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...
(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...
(The entire section is 724 words.)
"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 foot from one place to another in weather that is seventy-five degrees below zero. London examines the difference between man and animal in dealing with nature. The man learns that human technology is not as useful as the dog's intuitive, ancestral understanding of how to stay alive in very cold weather. The story is a tragic reminder of mankind's frailty in facing nature unaided by technology.
(The entire section is 94 words.)
‘‘To Build a Fire’’ begins at nine o’clock on a winter morning as an unnamed man travels across the Yukon Territory in Northwestern Canada. The man is a chechaquo (cheechako), a Chinook jargon word meaning ‘‘newcomer.’’ This is the man’s first winter in the Yukon, but because he is ‘‘without imagination’’ and thus unaccustomed to thinking about life and death, he is not afraid of the cold, which he estimates at fifty degrees below zero. He is on his way to join the rest of his companions at an old mining camp on a distant fork of Henderson Creek, and he estimates his arrival time will be six o’clock in the evening. The man is traveling on foot; all he has by way of supplies is his lunch. It is not long before he realizes that the temperature is colder than fifty below, but this fact does not yet worry him.
The man is accompanied only by a dog—‘‘a big native husky,’’ wilder than other breeds. Despite its heavy fur, the dog dislikes traveling in brutally cold weather. It knows instinctively that the temperature is actually seventy-five below zero and that no one should be out in such ‘‘tremendous cold.’’ The man reaches Henderson Creek, which has frozen and can be used as a trail but is also riddled with dangerous winter springs that never freeze and are hidden beneath a thin layer of river ice. Although he is short on imagination, the man uses human judgment and...
(The entire section is 1083 words.)