To Build a Fire Analysis

  • In writing "To Build a Fire," Jack London drew on his own experiences in the Klondike Gold Rush. Although the gold industry is never mentioned in the story, it is reasonable to assume that the protagonist and "the boys" he plans to meet are gold prospectors.
  • The story is a strong example of the naturalist genre, especially in its depiction of the harshness and enormity of nature in contrast to the frailty of humankind.
  • The story highlights the differences between humans and animals, particularly the former's reliance on cognition and the latter's reliance on instinctual forms of knowledge.

Analysis

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Last Updated on May 28, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1023

Jack London originally wrote the short story “To Build a Fire” in 1902 and made several changes before the better-known version (analyzed here) was published in 1908. The story is a strong example of the naturalist movement in literature, which was first developed by the French author Émile Zola. “To Build a Fire” is the best-known of London’s works and deals with the naturalist subjects of survivalism, instinct and evolution, and the power of nature over humans. 

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The story is based on London’s own experiences of the Klondike region and the difficulties he faced there. Although it is not explicitly stated, it is presumed that the protagonist and “the boys” he is meeting are in the region to take part in the Klondike Gold Rush, which London himself joined in 1897. The extreme conditions the author faced, which lead to health problems such as scurvy, inspired the short story. The Klondike region of the Yukon territory in Northern Canada experienced an influx of travellers between 1896 and 1899 due to the discovery of gold, but prospectors faced extremely cold and snowy conditions. The 1902 version features a solo traveller named Tom Vincent with no dog accompanying him. Crucially, Tom Vincent experiences less severe conditions than the unnamed 1908 protagonist, and he suffers permanent frostbite rather than death.

The 1908 version of “To Build a Fire” highlights the extent to which nature overpowers humans, as well as the importance of instinct alongside intellect. The protagonist represents human intelligence, whereas the dog is a symbol of natural instinct. It is said that the man “was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances.” At the beginning of the story, the man understands exact temperatures, knowing that “fifty degrees below zero meant eighty-odd degrees of frost,” but he never considers what dangers these extreme conditions mean. By contrast, the dog “did not know anything about thermometers” but frequently senses danger and worries about leaving the warmth of the fire. Despite his greater conceptual sophistication, the man’s human knowledge gives him no advantage over the dog’s instinct. London’s story demonstrates that intellect is useless if not paired with experience and instinct.

Unlike the dog, who understands that to travel in such harsh conditions means danger, the man is repeatedly surprised by the weather he faces and its physical effects. He periodically thinks to himself that “it certainly was cold” and ignores signs that he may be placing himself in danger by enduring it: “He did not expose his fingers more than a minute, and was astonished at the swift numbness that smote them.” In contrast, the dog has learned from his experiences, and understands the importance of keeping warm. Whereas the man realises that “he had forgotten to build a fire and thaw out” and “chuckled at his foolishness,” the dog’s fear of the cold is ingrained in his evolutionary inheritance and arises in the form of instinct: 

This man did not know cold. Possibly all the generations of his ancestry had been ignorant of cold, real cold[...] But the dog knew; all its ancestors knew, and it had inherited the knowledge.

London, who was a well-known socialist and advocate for unionization, uses “To Build a Fire” to highlight the dangers of individualism. The man chooses to journey alone, which increases the danger he faces when things go wrong. When the fire he lit under a tree is extinguished, he realises that being alone puts him at a grave disadvantage:

Perhaps the old-timer on Sulphur Creek was right. If he had only had a trail-mate he would have been in no danger now. The trail-mate could have built the fire. Well, it was up to him to build the fire over again, and this second time there must be no failure.

The relationship between the man and the dog is a central element of the story, as it reveals their contrasting attitudes toward danger and survival. Throughout the story, the dog senses that this journey is dangerous and resists the urge to burrow into the snow for warmth. The dog, like the reader, watches the man’s mistakes, unable to do anything except follow the man on his journey. The man consistently places his own safety above that of the dog, as he makes it venture out onto untrodden ice in order to check how safe it is: “once, suspecting danger, he compelled the dog to go on in front. The dog did not want to go. It hung back until the man shoved it forward.” The man considers the dog a tool to be used for his own survival, rather than its own being. Finally, when the man tries to kill the dog to keep himself warm, the animal rebels. Its instinct to survive overrides its service to the man:

In his voice was a strange note of fear that frightened the animal, who had never known the man to speak in such way before. Something was the matter, and its suspicious nature sensed danger—it knew not what danger, but somewhere, somehow, in its brain arose an apprehension of the man.

In terms of structure, the story takes place over the course of one day. This is true of both the 1902 and 1908 versions, but a crucial difference is that the protagonist of the later version is not given a name. None of the characters in the 1908 story are given definitive names or backgrounds, which serves to highlight the unimportance of their individual identities in the face of nature’s power. Since the man never makes it to camp, the reader is given minimal information about “the boys” that await him there. The narrative scope narrows with the increasing danger, as it becomes increasingly evident that the man will not survive this journey. The story ends as the dog realizes that the man is dead and continues on in search of the camp alone, knowing that there are other “food-providers and fire-providers” there. At its conclusion, the story emphasizes nature’s indifference to human struggles and the importance of instinct in the face of that indifference.

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