illustration fo a man in winter clothes lying on the snow under a tree with a dog standing near him

To Build a Fire

by Jack London
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In the narrative of "To Build a Fire," London does not merely tell you that it is extremely cold. He gives details that make you FEEL cold. What are 5 details from the story that make cold real to the reader?

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Perhaps the "coldest" short story ever written, Jack London's "To Build a Fire" chills the reader who follows the descriptions of the Artic weather. This brutal cold certainly affects the mood of the story, one of naturalistic and unforgiving harshness in which the closeness of frozen death has a haunting and oppressive presence. 

Here are some details that describe the cold and frigid temperatures that the man "who lacks imagination" cannot apprehend:

1. In the exposition, the day is described as a "broken cold and gray, exceedingly cold and gray...." The Yukon area is frozen. It lay "a mile wide and hidden under three feet of snow." The snow covers this ice in rolling mounds, where the "ice jams of the freeze-up had formed."

2. The temperature is fifty degrees below zero Fahrenheit. When the man spits, there is "a sharp, explosive crackle that startled him." He spits again and again in the air, but before the spittle can land on the snow, it turns to ice with a crackling sound; thus, it must be colder than fifty below zero. Because the man chews
tobacco, he tries to spit out the juice; however, the juice freezes before it can run down his beard, "If he fell down it would shatter itself, like glass, into brittle fragments."

3. The man has the dog lead the way in case there is a break in the snow and wet his feet. When the dog slips into the ice, he instinctively bites the ice out of his paw; the man takes his mitten off to assist the dog and is

astonished at the swift numbness that smote them [his fingers]. He pulled on his mitten hastily, and beat the hand savagely across his chest.

4. When the man stops for lunch, he is amazed at how quickly the numbness of the severe cold enters his fingers, and he must strike them hard against himself in order to get his blood circulating into them. 

Also he noted that the stinging which had first come to his toes when he sat down was already passing away. He wondered whether the toes were warm or numb. He moved them inside the moccasins and decided that they were numb. [This numbness is the step before frostbite]

5. After the man steps into frozen water, he must build a fire so he can dry his moccasin and foot. For, if he tries to run with a wet and freezing foot when it is seventy-five below,

[N]o matter how fast he runs, the wet feet will freeze the harder....The blood of his body recoiled before the dog it wanted to hide away and cover itself up from the fearful cold.

Unfortunately, the man foolishly builds his fire under a snow-laden tree and when the heat of the fire melts this snow, the water drips onto the fire, extinguishing it. Before he can build a second fire, the man suffers from frostbite so severely that his hands and feet become numb and he is helpless to do anything but run; still, although he can run on his frozen feet, he cannot endure long enough, and so, the man who only then realizes the profoundness of the old-timer's advice, waits for frozen death to overtake him as he "drowsed off into what seemed to him the most comfortable and satisfying sleep he had ever known."

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