To Build a Fire by Jack London

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The main characters in "To Build a Fire" are the unnamed man, his dog, and the old-timer.

  • The Man is a chechaquo, or newcomer to the Yukon, who foolishly ventures out in unsafe weather. His arrogance and naivete ultimately lead to his death.
  • The Dog is a wolf-dog who reluctantly accompanies the man on his journey. Its natural instincts contrast with the man's artificial (and misplaced) confidence.

  • The Old-Timer is a veteran of the Yukon who warns the man not to go out in the extreme cold.

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(Short Stories for Students)

The dog is a ‘‘big native husky’’ and the man’s only companion on the trail. While it depends upon the man for food and for warmth from campfires, the dog is ‘‘not concerned in the welfare of the man’’ and obeys him only to avoid being whipped. The dog is motivated by instinct. Critics Earle Labor and Jeanne Campbell Reesman describe the dog as a ‘‘foil’’ to the man. A foil is a character who sets off, or emphasizes, by way of contrast the traits of another character. In this case, the dog’s reliable instincts contrast with the man’s faulty human judgment. Unlike the man, the dog can sense that the temperature is below minus fifty degrees Fahrenheit, and despite the natural insulation provided by its fur coat, the dog does not travel willingly in such weather. After it falls into the water on the river trail, the dog instinctively knows how to save itself by cleaning the ice from its legs and feet. Later, while the man freezes to death as a result of his unreliable powers of reason, the dog instinctively knows how to survive by curling up in the snow; ultimately, it senses the man’s death and saves itself by leaving for camp on its own.

The protagonist in ‘‘To Build a Fire’’ is known simply as ‘‘the man.’’ He is a chechaquo, or newcomer, who undertakes a nine-hour walk in brutally cold weather to meet his companions at an old mining camp during his first winter in the Klondike. Accompanied by a dog but lacking both its instincts and its physical adaptation to the cold, the man freezes to death before reaching camp. At the beginning of the story, the man is described as being ‘‘without imagination . . . quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances.’’ Thus, when he first sets out, the man notices that it is uncomfortably cold, but he cannot imagine that he is risking death by hypothermia. As critic James I. McClintock points out, the man does not at first think in terms of life versus death, or of the weakness of human beings versus the power of nature, but rather in terms of his own ability to solve any difficulties through the power of reason. He believes that all he has to do to survive is to ‘‘keep his head,’’ and he laughs when he remembers the ‘‘womanish’’ warnings spoken by an oldtimer. Critics Earle Labor and Jeanne Campbell Reesman observe that it is in fact the man’s pride in his ‘‘own rational faculties’’ that finally results in his demise.

The old-timer from Sulphur Creek is the man’s major source of advice in the story. Although he never actually appears in the story, the old-timer and his words of wisdom are frequently remembered by the man. For example, the old-timer once told the man how cold the temperatures could get in the Klondike. He also advised the man about the absolute necessity of building fires and—most importantly—warned him never to travel alone when the temperature drops below minus fifty degrees Fahrenheit. The old-timer’s advice is at first remembered with mild derision by the man, who considers his warnings ‘‘womanish’’ and overcautious. But as the man’s condition becomes increasingly perilous, he admits that the old-timer was right about never traveling without a companion ‘‘after fifty below.’’ Critic James I. McClintock describes the old-timer as someone whose ‘‘experience has given him the imagination to continue living’’ in extremely...

(The entire section is 2,155 words.)