Jack London's “To Build a Fire” is the story of an unnamed man, traveling with his dog in the Yukon in extraordinarily cold conditions. He follows a “dim and little-traveled trail,” planning to reach the safety and comfort of a camp. The man makes good time, stopping for lunch precisely on schedule, but when he breaks through
thin ice covering water from a spring, his fate is sealed. He gets wet “halfway to the knees,” and must build a fire to dry his footwear, or else he will freeze to death. He gets a fire started, and seems to have averted worse trouble. “He remembered the advice of the old-timer on Sulphur Creek,” the narrator tells us, “and smiled.” The old-timer’s advice the previous fall included the admonition that one shouldn’t travel without a partner in weather colder than fifty-below, but now the man thinks, “Any man who was a man could travel alone.”
Acting in haste, the protagonist has made the mistake of building his fire under a tree. When a load of snow falls and blots his fire out, the man’s situation becomes critically dire. Nothing the man tries—not his panicked attempt to light another fire, his inept plan to kill the dog and warm his hands inside it, nor his delusional idea of running the remaining distance to camp—can save him now. With frost “creeping into his body from all sides,” he resigns himself to
“meeting death with dignity.”
A great strength of the story is London’s ending. A more generic ending in which the protagonist lives would not suffice; in this extreme environment, each small action—even a small part of an action—can mean life or death, and London’s ending adds significance to his philosophy of Naturalism. Small and large actions mattered to Naturalists; it emphasized our connection to the environment while at the same time emphasizing our small part, people die and the planet continues. This is the very nature of his story.