Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The fiction of London, in tandem with the work of Frank Norris, Stephen Crane, and Hamlin Garland, helped to shape an American naturalism, a particular strain of scientific realism that was influenced by European writers of the later nineteenth century, particularly the French writer Emile Zola, who described the role of the novelist as that of “a scientist, an analyst, an anatomist” who interprets reality through the application of scientific determinism. In “To Build a Fire,” London places his protagonist in a harsh natural setting that tests to the limits his ability to survive in the wilderness.

The style of this particular brand of realistic fiction depends on the cold, objective presentation of detail that respects the force and power of nature and reduces the individual to a position of relative insignificance. The central character of London’s story is a vain creature, supremely and ironically confident of his ability to survive.

The story is carefully structured around the building of several fires. The first two fires the tenderfoot builds are merely matters of convenience, when he stops on his journey to rest and eat. In both instances, the dog is reluctant to leave the safety of the fire. The third fire is built to stave off an emergency because the man has gotten his lower body wet. This fire is foolishly built, however, because the tenderfoot has no foresight or common sense.

The fourth and final fire the tenderfoot attempts to build is crucial to his survival, but he is too far gone to accomplish this task. His hands are by then too frozen to manipulate his matches, and his mind is so far gone that he cannot fully understand the seriousness of his peril. All he can do is believe in the possibility of his survival. The story provides an interesting study in the psychology of an unhinged mind.

London’s story depends for its effect on situational irony. An ironic strain that runs throughout the story is the tenderfoot’s sense of superiority and contempt for the old trapper on Sulphur Creek. The irony is dramatic in that the reader soon realizes that the old man was right, a realization that escapes the tenderfoot until the very end of the story.

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

Late Nineteenth- Early Twentieth- Century America
Although Jack London’s ‘‘To Build a Fire’’ was first published in...

(The entire section is 608 words.)


(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The story is set in the Klondike in the Yukon Territory of Canada, the site of a gold rush in the late nineteenth century. Gold was...

(The entire section is 1147 words.)

Literary Style

(Short Stories for Students)

‘‘To Build a Fire’’ is the story of an unnamed man traveling across the Klondike territory in winter to meet his partners at a mining...

(The entire section is 737 words.)

Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

"To Build a Fire" is written in the spare style of naturalism. It is more like a report than the fiction written in the florid style of other...

(The entire section is 515 words.)

Social Sensitivity

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The story of the man who freezes to death presents several problems that young adults might encounter. The most important thing the man does...

(The entire section is 837 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Short Stories for Students)

1890s: In 1895, Guglielmo Marconi transmits a message using radio waves recently discovered by Heinrich Rudolph Hertz in 1887. This is...

(The entire section is 306 words.)

Topics for Discussion

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. How does London characterize the cold in the story? Why would anyone want to live in such cold weather? How do the people who live in...

(The entire section is 328 words.)

Ideas for Reports and Papers

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Try closely observing nature. Look very closely at leaves, grass, birds, plants, the sky, etc. What do you see, and how does it make you...

(The entire section is 339 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Short Stories for Students)

Research the symptoms of and treatments for frostbite and hypothermia. Use your findings to discuss the deterioration of the man’s...

(The entire section is 128 words.)

Related Titles / Adaptations

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

"To Build a Fire" is part of London's "Klondike" books, the most important of which are White Fang and The Call of the Wild. In...

(The entire section is 161 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Short Stories for Students)

‘‘To Build a Fire’’ was adapted as a 56-minute film with actor-director Orson Welles providing the story’s narration. The film is...

(The entire section is 48 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Short Stories for Students)

The Call of the Wild (1903) is one of Jack London’s most famous Klondike novels. The novel’s hero is a dog named Buck, a family...

(The entire section is 391 words.)

For Further Reference

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Reesman, Jeanne Campbell. Jack London: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1999. Various essays on London's short fiction...

(The entire section is 176 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Short Stories for Students)

Barker, James H. Always Getting Ready/Upterrlainarluta: Yup’ik Eskimo Subsistence in Southwest Alaska, Seattle:...

(The entire section is 1044 words.)


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Auerbach, Jonathan. Male Call: Becoming Jack London. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1996.

Cassuto, Leonard, and Jeanne Campbell Reesman, eds. Rereading Jack London. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1996.

Hedrick, Joan D. Solitary Comrade: Jack London and His Work. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982.

Kershaw, Alex. Jack London: A Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.

Labor, Earle, and Jeanne Campbell Reesman. Jack London. Rev. ed. New York: Twayne, 1994.

Reesman, Jeanne Campbell. Jack London: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1999.

Sinclair, Andrew. Jack: A Biography of Jack London. New York: Washington Square Press, 1979.

Stefoff, Rebecca. Jack London: An American Original. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Watson, Charles N. The Novels of Jack London: A Reappraisal. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1982.