Study Guide

To Build a Fire

by Jack London

To Build a Fire Essay - To Build a Fire, Jack London

To Build a Fire, Jack London

Introduction

“To Build a Fire” Jack London

The following entry presents criticism on London's short story “To Build a Fire” (1902).

“To Build a Fire” (1902) is one of London's most redoubtable and frequently anthologized short stories. The initial version of the story appeared in Youth's Companion in 1902 but was considered strictly a children's cautionary tale. A revised version of the tale was published in Century in 1908 and collected in London's volume of short fiction entitled Lost Face in 1910. Both versions of the story concern man's struggle for survival in nature, but the latter incarnation of the narrative ends in the death of the protagonist, which signals man's defeat by nature as he freezes to death in the Alaskan wilderness.

Plot and Major Characters

“To Build a Fire” chronicles the peregrination of a young man who ignores the warnings of seasoned prospectors never to travel alone in the Alaskan wilderness during severe cold. Overconfident, he starts his journey to join his partners at their mining camp, approximately a day's hike away. In the first published version of the story, the young man, named Tom Vincent, although alert and careful, breaks through a patch of thin ice and soaks his feet with freezing water. Immediately, Tom builds a small fire to warm his extremities. When the fire extinguishes, he fails in his attempts to build another. Remembering a hunting camp five minutes away, he is devastated to find it empty when he arrives. With desire for life spurring him on, Tom attempts to build another fire. Burning his hands in the process, he finally starts a fire and is able to warm his hands and feet. In the morning Tom limps back to camp, humble and wiser from his experiences. To conclude, Tom resolves to never travel without a companion again. In the later published version, considered the definitive “To Build a Fire,” the unnamed protagonist sets out on his journey accompanied by a half-wild dog. When the protagonist breaks through the ice and soaks his feet, he builds a fire only to have it extinguished by falling snow. He then fails in his attempts to start another fire. Fighting panic, the man loses feeling in his hands and feet. Desperate for warmth, the man considers killing the dog, but is physically unable. Realizing the futility of his situation, he panics and runs on his frozen feet until he falls exhausted into the snow. Eventually, he quiets and accepts his fate. Resigning himself to death, he realizes his hubris in traveling without a companion in the frigid weather. As the man dies in the snow and cold, the dog senses the man's fate, leaves the cadaver, and travels to camp safely.

Major Themes

As with most of London's fiction, the central motif of “To Build a Fire” concerns the struggle of man versus nature. While some critics maintain that the protagonist of the story dies due to a lack of intuition or imagination, unable to conceive of the possibility of his own death, others assert that he dies as a result of panic and the failure of his rational faculties. The protagonist's dangerous expedition—taken against the advice of experienced prospectors—and his superciliousness in assuming he will prevail are regarded as important themes in the story. Some critics assert that London's moral is that by using reason instead of intuition, modern man has allowed his primal instincts to atrophy. The theme of rebirth is also suggested, as the man realizes his mistakes and accepts his death with dignity. The repetitive nature of London's imagery and language functions to create an atmosphere of doom and loneliness. Some commentators suggest that this milieu also signals the inevitable fate of the protagonist, as the young man eventually freezes to death.

Critical Reception

Most critics consider the 1908 version of “To Build a Fire” as a masterpiece of naturalist fiction. It is certainly one of most anthologized short stories produced by an American author. Some reviewers have noted that the story exhibits many of the Aristotelian concepts of tragedy. Other critics perceive the protagonist as an Everyman who is punished for his transgression of natural laws and the unwritten code of the wilderness. A few reviewers regard the protagonist and his canine companion as archetypal characters. The dog is viewed as the foil to the young man, as the animal displays the instinct and wisdom that the man lacks. Commentators have analyzed the significance of the symbolism in the setting, particularly the whiteness of the landscape and the absence of sunlight. The story has also been praised for its vivid narrative, its graphic description of physical action, and it dramatic sense of irony.

Principal Works

The Son of the Wolf: Tales of the Far North 1900

The God of His Fathers, and Other Stories 1901

Children of the Frost 1902

The Faith of Men, and Other Stories 1904

Moon-Face, and Other Stories 1906

Love of Life, and Other Stories 1907

Lost Face 1910

South Sea Tales 1911

When God Laughs, and Other Stories 1911

The House of Pride, and Other Tales of Hawaii 1912

Smoke Bellew 1912

A Son of the Sun 1912

The Night-Born 1913

The Strength of the Strong 1914

The Scarlet Plague 1915

The Turtles of Tasman 1916

The Red One 1918

On the Makaloa Mat 1919

Dutch Courage, and Other Stories 1922

A Daughter of the Snows (novel) 1902

The Call of the Wild (novel) 1903

The People of the Abyss (essay) 1903

The Sea-Wolf (novel) 1904

War of the Classes (essays) 1905

White Fang (novel) 1906

Before Adam (novel) 1907

The Road (essays) 1907

The Iron Heel (novel) 1908

Martin Eden (novel) 1909

Revolution, and Other Essays (essays) 1910

The Cruise of the “Snark” (essays) 1911

John Barleycorn (novel) 1913

The Valley of the Moon (novel) 1913

The Mutiny of the “Elsinore” (novel) 1914

The Little Lady of the Big House (novel) 1916

Letters from Jack London (letters) 1965

Criticism

Clell T. Peterson (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: “The Theme of Jack London's ‘To Build a Fire,’” in American Book Collector, Vol. 17, No. 3, November, 1966, pp. 15–18.

[In the following essay, Peterson discusses the motif of the journey in “To Build a Fire.”]

Judged simply by the number of times it has been selected by the editors of anthologies, “To Build a Fire” is Jack London's most popular and presumably his best short story. What merit editors find in it, I can only speculate; but I imagine that it is admired as a fine example of a suspenseful story with a strong theme presented in vivid, realistic detail. All this, of course, it is; and it is interesting to recall in this connection that, aside from the death of the protagonist, the story treats of precisely the range of experience that London himself had had in the northland. He too, in his relations with cold, dogs, fires, and all the rest of the exotic mise en scène, had never become more than a chechaquo; and writing within that narrow range of experience, he recreated a moment of truth about the Yukon more clearly and credibly than anywhere else in his fiction.

Valid as it is, however, an interpretation which halts at the careful contrivance of suspense, a strong theme—by which is meant, I suppose, the primitive struggle for survival—and precise, realistic details cannot explain the appeal of the story, which, like all serious fiction, hints at a depth and richness of meaning below the level of literal narration. In this paper I wish to discuss this “depth and richness of meaning,” or theme, particularly in terms of the fable and the characters. To put the discussion into context, let me summarize the story even if its great popularity guarantees that most readers are familiar with it.

A man, whose name is not given, is traveling alone, except for an almost wild dog as companion, in the far north in the dead of winter. Although aware of the dangers of the journey, the man is confident. He is alert and careful; but even so he accidentally breaks through the surface of a frozen stream and gets his feet wet. When he fails in his attempts to build a fire to dry himself, he dies. His wolf-dog companion leaves the body to seek food and warmth with the dead man's companions waiting in camp.

The fable unfolds as a journey taken in the face of serious danger in which the conflicts between man and nature and between man and dog provide the drama. But I wish to consider here the journey itself, presented in the first sentence of the story in a passage that is both rhetorically impressive and charged with implication:

Day had broken cold and gray, exceedingly cold and gray, when the man turned aside from the main Yukon trail and climbed the high earthbank, where a dim and little-traveled trail led eastward through the fat spruce timberland.

These details, admirably foreshadowing the events of the story, tell how a man leaves the well-trodden path of the familiar world of men to follow a faint and difficult trail into a world of mysterious (“dim and little-travelled”) but significant (“fat spruce timberland”) experience. The very rhythms of the passage reinforce the meaning. The shifts from the initial iambic rhythm to anapestic and back to iambic follow the movement of the passage from the scene itself (“Day had broken …”) to the first action (“… turned aside …”) and to the second (“… climbed the high earth-bank. …”). The double stress upon “earthbank” emphasizes the boundary between the realms of familiar and unfamiliar.

The journey thus brilliantly announced is, as I have implied, more than a literal journey, although the hard, realistic surface of the narrative may obscure what ought to be obvious. The nameless man (his anonymity is significant) is a modern Everyman who, if not precisely summoned, nevertheless takes a pilgrimage the end of which “he in no wise may escape.” At the realistic level, the direction of the journey is toward camp and safety, a return to the comfortable, sensual world of the known and familiar, but it becomes a journey into the unknown with the possibility of illumination as well as the risk of disaster. Hence another analogue, what Maud Bodkin, after Jung, has termed the archetypal theme of rebirth, suggests itself.

For Miss Bodkin, the rebirth theme consists of a double movement—downward toward disintegration and death and upward toward redintegration and life, but life greatly enriched. Jung terms this latter change “subjective transformation” and the result the “enlargement of personality.” The pattern is similar to what Toynbee calls “withdrawal and return.” “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is a rich and exciting work employing this theme, whether formulated in Jung's or Toynbee's terms; but the theme is a common one in fiction, including London's. “The Story of Jees Uck” (1902), an obvious instance, tells of Neil Bonner, a spoiled young man who is forced by his father to leave the civilization that has corrupted him and to live in the northern wilderness. There he has experiences, including a liaison with Jees Uck, a native girl, which give him new insights and values. These he takes back to civilization where he becomes a prominent member of his society.

“To Build a Fire” is of this general type. The central character—like Neil Bonner and the Ancient Mariner—has a misconception that must be changed, for living in such ignorance is a kind of death. At the beginning of the story we are told “That there should be anything more to it than that [cold as a fact requiring certain simple precautions] was a thought that never entered his head.” Extreme cold is a metaphor for a whole range of experiences beyond the man's awareness, and the point of the story is not that the man freezes to death but that he has been confronted with the inadequacy of his conception of the nature of things.

Neither the analogue of Everyman nor of the archetypal rebirth quite fits, however. The man, unlike Everyman, undergoes no redemption; nor, like Neil Bonner and the Ancient Mariner, does he return to civilization changed by the intensity and significance of his experience. He does not even have a moment of illumination as he dies. He comes nearest to insight when dying, he thinks, “When he got back to the States he could tell the folks what real cold was.” The inadequacy of the vision is indicative; had he been capable of truly comprehending his experience, London implies, he might not have died. Inexact as the analogues are, however, they define the kind of story “To Build a Fire” is and show that its significance lies in something profound and universal in the fable.

Before turning to a discussion of the characters, I must call attention to several details of the setting that seem to me symbolic. The “dark hairline” of the main trail and the “pure snow” on the broad frozen Yukon suggest the narrow limits of the man's rational world compared with the...

(The entire section is 2927 words.)

Earle Labor and King Hendricks (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: “Jack London's Twice-Told Tale,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 4, Summer, 1967, pp. 334–41.

[In the following essay, Labor and Hendricks contrast London's two versions of “To Build a Fire,” concluding that the first is “a well-made boys' story; the second version is a classic for all ages.”]

While Jack London's fiction awaits a proper critical assessment, “To Build a Fire,” that “brilliant little sketch whose prose rhythms … are still fresh,” has firmly established itself as a perennial favorite among the world's readers.1 In it London managed to combine those qualities which distinguish his best work: vivid narrative,...

(The entire section is 3768 words.)

Arnold Chapman (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: “Between Fire and Ice: A Theme in Jack London and Horacio Quiroga,” in Symposium, Vol. XXIV, No. 2, Spring, 1970, pp. 17–26.

[In the following essay, Chapman finds parallels between London's “To Build a Fire” and Horacio Quiroga's “La insolación.”]

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.

Robert Frost

When the strong nations assume that man's only true work is to break through frontiers, they also assume that the courage it takes is the only one that validates existence. Because nature seems to taunt us with our limitations, she must be beaten, and no one but a coward would accept without a struggle...

(The entire section is 4464 words.)

James K. Bowen (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: “Jack London's ‘To Build a Fire’: Epistemology and the White Wilderness,” in Western American Literature, Vol. 5, No. 4, Winter, 1971, pp. 287–89.

[In the following essay, Bowen delineates some critical misconceptions associated with “To Build a Fire.”]

Common misconception has it that the dog's survival in “To Build a Fire” metaphorically demonstrates London's belief that man should, upon occasion, rely on his intuitive truths rather than follow his rational thought processes.1 The story is not all that simple, for London, even with his reverence for the canine, would not advocate a total giving over to primordial urges under any...

(The entire section is 1163 words.)

Charles E. May (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: “‘To Build a Fire’: Physical Fiction and Metaphysical Critics,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 15, 1978, pp. 19–24.

[In the following essay, May questions the critical perceptions of “To Build a Fire” as a metaphysical fiction.]

Ten years ago Earle Labor and King Hendricks, perhaps the most avid partisans of Jack London, reproved critics for not giving London's fiction its “proper critical assessment” and urged that a “fine discrimination,” equal to London's own, be exercised in taking his measure as an artist.1 Labor's new book in the Twayne American Author Series and a recent Modern Fiction Studies special issue...

(The entire section is 2698 words.)

Joan D. Hedrick (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: “Journeying across the Ghostly Wastes of a Dead World,” in Solitary Comrade: Jack London and His Work, The University of North Carolina Press, 1982, pp. 48–55.

[In the following essay, Hedrick compares London's “The White Silence,” “In a Far Country,” and “To Build a Fire.”]

His purse exhausted after a year at the University of California, in 1897 London joined the second wave of fortune-hunters in the Klondike. He returned with little more than a case of scurvy to show for his efforts, but the stories he wrote from his Alaskan experience established his literary career. In them we can see the lineaments of a hero who would never appear in...

(The entire section is 3187 words.)

Lee Clark Mitchell (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: “‘Keeping His Head’: Repetition and Responsibility in London's ‘To Build a Fire,’” in Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 13, No. 1, March, 1986, pp. 76–96.

[In the following essay, Mitchell provides a stylistic analysis of London's “To Build a Fire.”]

Even enthusiasts cringe at naturalism's style. Given excesses so plain and a motion so plodding, sensible critics have simply dropped the subject. And perhaps the greatest embarrassment has been caused by Jack London, whose flat prose seems especially open to criticism. His very methods of composition prompt a certain skepticism; the speed with which he wrote, his suspiciously childish plots,...

(The entire section is 9610 words.)

Nancy Clasby (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: “Jack London's ‘To Build a Fire’: A Mythic Reading,” in Jack London Newsletter, Vol. 20, 1987, pp. 48–51.

[In the following essay, Clasby maintains that in “To Build a Fire” London's “unquestioned myth-making ability has produced an extreme expression of a common archetype.”]

D.H. Lawrence observed, in his Studies in Classic American Literature, that the quintessential American hero is a divided person. Natty Bumpo of the Leatherstocking Tales stands first in the line of these dual heroes, paired with his dark companion, Chingachgook. Ishmael and Queequeeg, Huck and Jim follow in a succession leading to such twentieth century...

(The entire section is 2148 words.)

Lee Clark Mitchell (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: “Imposing (on) Events in London's ‘To Build a Fire,’” in Determined Fictions: American Literary Naturalism, Columbia University Press, 1989, pp. 34–54.

[In the following essay, Mitchell explores London's narrative techniques in “To Build a Fire,” particularly the use of repetitive language and images.]

More than other naturalist authors, Jack London has been considered an embarrassment, a writer whose prodigious output simply confirms his lack of craft. His flat prose seems to offer an immediate, easy target of criticism, and our skepticism only grows with knowledge of his slipshod methods of composition. Given the speed with which he tossed off...

(The entire section is 9216 words.)

George R. Adams (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “Why the Man Dies in ‘To Build a Fire’,” in The Critical Response to Jack London, edited by Susan M. Nuernberg, Greenwood Press, 1995, pp. 27–35.

[In the following essay, Adams investigates ambiguities in “To Build a Fire” and suggests another perspective on the story.]

During a discussion of “To Build a Fire” a student asked me, “Why was the man in the Yukon?” I answered that he was probably a prospector, since the “camp” in the story is an “old claim.” But only the earliest version of the story tells us explicitly that men are in the Yukon “prospecting and hunting moose.” I began thinking about that difference and other...

(The entire section is 4861 words.)