Study Guide

To Build a Fire

by Jack London

To Build a Fire Summary

Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“To Build a Fire” is an adventure story of a man’s futile attempt to travel across ten miles of Yukon wilderness in temperatures dropping to seventy-five degrees below zero. At ten o’clock in the morning, the unnamed protagonist plans to arrive by lunchtime at a camp where others are waiting. Unfortunately, unanticipated complications make this relatively short journey impossible. By nine o’clock that morning, there is no sun in the sky, and three feet of snow has fallen in this desolate Yukon area. Despite the gloomy, bitter, numbing cold, the man is not worried, even though he has reason to worry. At first he underestimates the cold. He knows that his face and fingers are numb, but he fails to realize the seriousness of his circumstances until later in the story. As the story unfolds, the man gets progressively more worried about the situation. At first, he is simply aware of the cold; then be becomes slightly worried; finally, he becomes frantic.

His only companion is his wolf-dog. The animal, depressed by the cold, seems to sense that something awful might occur because of the tremendously low temperatures. The dog is frightened, and its behavior should show the man that he has underestimated the danger.

At ten o’clock, the man believes that he is making good time in his journey by traveling four miles an hour. He decides to stop and rest. His face is numb, and his cheeks are frostbitten. He begins to wish that he had foreseen the danger of frostbite and had gotten a facial strap for protection. He tells himself that frostbitten cheeks are never serious, merely painful, as a way to soothe himself psychologically and force himself not to worry about the cold. He knows the area and realizes the danger of springs hidden beneath the snow, covered only by a thin sheet of ice. At this point, the character is very concerned about these springs but underestimates the danger. Getting wet would only delay him, for he would then have to build a fire to dry off his feet and clothes. Every time he comes on a suspected trap, he forces the dog to go ahead to see if it is safe. He begins to feel increasingly nervous about the cold.

By twelve o’clock, he is still far away from his camp and anticipates getting there by six o’clock, in time for dinner. He is pleased with his progress, but, in reality, he is simply reassuring himself that there is no need to worry. He decides to stop and eat lunch, a lunch he had planned to eat with his friends at the camp. His fingers are so numb that he cannot hold his biscuit. He reflects back to the time when he had laughed at an old man who had told him how dangerous cold weather could be. He now realizes that perhaps he had reason to worry and that he had forgotten to build a fire for warmth. He carefully builds a fire, thaws his face, and takes “his comfortable time over a smoke.” Then he decides that he should begin walking again. The fire has restored his confidence, but the dog wants to stay by the warmth and safety of the fire.

The man’s face soon becomes frozen again as he resumes his journey. Lulled into a false sense of security by the fire, he has become less and less aware of his surroundings and steps into a hidden spring, which wets him to his waist. His immediate reaction is anger because he will be delayed by building another fire. He carefully builds a fire, well aware of the importance of drying himself. He remembers the old man’s advice at Sulphur Creek that circulation cannot be restored by running in this temperature because the feet would simply freeze faster. His fire is a success and he is safe. He now feels superior, because although he has had an accident and he is alone, he has saved himself from possible death. He decides that any man can travel alone as long as he keeps his head.

Although confident because of his swift action of building a fire to dry off, he is surprised at how fast his nose and cheeks are freezing. He can barely control his hands; his fingers are lifeless and frostbitten. Suddenly, his fire exists no more; he has built it under a large tree that is weighed down with snow, and when he pulls down some twigs to feed the flame, the snow in the tree is dislodged and falls on the man and his fire. He thinks again about the old man at Sulphur Creek and realizes that a partner at this time would be helpful. He begins to rebuild the fire, aware that he will lose toes, and possibly his feet, to frostbite. Because his fingers are nearly useless, he has difficulty collecting twigs. He is so sure that this fire will succeed that he collects large branches for when the fire is strong. His belief that the fire will succeed is the only thing that keeps him alive. He finishes the foundation of his fire and needs the birch bark in his pocket to start it, but cannot clutch the wood. He panics, drops his matches, and is unable to pick them up. He succeeds in picking them up, finally, and by using his teeth, he rips one match out of the pack. By holding it in his teeth and striking it against his legs twenty times, he lights it but drops it again when the smoke gets into his nostrils. He then strikes the entire pack of matches against his leg and tries to light the wood but only burns his flesh. He drops the matches, and the small pieces of rotten wood burn. He knows that this is his last chance for life and that he cannot allow the matches to go out.

Because he cannot operate his hands, in his attempt to keep the fire burning, he spreads it out too much and it goes out. Now he can only think of killing the dog to put his hands in the carcass to relieve their numbness. The dog senses danger, however, and quickly moves away. The man goes wild and catches the dog but soon realizes that he cannot kill it because he cannot use his hands. He knows that death is near and begins running, just as the old man had warned him not to do. The man hopes that he has a chance to run to camp but knows that he really has no chance, for he lacks the strength. He curses the dog, for it is warm and alive. The dog runs on but the man crumples after running a few yards. He decides to accept death peacefully and admits to himself that the old man at Sulphur Creek had been right. The dog stays with him, but when it smells the scent of death, it runs off in the direction of the camp, where reliable food and fire providers can be found.

To Build a Fire Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

London was not one to gloss over unpleasantness, and in “To Build a Fire” he described just how harsh the world can be to someone who disregards its laws. As the story opens, life seems benign enough. It is a still, clear day, and the unnamed protagonist has plenty of time to make the one-day walk to the camp where his friends wait. He is in fine fettle, alert and careful of his footing on the frozen riverbed. He has his dog for company. The only troubles are that it is fearfully cold—75 degrees below zero—and he is “without imagination.” From this seemingly slight situation, London crafts a tale of a universe where any step can be fatal, looking backward to the metaphysical despair of Stephen Crane and forward to the stoic code of Ernest Hemingway.

In Crane’s short story “The Open Boat” (1897), a number of survivors of a sunken ship ride on a lifeboat in heavy seas. The fact that they may drown in sight of the shore underlines to them the indifference of the cosmos to human undertakings. In London’s tale, the omnipresent cold, though ready to sweep away human life, is simply part of the universe’s thermodynamics. When the protagonist has gotten into a desperate plight, having fallen through the ice and wet his legs, the author emphasizes the larger picture: “The cold of space smote the unprotected tip of the planet, and he, being on that tip, received the full force of the blow.” The largeness of the forces involved reduce his plight to insignificance.

In the works of Hemingway, such as A Farewell to Arms (1929) and The Sun Also Rises (1926), the author prescribes that the acknowledged indifference of the larger forces of reality be met by a stoic code of honor on the part of his characters. Though London’s protagonist, foolhardy in attempting the trip alone, lacks the judgment of Hemingway’s ideal heroes, he does display admirable coolness in trying to build a fire to thaw out his legs, taking each difficulty in stride. When he finds, for example, that he can no longer work his numb fingers, he picks up wood with his two palms. Also, after an initial panic when he loses his fire, he resigns himself to death and musters whatever dignity he can, sitting down for the last time quietly.

The story is a short one (fifteen pages), and the compression works to magnify some of London’s strengths while helping to diminish some of his weaknesses. His writing was often marred by obtrusive passages, especially when discussing such charged topics as women or Anglo-Saxon superiority. In this piece, where the concentration is so tightly focused, his prose is always spare and telling. Each stroke of his pen underlines the tenuousness of life in the North or grimly describes the doomed man’s survival strategies.

London had another weakness—for all his experience in the Yukon, he often overstretched his imagination and presented scenes that rang false. This was particularly true in his rendering of Indian life, a favorite subject of his and yet one he had never penetrated with any clarity, preferring clichés to anthropological understanding. The limited matter of this story, a man walking with his dog, meant that London never strayed from what he knew, and the tale has a raw authenticity.

Finally, one of London’s strengths was the ability to draw a landscape vividly. This skill was often downplayed, perhaps because long descriptions would have slowed the pace of his eventful narratives. In this piece, however, such descriptions come to the fore and serve as pointers to the theme of the piece: The seeming quiescence of the landscape he describes is undermined with pitfalls for the inexperienced.

As in The Call of the Wild, London draws attention to the importance of primitive instincts. In a surprising but appropriate manner, he contrasts the dog’s intelligent intuitions to the man’s wrongheaded reasoning. The dog “knew that it was no time for travelling. Its instinct told it a truer tale than was told to the man by the man’s judgment.” The dog’s instinctive reactions, developed over generations in the Arctic, far outmatched the brainpower of man, a recent visitor. As in other places, London finds a novel way to plump for primitivism.

To Build a Fire Overview

"To Build a Fire," published as a short story in Lost Face in 1910, tells of a man and a dog in the Klondike. The two are traveling on...

(The entire section is 94 words.)

To Build a Fire Summary

Part I
‘‘To Build a Fire’’ begins at nine o’clock on a winter morning as an unnamed man travels across the Yukon...

(The entire section is 1083 words.)