Evidence that the man does indeed gain knowledge at the end of “To Build a Fire” can be seen in his last words: “You were right, old hoss; you were right.” The man is addressing “the old-timer of Sulphur Creek,” a veteran of the Yukon who had given the youngsters a wealth of information on survival back in the fall, before any of the newbies had any idea what seventy-five degrees below zero truly meant.
The main character in “To Build a Fire” is a straightforward man, content to understand the fact and existence of things, and not to waste any time with the “why” of things. He takes everything at face value and concerns himself little with anticipation or consequences. Thus, at the beginning of the story, “Fifty degrees below zero was to him just precisely fifty degrees below zero. That there should be anything more to it than that was a thought that never entered his head.” Because of this tendency to observe but not analyze, the man does not put himself into context or identify his weaknesses when faced with the power of nature, the power of cold.
The man is therefore cocky and overconfident, applauding himself when he has made a fire in such cold temperatures and survived thus far alone, even when the old-timer had advised no man to travel alone at fifty below. Before his fire is obliterated by falling snow, he remains short-sighted and proud.
So when he concedes at the end of the story that the old-timer spoke from wisdom, and that he himself should have shown more humility before nature, he is showing that he at last understands the power of the natural forces around him, and that he has made a grave mistake with his lack of forethought. He has learned that humans are not made for such harsh conditions, and that survival in such an environment requires teamwork, research, and careful planning to make up for lack of instinct. Unfortunately for him, this lesson was learned too late.