To Build a Fire Essays and Criticism
by Jack London

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To Build A Fire Overview

(Short Stories for Students)

The third paragraph of Jack London’s ‘‘To Build a Fire’’ offers a concise assessment of the personality and motivation of the story’s unnamed central character as he embarks across the vast and snowy winter landscape of the Klondike:

But all this—the mysterious, far-reaching hair-line trail, the absence of sun from the sky, the tremendous cold, and the strangeness and weirdness of it all— made no impression on the man. It was not because he was long used to it. He was a new-comer in the land, a chechaquo, and this was his first winter. The trouble with him was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances. Fifty degrees below zero meant eighty-odd degrees of frost. Such a fact impressed him as being cold and uncomfortable, and that was all. It did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man’s frailty in general, able only to live within certain narrow limits of temperature; and from there on it did not lead him to the conjectural field of immortality and man’s place in the universe. Fifty degrees below zero stood for a bite of frost that hurt and that must be guarded against by the use of mittens, ear-flaps, warm moccasins, and thick socks. Fifty degrees below zero was to him just precisely fifty degrees below zero. That there should be anything more to it than that was a thought that never entered his head. (Excerpt from ‘‘To Build a Fire’’)

Referring to the above passage, James I. McClintock asserts that this ‘‘quick and alert’’ man tries to use reason instead of imagination to get him past his difficulties and safely to camp but that human rationality proves to be helpless against the Klondike’s ‘‘killing landscape.’’ In the same vein, Earle Labor and Jeanne Campbell Reesman refer to the frozen landscape as a powerful enemy or ‘‘antagonist,’’ asserting that the man ‘‘falls into misfortune because of . . . an overweening confidence in the efficacy of his own rational faculties and a corresponding blindness to the dark, nonrational powers of nature, chance, and fate.’’

In the context of ‘‘To Build a Fire,’’ then, ‘‘imagination’’ is the ability to recognize one’s limitations. As it happens, the man does not possess this ability until it is too late. From the beginning, he is aware of and responds to the intensity of the cold. At first, he greets this ruthless cold matter-of-factly and with relatively mild surprise: ‘‘It certainly was cold, he concluded, as he rubbed his numb nose and cheek-bones with his mittened hand.’’ This reaction seems especially low-key when compared with the dog’s response in the paragraph immediately afterward: ‘‘The animal was depressed by the tremendous cold. It knew it was no time for traveling.’’

As the story progresses, the man becomes more keenly aware of the magnitude of the cold. Nevertheless, this awareness does not fundamentally alter his mundane response to the unearthly ‘‘cold of space’’: he feels only a ‘‘pang of regret’’ after realizing that he should have covered his nose and cheeks against frostbite; he is only ‘‘a bit frightened’’ at the speed with which his fingers go numb when he removes his mittens; he is merely ‘‘angry’’ at his bad luck when he plunges knee-deep through the ice on the river-trail. It is not until snow falls from a tree and extinguishes his poorly placed fire that the man becomes ‘‘shocked’’ rather than merely surprised and at last acknowledges ‘‘his own sentence of death’’ as a result of this calamity.

Readers of ‘‘To Build a Fire’’ have judged the man’s casual response to the cold to be at best naively reckless and at worst downright stupid. They have argued that the man was not being reasonable by relying on his own ability ‘‘to keep his head’’ and arrogantly ignoring the...

(The entire section is 6,341 words.)