Summarize the plot of "To Build a Fire" by Jack London.

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

No one is prepared for seventy-five degrees below zero.  The unnamed protagonist of the story “To Build a Fire” by Jack London was warned not to go into this kind of weather by himself if at all.  Nature is not an enemy of man, but neither does it help man. 


The man is accompanied by a dog that has the natural coat to sustain it through the trek; yet, the dog is depressed traveling in this cold.   The man plans to travel to another camp. He leaves at 9:00 a.m. and intends to be at the other camp by 6:00 p.m

The man realizes that he has never experienced cold like this.  He knows that he has to beware of traps of ice he could potentially sink through.

Rising Action

At noon, the man sits down to eat his lunch.  He cannot keep his hands from going numb and realizes that he has not built a fire.  The man admits that the old timer knew what he was talking about as far as the intensity of the cold. He builds a fire and thaws himself out.

The man resumes his walk. The dog and the man had no relationship, and the dog was not concerned about the welfare of the man.

Becoming complacent, the man does not pay enough attention to where he was stepping. He breaks through to the water and soaks his feet and halfway up his shins.  He begins to gather wood to build his second fire.  He carries pieces of dry birch bark in his pocket to start the fires.  Carefully, he built the fire.  If his feet are wet, there is nothing that he can do to restore the circulation in his feet.


Then, the worst possible thing that could happen did happen.  He built his fire under a tree limb; he disturbed it  by pulling twigs from it.  The snow fell and put out the fire.  He tried to build another fire.  Because of his frozen fingers, he was unable to light a match.  He lit the entire set of seventy matches. Trying several possible ways to help himself, he realizes that he is in terrible trouble.

…he scratched the bunch along his leg.  It flared into flame, seventy matches at once! There was no wind to blow them out.  As he held it, he became aware of sensation in his hand.  His flesh was burning.  The blazing matches fell into the snow.

Falling Action

The man decides that he will try to kill the dog and use its body to warm himself.  He calls the dog toward him.  Something in his voice makes the dog suspicious, and it refuses to come to the man.  The man realizes that there is no way that he can kill the dog because he has no feeling in his hands. 

The fear of death begins to oppress the man. He stands and runs trying to return circulation to his limbs. Since his circulation was so poor, the blood reduces his endurance. He sits and rests because he knows he is losing his battle with the frost.


The man recovers his breath control and runs again falling head first into the snow bank.  He decides that he is going to freeze. Drifting off to sleep, the man seems to feel more comfortable.  His sleep was the most satisfying that he had ever known.  The dog watches the man.  The day begins to slip away and still the man has not moved to start a fire. 

The dog whines and goes closer to the man. The man does not respond.  The dog catches the scent of death.  He turns from the man and heads toward the camp where he will find fire and food.