The Narrative Point of View of "To Build a Fire"
Point of view is a narrative technique that shows the reader who is telling the story. In "To Build a Fire," Jack London uses the third-person point of view to tell the story of a naive young man in the Yukon Territory who ventures into the wilderness when the temperature starts to drop to 50 degrees below zero. This point of view allows London to create distance between the character and the reader in order to illustrate the man's foolishness.
Types of Point of View
In general, there are three points of view. First-person point of view uses the pronoun “I” or "we" and tells the story from the narrator’s perspective. In second-person point of view, the main character of the story is referred to by the pronoun "you" or "your." Third-person point of view uses the pronoun “he,” “she” or "they" and presents the story from an outsider’s perspective.
Point of View in "To Build a Fire"
"To Build a Fire" is told using the third-person point of view. The narrator is an outsider who tells the reader a story about the main character. London establishes this point of view right from the beginning of the story, saying, “when the man turned aside from the main Yukon trail and climbed the high earth-bank.” The outsider narrator sets the stage by introducing the setting and referring to the main character as “the man.” Later, in the story, the narrator also refers to the man using the pronoun “he.”
The theme of the story is that a man’s arrogance in the natural world will result in his untimely death. The young man is warned against going too far into the wild, but he does not listen because of his arrogance. Though he successfully starts one fire, he falls into water, gets wet and struggles starting another fire. His hands grow cold and numb, but eventually he manages. However, when that fire is accidentally extinguished, the man is much less successful at building a fire for a third time.
Effect of the Third-Person Point of View in the Story
The third-person point of view allows London to cast judgment on his main character’s ill-advised actions and establish his overall argument, which is that a man who is too arrogant in the face of nature will suffer the consequences of his arrogance. The use of the third-person point of view allows the reader to see the man as London sees him -- as a foolish man who deserves whatever consequences nature throws at him. The third-person point of view does not give the reader intimate access to the man’s thoughts or feelings, and as a result, the reader has no choice but to conclude that the man is indeed an arrogant and naïve fool.
Kate Prudchenko has been a writer and editor for five years, publishing peer-reviewed articles, essays, and book chapters in a variety of publications including Immersive Environments: Future Trends in Education and Contemporary Literary Review India. She has a BA and MS in Mathematics, MA in English/Writing, and is completing a PhD in Education.