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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Where is foreshadowing used in "To Build a Fire"?

In the first paragraph of "To Build a Fire", London uses foreshadowing to warn the reader that the newcomer will not be successful in surviving the cold.

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London utilizes foreshadowing in the first paragraph of the story by setting an ominous mood. London writes that the sun was absent from the sky and there was an "indescribable darkness over the face of things." This dark imagery foreshadows the horrific events that will transpire later in the story. London continues to foreshadow by commenting on the distant trail, the great cold, and the strangeness of everything. The reader understands that the newcomer must travel a considerable distance in extremely cold weather. The strangeness of the atmosphere conjures an eerily feeling, which foreshadows the newcomer's doom.

The fact that the newcomer's spit freezes instantly reveals the severity of the weather and foreshadows the dangers of the extreme cold. London continues to foreshadow the impending crisis by writing that the trail was covered and the newcomer had only packed his lunch. London also writes that the newcomer was surprised by the bitter cold. The fact that the trail is covered foreshadows the traveler's solitude and his lack of resources foreshadows the lack of preparation that leads to his death. The fact that the newcomer is surprised by the extreme cold also foreshadows his failure to listen to the old man at Sulphur Creek. London also utilizes foreshadowing when he describes the wolf dog's fear and apprehension. The wolf dog understands that it is dangerous to embark on the journey and its instincts turn out to be correct.

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Foreshadowing is used early in the story to give us clues that the man's chances of survival are against him. He's a newcomer to the Klondike wilderness which means he's never been through the harsh winters. He isn't using a sled, traveling by foot. He's taking very little with him -- a bacon sandwich, tobacco, matches, kindling -- that will help him to survive in the wilderness. He's been warned never to travel in temperatures of fifty degrees below zero, and he ignores that warning. An old man also advises him against traveling by himself, a warning that is repeated frequently throughout the story. This gives us a sense of what's going to happen to him. The man also ignores the warning of the old man. All of these clues (foreshadowing) let us know right away the man won't survive.

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The man's dog is one of the early foreshadows of the trouble that is to come. It is far too cold even for this breed used to the cold. It makes the dog depressed, as "(i)ts instict told it a truer tale than was told to the man by the man's judgment."

Another example is when the man takes off his glove and is "astonished at the swift numbness that smote them" (his fingers). The gravity of his situation is beginning to sink in.

One of the most telling foreshadows is the revealtion by the "old-timer" about when it was unsafe to travel:

"The old-timer had been very serious in laying down the law that no man must travel alone in the Klondike...

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after fifty below." Even though the advice is sound and from experience, the man is smug and prideful, thinking he has outwitted nature and experience for a short time.

When he burns up all his matches at once, it is another foreshadow of his impending death. Rashness cannot win out over reason in the end.

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What is an example of foreshadowing in "To Build a Fire?"

One good example of textual foreshadowing comes early on:

He plunged in among the big spruce trees. The trail was faint. A foot of snow had fallen since the last sled had passed over, and he was glad he was without a sled, traveling light. In fact, he carried nothing but the lunch wrapped in the handkerchief. He was surprised, however, at the cold.(London, "To Build a Fire," eNotes eText)

Referring to the trail as "faint" shows that the area has not been traveled much recently; others know how dangerous the cold can be. The man's lack of a sled, and his only item being his lunch, shows the lack of preparation that leads to his death; he is not mentally prepared for the extreme cold of the Yukon and so does not bring enough matches, or a flint-and-steel which cannot burn out. Finally, his "surprise" at just how cold it is shows his ego and his failure to prepare; if he had listened to the advice of the Old-Timer, or simply used more common sense in preparing, he might have survived.

Each of these points indicates his later failure; he has no sled, and so only one dog -- he might have been able to snuggle in with multiple sled-dogs and survive that way. He only has his lunch and no other supplies -- he was not thinking ahead. He is surprised at the cold -- because he didn't listen to advice, and so the cold is what kills him.

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