To Build a Fire Key Ideas and Commentary
by Jack London

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Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The main conflict in this story of survival is between human beings and nature. Another central conflict, however, is that between youth and confidence as opposed to wisdom and experience. The main character is a young man who believes that he knows the frozen wilderness, but he is still a tenderfoot who has not yet learned to respect the power of nature. Jack London shows early in the story that the tenderfoot lacks imagination, an asset he sorely needs when tested to the extreme by the harsh wilderness.

The man’s egotism is in conflict with his common sense. He does not understand humankind’s frailty and is too proud to admit his own. He does not comprehend the danger posed by an alien, hostile environment in which he can only survive by the full exercise of his native wit, instincts, skill, and cunning. Before the coming of winter, the old-timer from Sulpher Creek had warned him that one should always travel in winter with a partner and that one should never attempt to travel alone in temperatures colder than fifty degrees below zero. In his ignorance, the tenderfoot had laughed at the old-timer’s advice. Caught in the bitter cold, he is made to realize the value of the old man’s warning.

The tenderfoot scorns other precautions. Once caught in the wilderness, for example, he realizes the value of having a partner. He realizes, moreover, that a facial strap would have protected him against frostbite. Still, he manages to build a fire after he has broken through the ice, and, his confidence momentarily revived, he laughs again at the old-timer. Ironically, the man is doomed by his egotism and his stupidity. When the fire goes out, he has second thoughts about his superiority.

The plot development is incremental as the tenderfoot’s dilemma gets more desperate and as he unwillingly learns his lesson. His absurd belief in himself and his ability to cope with the situation is retained until the very end. Although he refuses to give up hope, it becomes increasingly clear that he has lost touch with reality. “When he got back to the States,” he fantasizes, as he is freezing to death, “he could tell the folks what real cold was.” Ultimately the man will die and be survived by his dog. The animal, a creature of instinct untainted by pride, is better adapted to the environment than the man.


(Short Stories for Students)

‘‘To Build a Fire’’ is about an unnamed man who embarks on a nine-hour trek across the Klondike’s harsh winter landscape to meet his companions at a mining camp. Against the advice of an old-timer, the man makes the journey alone, except for a dog, and as a result of a series of disasters, he freezes to death before reaching camp. The man’s behavior and his ultimate fate highlight the story’s themes of survival in the wilderness, the individual versus nature, and death.

Survival in the Wilderness

Early in the story, it becomes clear that the odds are against the man’s chances of surviving in the Klondike wilderness. He is a chechaquo , or newcomer to the region, and has never before experienced its extreme winters. Further, he is ‘‘traveling light’’—on foot rather than by sled and carrying only a bacon sandwich, tobacco, matches, and some birch-bark kindling. What is more, he is outdoors in temperatures well below minus fifty degrees Fahrenheit. Although he has been warned never to travel ‘‘after fifty below’’ without a partner who can help him in emergencies, the man’s only companion on this trek is a half-wild husky—a ‘‘toil-slave’’ who has no affection for him. At the best of times the Klondike wilderness would seem alien to the newcomer because of its vast stretches of snow (‘‘as far as his eye could see it was unbroken white’’ except for the trail). As it is, the man travels with few supplies and without a partner in extreme cold. Under such conditions, it doesn’t matter that he is both ‘‘quick and alert’’ to his surroundings, for without someone to help him, his ‘‘bad...

(The entire section is 1,123 words.)