stories and one of my favorites.

It's written in the naturalistic style with a third-person omniscient narrator.

It's set in the Yukon Territory of Northwestern Canada, just east of Alaska.

The only two characters that appear in the story are an unnamed traveler and a husky, a dog closely related to the wild wolf. Reference is made to other people in the area whom the traveler knows, with special mention of an old-timer who offered some advice.

If you haven't read this story yet, I suggest reading it before a synopsis. It's well worth the time to get the full experience.

Synopsis of "To Build a Fire"

An unnamed man travels in the Yukon at nine in the morning. Accompanied by a husky, he is headed for a camp at Henderson Creek.

He is alert to the winter springs that could weaken the ice. At twelve-thirty he stops for lunch and builds a fire.

He continues his journey, but breaks through the ice and soaks himself halfway to the knees. He manages to gather enough wood to get a fire going. Before he can take off his moccasins, an avalanche of snow falls from a tree, putting out his fire.

He struggles to build another fire, but his frozen feet and hands make it difficult. A flame catches but soon goes out.

He tries to kill the dog and use its body for warmth, but he doesn’t have the strength in his hands.

He runs frantically along the trail but succumbs to the cold, freezing to death.

The husky waits, realizes the man is dead, then heads for the camp.

The numbers in parentheses below refer to the paragraph in the story where the reference can be found.

Theme: The Individual vs. Nature

Nature is a formidable opponent. The man is surprised several times by how quickly his hands go numb when he removes his gloves. His toes go numb as soon as he sits down to eat. (14)

The man battles the frost, but as “a creature of temperature…able to live within certain narrow limits of heat and cold” (3), he is ill-equipped to face it alone. After failing to relight his fire, “He was losing in his battle with the frost. It was creeping into his body from all sides.” (38)

The man is traveling alone in the brutal cold, despite being warned against this by an experienced traveler. There is a degree of strength and safety in community. When his fire is extinguished he thinks “If he had only had a trail mate he would have been in no danger now. The trail mate could have built the fire.” (24) A lone person is at a marked disadvantage.

The man’s frailty turns out to be no match for the wilderness. His hands are rendered nearly useless by the cold. (27, 33) He lacks the endurance to run all the way to camp when his situation is desperate. (37)

Theme: Pride

It is the man’s pride that allows him to begin his dangerous journey, prevents him from turning back when he realizes how cold it is, and ultimately leads to his death.

The previous autumn the man was warned by an old-timer not to travel alone at below fifty degrees. Rather than preventing the man from making this trip, he set out anyway. After soaking his feet he recalls this advice and thinks, “Those old-timers were rather womanish, some of them…Any man who was a man could travel alone.” (21)

A few hours into his trip, when he could easily turn back, he realizes it is even colder than fifty below. “But the temperature did not matter” (4) Obviously, the temperature matters a great deal. His overconfidence blinds him to the danger it represents. A little earlier the narrator states of the extreme cold, “It did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty.” (3) Pride warps his perception of his strength. He feels equal to this harsh environment.

The man’s pride is deep-seated. After the falling snow puts out his fire and his feet and hands are freezing, he thinks “Perhaps the old-timer from Sulphur Creek was right.” (24) This close to death, he still doesn’t admit unequivocally, even to himself, that he was wrong.

In contrast, the husky’s instinct is unclouded by pride. While the man feels confident, the husky “was depressed by the tremendous cold. It knew that it was no time for traveling.” (6) Early on the dog walks “with a tail drooping discouragement.” (9) Even with its natural protection from the elements and superior foot speed, the husky knows they shouldn’t be traveling.

1. Are there any examples of foreshadowing?

Immediately, the omniscient narrator describes the cold, the bleak environment, the seemingly endless trail, and the absence of the sun. The result is “an intangible pall over the face of things, a subtle gloom that made the day dark.” (1) We know something bad is going to happen, if not what.

The husky’s reaction intensifies the sense of danger to come. It is reluctant to make this journey and feels “a vague but menacing apprehension that subdued it and made it slink along at the man’s heels.” (6) If a naturally equipped, powerful animal feels menaced by this trip, the man is probably in for a fight he can't win.

The man also has a repetitive thought about how cold it is. (See next question) The reader knows he's only going to get colder the longer he's outside. We might anticipate a final battle with the cold.

The man’s beard is solidly frosted “and increasing with every warm, moist breath he exhaled.” (7) As a person can only take so much frost, and breathing increases the frost, the act of staying alive ironically moves the man closer to death. Now we know for sure that a life and death struggle is imminent, one that the man will probably lose.

2. What is the significance of the man’s recurring thought about how cold it is?

Many times in the narrative the man thinks about the cold, always in the same or very similar words. “It certainly was cold.” (5, 13, 15, 38) “It was very cold.” (10) “It was cold.” (15) These are superficial observations that don’t affect his behavior. The thought becomes a cliché, as if he is making small-talk with himself. These thoughts point out to the reader, but not to the traveler, how much danger there is.

The man is “quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances.” (3) Although the man is aware of the extreme cold, he misses it’s significance—it leaves very little room for error, so traveling alone is too dangerous.

3. What is the significance of the title?

The title refers to the first crisis in the story. It appears in the text as a part of this statement, “A man must not fail in his first attempt to build a fire—that is, if his feet are wet.” (19) The stakes are high at this point because the man only has one chance to build a fire if he is to avoid losing any of his body to the cold. If he fails on this attempt he will suffer some permanent damage.


Build fire theme a to

Jack London’s short story, “To Build a Fire,” is the tragic tale of a man who decides to travel alone through the hostile environment of the Yukon in sub-freeing temperatures and falls victim to the unrelenting and unforgiving power of nature. During his journey, the man gets his feet wet as he falls through the ice into the water of a hot spring (London 122). Because of the severity of the cold, some “one hundred and seven degrees below [the] freezing point,” the man’s life depends upon his ability to promptly light a fire to keep his feet from freezing (122-23). After one, half-successful fire-starting endeavor, and several other pitiful attempts, the hopelessness of the man’s lone struggle against the hostile environment of the Yukon begins to become apparent. After a lengthy episode of panic in which the man tries desperately to return the feeling to his extremities by “running around like a chicken with its head cut off” (128), the man at last “grows calm and decides to meet death with dignity . . .” (Labor 66). The story’s central theme is one portrayed by many existentialist writers—that man lives a solitary existence which is subject to the relentless, unforgiving forces of nature; an ever so subtle part of this theme is that it is man’s goal to find meaning in his existence.

The word existentialist, as well as the subject of existentialism itself, evades definition. Davis McElroy points out this problem by comparing the act of defining existentialism to the act of trying “to explain human existence in a single sentence . . .” (xi). For the sake of brevity, perhaps a short, simple definition would be best; according to the American Heritage Dictionary (3rd ed.), existentialism is “a philosophy that emphasizes the uniqueness and isolation of the individual in a hostile or indifferent universe”   This statement defines the theme of Jack London's short story—the lone man traveling across the bleak, unfriendly expanse of the Yukon can come to be seen as the solitary individual who inhabits a cruel and indifferent cosmos. At the conclusion of the story we finally see the man come to the realization, in a round about way, that it was best to meet his fate with dignity, thus giving meaning to an otherwise meaningless and cruel death. This existential theme in “To Build a Fire” is not likely to be a mere coincidence, but instead appears to be part of London’s intentional design. According to Charles Child Walcutt, Jack London was greatly influenced by the ideas of such men as Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, and Friedrich Nietzsche, all prominent thinkers of London’s time (5). So it is no accident that at the heart of the story lies an existentialist theme.

London emphasizes the existential theme in “To Build a Fire” in several ways, the most important of which is his selection of the setting in which the story takes place. The story is set in the wilderness of the frozen Yukon during the harsh winter months when “there was no sun nor hint of sun” in the sky (118). London places his solitary human character in the perilous setting of the wilderness of the Yukon, which is enough to begin to illustrate his theme, but when London combines this unforgiving environment with the deadly cold of the Yukon winter, he creates a setting which is the epitome of the hostile, existential environment. The remoteness of the Yukon wilderness, as well as the absence of a human travel companion for the man, serve to illustrate the existentialist idea that man is alone in the universe. To further emphasize this idea, London has not given the protagonist a name, but simply refers to him as “the man” throughout the story. By not naming the character, London has placed him at an even greater distance from the reader within his deadly setting, thus isolating him all the more in a bleak and hostile universe.

Imagery is an important element which London uses to illustrate and emphasize his theme. Earl Labor sees the “mood and atmosphere, which is conveyed through repetitive imagery of cold and gloom and whiteness,” as being “the key to the story’s impact” (63). Indeed, London does rely heavily on imagery to set the mood of the story, and in this way he draws a picture of the merciless environment his character must endure. London uses imagery with such skill that the reader can almost feel the severe and deadly cold of the environment and can almost hear the “sharp, explosive crackle” when the man’s spit would freeze in mid-air (119). Through the use of such vivid imagery, London guides the reader toward the realization of the story’s theme; the reader can visualize the man “losing in his battle with the frost” and thus can envision man in his conflict with a cruel and uncaring universe (128).

London also uses irony to illustrate and stress his existential theme. The man is “keenly observant” as he moves through the treacherous terrain of the Yukon (120). He is constantly on the lookout for signs which tell of the hidden dangers that he wishes to avoid, but, ironically, the man “falls through the ice” in an area which is absent of any “treacherous signs” (Perry 227). The man gets a further dose of the capricious and impassive nature of the universe when, after painstakingly starting a fire, the life-sustaining fire is ironically snuffed out by falling snow just as he is about to begin thawing out his freezing feet. King Hendricks sees irony in that even “with all his knowledge [the man] is still a helpless victim to natural powers and natural forces” (22). Hendricks further notes the irony in the fact that the man “could not survive in the Artic [sic] weather of 75 degrees below zero while the dog, living only by instinct, without mittens, without earflaps, without a coat, without lunch, and without a fire, saved himself” (22). To preserve the existential theme of man being alone in an uncaring cosmos, the reader must not be confused by the presence of the dog as a traveling companion to the man; the reader must instead see the dog for what it really is—a further extension of the apathetic and uncaring environment. The dog is not a sentient being as man himself is and cannot therefore be looked upon as being a kindred spirit who shares the bitter existence of the lone, lost soul who is the protagonist. By accenting the essential parts of his story with irony, London directs the reader’s attention to the heartless indifference of nature and thus the existential theme of man’s living a solitary existence in a capricious and harmful universe.

With his classic style, Jack London has created an exciting and unforgettably tragic tale which illustrates a modern philosophic theme. This story’s theme speaks of man’s need to find meaning in the sufferings of his solitary existence in an environment which is both hostile and indifferent to his sufferings. London illustrates and emphasizes this theme in three ways: through his choice of setting, his imagery, and his artful placement of irony within the story.

“Existentialism.” The American Heritage Dictionary. 3rd ed. New York: Dell, 1994.

Hendricks, King. Jack London: Master Craftsman of the Short Story. Logan: Utah State U P,

    1966. Rpt. In Jack London: Essays in Criticism. Ed. Ray Wilson Ownbey. Santa Barbara:

    Peregrine, 1978. 13-30.

Labor, Earle. Jack London. New York: Twayne, 1974.

London, Jack. “To Build a Fire.” Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry and Drama.

    6th ed. Ed. X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia. New York: Harper Collins, 1995. 118-29.

McElroy, Davis Dunbar. Existentialism and Modern Literature. Westport: Greenwood, 1968.

Perry, John. Jack London: An American Myth. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1981.

Walcutt, Charles Child. Jack London. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1966.  

--Richard F. Robbins

To Build a Fire - by Jack London

To Build a Fire

To Build a Fire is the story of a young miner who has come to the Yukon to find gold. He is traveling toward his camp on a cold, windy afternoon, against the advice of a seasoned miner. He falls through some ice and gets his feet wet, necessitating building a fire to dry off and warm up. Unfortunately, his fire fails, and the man ends up freezing to death. When it is clear he's dead, his dog deserts him, heading for the warmth and food of the mining camp.


The climax in this story happens when the man's fire fails. He has decided to build his fire under a tree to make pulling branches off the tree to burn easy. But his decision has backfired, because all that pulling on the branches dislodges a pile of snow. It comes cascading down, and puts out his fire. Now, the man is really in trouble. His hands are nearly frozen and useless, and unless he is able to get them warmed, he will surely die.

So, he makes a decision that ends up being his undoing. He decides that the only way he will be able to stay warm is to call the dog over and kill it, then slice open its stomach and warm his hands inside the dog. But luckily for the dog, the man is unable to use his hands at all. He tries to crush the dog with a bear hug, but it doesn't work. The dog is safe, but the man is doomed.

He tries to run to the distant camp, but fails. This climax, and its poor decision, has brought about the resolution: the man freezes to death, and the dog leaves him to find food.


There are several themes prevalent through this short story. First and foremost, it is a story of man versus nature. The theme of survival is central, as the man tries and fails to stand up against the elements in the brutally cold Canadian Yukon. This environment turns out to be too much for the unseasoned miner.

Another theme shown in this story is the theme of pride. The young miner's pride got the best of him, as he headed out into the cold against the advice of a more seasoned miner, who told him to never travel alone in temperatures lower than 50 degrees below zero. But the young miner thought he could beat the cold and headed out, and it cost him his life.

A third main idea in this story is the theme of loyalty, or lack thereof. The dog, supposed to be man's best friend, is looking out for its own best interests. While the man is alive, the dog stays with him, though only because the man has been the source of food and fire. Once it is clear the man is dead, the dog takes off.


The setting of this story, the brutal Canadian Yukon Territory in winter, is of central importance to the plot. The land is harsh and unforgiving, and the miner vastly underestimates nature's power. The cold and the wind kill the man very quickly.

The tone is directly related to the setting. The story is told is a passionless way, relating the events objectively. We don't hear any sympathy from the narrator, either for the dog or the miner, and there is only a small lesson learned for the reader: Don't underestimate nature.

And this leads directly into the final lesson. In nature, it's take care of yourself or die trying. The dog is not loyal to the man past his death; it leaves the man dead in the snow and heads off toward camp.

Lesson Summary

Jack London's story To Build a Fire is the sad tale of a young miner who underestimates the brutal conditions of the setting in Canada's Yukon Territory. Against the advice of a more seasoned miner, the young man sets out in weather that is lower than 50 degrees below zero, heading for another mining camp.

He never makes it. The man's pride has been his downfall. He is unable to survive in the wilderness and cold, and when his fire goes out, the man decides to kill his dog to warm his hands. But he cannot kill the dog and freezes to death. The dog, showing its loyalty is to itself and not to the man, leaves the man's body and goes on to the camp, looking for a meal and a fire. The objective tone of the story gives no sympathy to the man or dog, and instead instills this lesson: Never underestimate nature.


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