illustration fo a man in winter clothes lying on the snow under a tree with a dog standing near him

To Build a Fire

by Jack London

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Historical Context

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Late Nineteenth–Early Twentieth-Century America

Although Jack London’s ‘‘To Build a Fire’’ was first published in 1908, the story was inspired by the Klondike Gold Rush, which began in 1897. America’s focus during the early years of the twentieth century was much the same as it had been during the closing years of the nineteenth century. The country had recently undergone significant expansion across the western plains and along the Pacific coast. In 1898 America expanded offshore as well, with the annexation of Hawaii and—as a result of the Spanish-American War—Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico.

The late nineteenth century also saw an influx of immigrants into the United States and, with it, the opening of Ellis Island in 1891 as a processing station for the new Immigration Bureau. Immigrants became an important part of the country’s industrialized economy, which produced not only the textiles of earlier years but also focused on mining as well as on the production of steel and heavy machinery. Whole families became involved in the work force. Labor laws were passed and labor unions were formed in response to unsafe working conditions and to the economic depressions which occurred in 1893-97.

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries brought about an increase in the number of public schools and libraries. By 1900 most states had compulsory education laws, and an increasing number of women were graduating from college. During the early 1900s, when London published ‘‘To Build a Fire,’’ the short story as a genre was experiencing enormous popularity.

The Klondike Gold Rush—beginning in 1897 and lasting until 1910—contributed to the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century atmosphere of territorial expansion and industrial growth, with their attendant economic cycles of boom and bust. The Klondike also proved to be a rich source of inspiration for much of London’s most successful fiction.

The Klondike Gold Rush

A rich vein of gold was discovered in August 1896 by George Cormack at Rabbit Creek, off the Klondike and Yukon rivers in northwestern Canada. The rush to Canada’s Klondike region began a year later, after steamships loaded with prospectors and their gold docked in San Francisco. Reports of the prospectors’ success set off a mania for gold. By then the richest claims had already been staked out, but this did not prevent many people, including Jack London, from heading North. This ‘‘stampede’’ of goldseekers had a profound effect on northwestern Canada. In Dawson, a city created as a result of the rush, Americans outnumbered Canadians by a ratio of five to one. The influx also affected Canada’s western neighbor, the American territory of Alaska, through which many of the would-be prospectors traveled on their way to the Klondike. In 1890, there were approximately 4,000 white settlers in Alaska; by 1910, thanks to the Klondike stampede and to later discoveries of gold in Alaska itself, that number had increased to 36,400.

Jack London spent time in both Alaska and Canada. In ‘‘To Build a Fire’’ he writes about the Yukon trail that winds in and out of Alaska and Canada: ‘‘[The] main trail—that led south five hundred miles to the Chilcoot Pass, Dyea, and salt water; and that led north seventy miles to Dawson, and still on to the north a thousand miles to Nulato, and finally to St. Michael on Bering Sea. . . .’’ Thousands of goldseekers traveled this and other land and water routes to the Klondike, hoping to strike it rich. They ignored warnings about the harsh winters they would encounter in the Northland, just as the man in ‘‘To Build a Fire’’ ignores the warnings of the...

(This entire section contains 607 words.)

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experienced old-timer at the Klondike mining camp of Sulphur Creek.

Social Sensitivity

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The story of the man who freezes to death presents several problems that young adults might encounter. The most important thing the man does is ignore good advice. London says, "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 at fifty below." The man thinks that he has succeeded in defying the old-timer's advice only to discover that his hands have frozen, and he cannot grasp a twig to start a fire. It occurs to him that "perhaps the old-timer at Sulphur Creek was right. If he had only had a trail mate he would have been in no danger now." But because he thought he knew better than people who had lived in the area for a long time, he died.

Many young people think they know how the world operates and pay no attention to the advice of their elders. By ignoring more experienced adults, some do not make it through the learning experience. Like the man, they die or are injured physically or mentally. And like the man, when they see the real truth, they wish they had paid attention to the advice of the old-timers. But by then, it is too late, and if they have survived, they become the old-timers themselves. So it might be wise to heed the advice of the old-timers. That might save young people from needless pain and anguish.

The man made another mistake by isolating himself. London shows how very small a man is when he is alone in the vastness of unforgiving nature. Some young people isolate themselves from others, and some have isolation forced upon them. Nathaniel Hawthorne thought that people who isolated themselves were the worst sinners because they lacked feeling for other humans. They denied their own humanity and thought they were better than other people. London makes it clear that isolating oneself is dangerous and can lead to death. Sometimes people who are depressed or unhappy isolate themselves, and that is dangerous for them because not having someone to talk to can make the unhappiness much worse. London offers the suggestion that it is always good to have a "trail mate" for the trip through life whether it be a friend, a spouse, or a family member.

A third problem the man in the story has deals with his perception of what is manly. He thinks that "any man who was a man could travel alone." But he was confusing foolishness with manliness, something teenagers can see at school any day. Many boys think it's manly to fight, swear, smoke, drink, and do other things they have observed adults doing. But the definition of a real man goes far beyond such surface things. Real men (and women) take responsibility for their decisions and actions. They know that alienating others is dangerous so they try to be friendly and kind to everyone. Realizing that most people have to work for success, they work hard. The man in the story failed in most of these areas though at the end he does become more of a real man. He realizes he has made a fool of himself and thinks that if "he was bound to freeze anyway . . . he might as well take it decently." At the end of the story, he has the courage to face death calmly. And as he dies he has a vision of the old-timer at Sulphur Creek and mumbles, "You were right, old hoss; you were right." He admits his error and manages to die knowing the truth and no longer lying to himself. So for London, courage, humility, and truth lie at the heart of a real man.

Finally, the man is not kind to the dog. His abuse of the animal is part of his pride in being human and thinking he is superior to the dog. The result is that when the man is in serious trouble, the dog does nothing for him. The dog knows how dangerous it is to venture out into extreme cold, but it does not try to warn the man because it only cares about him insofar as he provides food and warmth. When the man is freezing, the dog sits and watches. It does nothing to help him. Perhaps if he had been kinder to the dog, it would have shared its warmth with him, but the man had isolated himself from his only companion on the trail. London seems to be saying that cruelty in any form can lead to injury or death while kindness can allow people to connect with others who may help them one day. Whether it be to animals or other people, abuse can rebound unpleasantly on the abuser. But kindness and sympathy can also rebound and make everyone's life better. So as a matter of self-defense, it is better to be kind, as London shows readers in "To Build a Fire."

Compare and Contrast

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1890s: In 1895, Guglielmo Marconi transmits a message using radio waves recently discovered by Heinrich Rudolph Hertz in 1887. This is the beginning of the ‘‘wireless telegraph.’’ News of the gold discoveries, made in the Klondike region of Canada’s Yukon Territory since August of 1896, reach the U.S. in January, 1897, and start another gold rush.

1990s: The network of telecommunication lines, radio and television transmitters, cellular phones, and orbitting satellites makes it possible to transmit news even from remote locations to most urban places in the world in a matter of minutes.

1897: English physicist J.J. Thomson formulates the idea of an atomic nucleus orbited by one or more electrons. This number of electrons characterizes the atom, giving it its atomic number.

1905: Swiss theoretical physicist Albert Einstein introduces the concept of the equivalence of matter and energy with his equation E=mc2, and raises the possibility of new sources of power and heat.

1911: Ernest Rutherford at the University of Manchester in England proposes that an atom is composed of a positively charged nucleus with electrons orbiting this nucleus.

1938: German chemist Otto Hahn and his assistants Fritz Strassman and Lise Meitner produce the first recorded fission of uranium atoms with the consequent release of a large quantity of energy and heat.

1952: The U.S. Atomic energy commission explodes a nuclear fusion bomb on their testing grounds in the Pacific.

1979: An accident at the nuclear power plant on Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, results in the shutting down of the plant and in lack of confidence in nuclear power plants by the public in the U.S.

1985: An accident at the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl near Kiev in the Ukraine renders a vast amount of land uninhabitable for thousands of years. Public opinion becomes very pessimistic in regard to the safety and value of nuclear power.power.


Style, Form, and Literary Elements


Connections and Further Reading