To Build a Fire Questions and Answers
by Jack London

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Why does the man in Jack London's short story "To Build a Fire" set off in the freezing cold in the first place?

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Sol Gandy eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Jack London's adventure story "To Build a Fire," set in the Yukon at the turn of the 20th century, is a perfect example of a "man vs. nature" conflict. The unnamed protagonist is hiking in the extreme cold (London tells us it is 75 degrees below zero with 107 degrees of frost) and in many ways he is unprepared for the daunting conditions. Only his dog seems to understand the danger until the man breaks through the ice and gets wet. His attempts to build a fire fail and he ultimately freezes to death. 

London tells us very little about the man. We do know he is following Henderson Creek, a place where London himself had lived in the late 1890's. London writes:

"He was headed for the old camp on Henderson Creek, where the boys were already. They had come across the mountain from the Indian Creek country. He had taken the long trail to look at the possibility of floating logs from the islands in the Yukon down the river when the ice melted. He would be in camp by six o'clock that evening. It would be a little after dark, but the boys would be there, a fire would be burning, and a hot supper would be ready."

From that passage the reader might assume, from the sentence about logs, that maybe this man is a logger on his way to join men who will be logging the woods.

A better explanation, however, is revealed in a story on a website about Jack London that tells us that London staked a mining claim in Dawson City, Yukon in 1897 and actually lived in a cabin on Henderson Creek at the time (see link to story below). He wrote "To Build a Fire" while living in that cabin. So, the best guess is probably that this man is a miner on his way to meet other men who are hoping to make a gold strike during the Yukon gold rush of the time. The man may be motivated by greed to set off on a very foolish and reckless trek in the worst of conditions, but, of course, this is probably reading more into the story than London wants to tell you.

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