To Build a Fire Characters
The main characters in "To Build a Fire" are the unnamed man, his dog, and the old man.
- 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 Man is a veteran of the Yukon who warns the man not to go out in the extreme cold.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 957
The unnamed protagonist of the story is on a journey through the Yukon Forest and is attempting to reach a camp by evening. Very little information is given about the man, except that he is American and inexperienced with the extreme Canadian weather: “He was a newcomer in the land, a chechaquo, and this was his first winter.” Unlike his friends, whom he is journeying to meet, the protagonist decided to take “the roundabout way to take a look at the possibilities of getting out logs in the spring from the islands of the Yukon.” Throughout the story, the man proves himself as possessing a strong sense of individualism. He ignores the warnings from the old man at Sulphur Creek and travels alone, despite the cold weather. The man is unaware of the dangers he is facing or at least does not take them seriously:
Fifty degrees below zero was to him nothing more than fifty degrees below zero. That there should be anything more important to it than that was a thought that never entered his head.
The man consistently underestimates the dangers he faces and overestimates his ability to overcome them. He doesn’t believe he needs any help in his journey, which ultimately leads to his demise, as he himself comes to acknowledge. The protagonist’s poor decision-making goes beyond his choice to journey alone, however. Building a fire under a tree with snow on its branches highlights his inexperience and desperation, both of which contribute to the inevitability of his death.
The dog follows the man along the trail and remains with him throughout his journey. The dog, who is nameless, is described as “a big native husky, the proper wolf-dog, gray-coated and without any visible or temperamental difference from its brother, the wild wolf.” It is unclear how the man and the dog met and began to journey together, but their relationship is certainly not an equal one:
The one was the toil-slave of the other[...] the dog made no effort to communicate its apprehension to the man. It was not concerned with the welfare of the man; it was for its own sake that it yearned back toward the fire.
London presents the dog as obedient and submissive to the man but also keenly attuned to its own instincts. Throughout the story, the dog represents the animal instinct to survive. It is often said that the dog wants to “burrow under the snow and cuddle its warmth away from the air”, and when they leave the first rest stop, “it was disappointed and yearned back toward the fire.” The dog’s awareness of the danger of journeying in such harsh cold is contrasted to the man’s ignorance. At the end of the story, after the man’s death, the dog leaves the body and heads toward the camp, “where there were other food-providers and fire-providers,” highlighting the lack of bond between the two—as well as the dog’s supreme instinct to survive.
Residing at “the old claim at the left fork of Henderson Creek,” “the boys” are briefly mentioned several times throughout the story. As the man thinks ahead to his destination, he imagines them anticipating his arrival: “a fire would be burning, and a hot supper would be ready.” It is unclear who these men are or why they are meeting, but the familiarity with which the man refers to them suggests that they are friends. Given that the story was based on London’s own experience of the Klondike Gold Rush, it is likely that they are fellow prospectors in search of gold. The man is clearly expected at the camp, and when he realizes that he will never make it there, he has a vision of “the boys” finding his body the next day. Even then, London does not give a clear picture of who “the boys” are, leaving their identities purposely ambiguous in order to emphasize the protagonist’s individualism and inevitable death.
The Old Man
Referred to as “the old-timer on Sulphur Creek,” the old man is an unseen character and the voice of reason in the story. Before the protagonist embarked on the trail, the old man warned him against hiking in such extreme cold alone. Rather than taking this warning seriously, the man simply laughed at him, believing that he will be fine. As the story goes on, both the reader and the protagonist realize that the old man was right and that the man’s inability to heed his warning will cost him his life. The old man is never seen by the reader but nevertheless plays a crucial role in establishing the protagonist’s inexperience and naivety. When the old man is initially referenced, the hiker looks back in a patronizing way:
He remembered the advice of the old-timer on Sulphur Creek and smiled. The old-timer had been very serious in laying down the law that no man must travel alone in the Klondike after fifty below. Well, here he was; he had had the accident; he was alone; and he had saved himself. Those old-timers were rather womanish, some of them, he thought.
The protagonist believes himself more capable than the old man, despite the latter’s superior experience and knowledge of the land. As he progresses on the journey, the protagonist concedes that the old man “had spoken the truth when telling how cold it sometimes got in the country.” When he is eventually forced to succumb to the cold, the protagonist addresses the old man directly, finally acknowledging his own ignorance: “You were right, old hoss; you were right.” The old man represents the possibility of survival through wisdom and caution.