Jack London’s story “To Build a Fire” places man within the realm of nature at its worst. Nature does not change to suit man nor does it attempt to hurt him. It is the natural world. Man must make the alterations to survive in whatever part of the natural world that he finds himself. This is the conflict that the unnamed man faces: man versus 75 degrees below zero. This is the kind of weather that is not fit for man or beast.
A newcomer to the Yukon wants to travel to another camp several miles away. He is warned by an old timer not to go and certainly not to travel alone. The man gives no credit to what the more experienced man tells him. He believes that he can cope with whatever happens and believes that he will be prepared for anything.
Instinct enters the story with the dog that accompanies the man. The dog and the man are not companions. The man does not feed or pet him. The animal knows that the weather is too cold for travel. Trusting that the man will bring fire and food, it ignores its instinct and goes with the man.
The dog and man travel until it is noon, and the man fixes a fire and sits and eats his lunch. Then they travel on. The newcomer is confident in his abilities. It is the Yukon trail, and there are hazards everywhere. The man knows that he must be careful not to fall into any hidden springs and wet his feet.
The man does make the wrong step and falls up to his shins in the icy water. The dog gets his feet wet as well. It begins to lick his paws to prevent the ice from covering his paws. The man hurriedly builds another fire and sits down to dry himself out. He has made the fire under a tree branch covered with ice and snow. When the snow begins to melt, it topples down on the man’s fire.
Trying to rebuild the fire, the man realizes that he has no feeling in his hands or feet. This makes it impossible to start the fire. He begins to fear the outcome; to start the circulation of his blood again, he begins to run which proves to be short lived since he lacks the endurance to maintain a running pace.
It struck him as curious that he could run at all on feet so frozen that he could not feel them when they struck he earth and took the weight of his body. He seemed to himself to skim along above the surface and to have no connection with the earth.
He tries to light his matches. Unfortunately, he drops them in the snow and his hands are too frozen to pick them up.
He decides that he might kill the dog and crawl inside of it to warm his hands. The dog instinctively knows that something is wrong and refuses to come to the man. Finally, the man realizes that there is no hope for him. He sits down and awaits the sleep of death.
The dog waits patiently for the man to do something. Then he smells the scent of death. He turns away from the man and heads toward the camp where there will be fire and food. Nature did not defeat the man; he lost to a world that was not intended for him.