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
Start Free Trial

What are some examples of symbolism in Jack London's "To Build a Fire?"

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

There are numerous examples of symbolism in the famous short story "To Build a Fire" by Jack London, including the freezing cold wilderness, the protagonist's journey, the fire, the dog, and the man undertaking the long walk through the frozen wasteland.

The story is simple. A man sets out in the winter morning on a trail through a spruce forest. As he walks along a creek bed, his legs break through a thin spot in the ice and get wet. When he tries to build a fire to dry out, snow from a tree branch falls and puts it out. Although he makes great efforts, he is unable to restart the fire and eventually freezes to death. Sensing that the man is dead, the dog heads down the trail toward the camp alone.

London often wrote about the struggle of man against nature. In this story, the cold wilderness through which the man travels symbolizes the pitiless, indifferent universe. The man symbolizes any person struggling to survive in a world full of formidable obstacles and dangers.

The dog is a symbol of animal instinct. Although the dog is subservient to the man and does not possess his level of intelligence, he instinctively realizes the danger they are in:

But the dog knew; all its ancestry knew, and it had inherited the knowledge. And it knew that it was not good to walk abroad in such fearful cold.

The man's journey symbolizes our journey through life. According to London, the only way we can survive is through our strength and our wit. However, the protagonist has two fatal flaws. First of all, he is "without imagination," unable to form a realistic conception of the danger he is in. Additionally, he lacks the instinct of the dog, which gives it a "menacing apprehension" of the peril of journeying through the wilderness in such weather. It is significant that the man's objective is a camp full of other people that he knows. In his journey, he is drawn toward community, just as in our lives, we always tend to seek out the comfort of like-minded people.

The fire symbolizes warmth, safety, and life. The man is traveling toward a camp where he expects to find warmth and fellowship around a communal fire. Along the way, building a fire represents his only hope of survival against the harsh cold, isolation, and imminent death in the wilderness.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on