Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised 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...
(The entire section is 1192 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 724 words.)