In “To Build a Fire” by Jack London, the main character, also known as “the man”, is the protagonist. The protagonist is “the central character in a literary work and the character who initiates the main action of the story.” (Kennedy 2080) The man is a dynamic character whose lack of instinct, thoughtlessness and determination leads him to his own death.
In the story, the man is traveling with a dog. The dog is somewhat a companion, but for the most part it only views the man as a fire and food provider. The only item the man brings with him is his lunch wrapped in a handkerchief. His ultimate goal is to reach a camp where “the boys“ are. At the beginning of the story, London describes the man as, “ without imagination.” and “quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not the significances.” (London 115) This leads the reader to believe that he thinks about the perils he will have to overcome in his journey to camp, but does not think about how they will come or what his actions will do to provoke them. For example, when the man built his first fire, he built it under a spruce tree. He knew it was easier to pull the twigs from the tree and put them in the fire if it was right underneath, but he did not clearly think of what he was doing. “Each time he had pulled a twig he had communicated a slight agitation to the tree, an agitation sufficient to bring about the disaster.”(London 120) The agitation eventually caused the snow piled up on the tree to collapse right on the fire underneath. The man seemed confident that he would not face too much danger. He did not think about the weakness of human beings compared to the strength of nature. Instead, he believe that all he needed in order to live was to “keep his head”.(London 119)
As the story progresses, panic and uncertainty seems to creep up in his mind. “And all the time, in his consciousness, was the knowledge that each instant his feet were freezing. This thought tended to put him in a panic, but he fought against it and kept calm.”(London 120) After the man had failed in building a fire and keeping his fingers and toes from freezing, he didn’t seem as headstrong and certain that he could survive with “keeping his head“. He was starting to think of death as a possibility and was beginning to second guess himself. “The old-timer on Sulphur Creek was right, he thought in the moment of controlled despair that ensued: after fifty below, a man should travel with a partner.” (London 121) The thought of death tainted his mind but he continued on his journey. He remembered a tale of a man who killed a steer and crawled inside the carcass to save himself. The man impulsively thought he could do the same and tried to call the dog to him. “but in his voice was a strange note of fear that frightened the animal, who had never known the man to speak in such a way before.“(London 122) The dog had an advantage on the man with his god-given instincts to survival and escaped the man’s attack.
As the story comes to an end, “A certain fear of death, dull and oppressive, came to him. “(London 123) He began to vision himself as dead and was coming to the conclusion that in fact, solely “keeping his mind” could not ensure his survival. He thought of never getting to camp and how the freezing was starting to gain on him. He panicked as he envisioned himself as dead and frozen. He “entertained in his mind the conception of meeting death with dignity”( London 124) Finally, he gives in and decides to sleep off to death. His motivation had diminished. His final and only words through out the story, “You were right, old Hoss; you were right,” he mumbled to the old timer of Sulphur Creek as he accepted nature’s defeat.
In conclusion, the man is considered to be a round character who is too headstrong and unaware of his survival instincts. A round character is “ a character who changes significantly during the course of the narrative. Most often, round characters are the central characters in a narrative.” (Kennedy 2083) The man is a round character because in the beginning of the story, he is without a doubt that he will be able to survive the expedition to camp on his own without any help. In the end, he came to the conclusion that the old man of Sulphur Creek who said it was not possible was indeed, right. He had died of thoughtlessness.
Kennedy, X.J and Dana Gioia. An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing. X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia. 11th ed. New York: Longman, 2010. Print. London, Jack. “To Build a Fire.” Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing. X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia. 11th ed. New York: Longman, 2010.114-124. Print.