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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Describe the main character in "To Build a Fire".

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We do not know much about about the protagonist in "To Build a Fire." In fact, we do not even know his name and origin. We are only aware that he is a man that is unaccustomed to the nature of the Yukon, and that his intention is to meet up with some friends at a mining camp. Direct exposition tells us nothing else in direct regard to his character, but we can guess much based on his actions.

First, we understand that he is incredibly arrogant. He is directly warned by the experienced old-timer that the weather he is attempting to travel in is completely unsuitable. Despite his inexperience, however, he chooses not to listen to the warning, considering himself above the advice.

Second, we know that the man is completely out of touch with nature. The brazen confidence of the man is contrasted by the worry and fear of his dog, who is in touch with nature enough to know that traveling is a bad idea. In the end, nature defeats the man due to his underestimation of it. Even when he finally realizes the severity of his situation, he is powerless to change his scenario. He even betrays his dog by attempting to cut it open for warmth, but the cold has already taken the strength from his hands. He dies due to hypothermia, showing the ultimate price of his hubris.

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Jack London spent time in the Yukon looking for gold. These experiences enabled London to write his classic stories like “To Build a Fire.”  The setting of the story includes temperatures that often drop below 120 degrees below zero. With this kind of problem facing the main character, the conflict involves man versus nature.

The narration of the story is third person omniscient point of view. The protagonist is a newcomer.  The man has made a plan to travel to meet his friends at a mining camp some distance away.

By introducing his reader to the setting from the first sentence of the story, the story's tone is depressed and frightening. Isolated by an environment of frigid weather, the main character is completely unprepared mentally and physically for the challenges that he faces.

Key to the story is the old timer’s instructions that the man chose to ignore: “Do not travel in this kind of weather [50 degrees below zero] by yourself.” Thinking that he is more rugged than this experienced miner, he scoffs at the other man’s advice. Even the man’s companion, the large husky dog, instinctively knows that it is too cold to travel in this weather.

It is important to understand that this story is based on naturalism.  Nature is harsh; however, it does nothing to cause the man his problems because what happens to the man is his own fault. The natural world is not out to entrap the man.  It is nature. If the man chooses to challenge it, then it will be up to him to make the decisions that will get him through.

The man‘s personality is an important aspect of the story:

  • Intelligent-He prepares for his journey with matches and appropriate dress.  He knows that he must be careful.
  • Arrogant-He thinks that he knows more than the more experienced miners.
  • Confident-He believes that he can make the difficult trip through this terrible weather.
  • Alert-Observant, he realizes that he has lost the battle of the temperature.
  • Calm—The man maintains his cool and does not over react.
  • Ill-prepared-The newcomer makes foolish mistakes that cause him to lose his life.

As the man travels, two accidents occur that guarantees his fate.  He falls through ice  and gets his feet wet. Then, he makes his fire under a tree limb covered with snow.  When the snow melts, it falls on the fire and puts it out.  Then, the man cannot longer feel his hands or feet.

...before he could cut the strings of his shoes, it happened.  It is his own fault. He should not have built the fire under the spruce tree, it descended without warning upon the man and the fire, and the fire was blotted out!

Fearful of his death, the newcomer is determined to make it to the old claim. He begins to run in an attempt to get the blood circulating. His mind is racing with the realization that he is facing his own death. The newcomer makes another attempt but falls to the ground.

He even considers killing the dog and using its body to warm his own hands and feet.  The dog instinctively knows that something is not right and refuses to come close to the man.

In an effort to maintain dignity in death, the man sits down in the snow. The dog expecting a fire to be built waits for his master, the fire provider. Finally, the dog realizes that his master, who is no longer moving, has the scent of death upon him. The dog hurries away toward the camp where food and fire awaits him.

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Give a list of the main events that the character faces in "To Build a Fire" by Jack London.

"To Build A Fire" by Jack London employs the natural world of the Yukon in winter.  This is the conflict that the main character faces as he begins his journey to another mining camp.  

The protagonist shows his ignorant inexperience by ignoring the warnings of those more experienced than he.  The old timer warned him not to go  without a partner.  In his arrogance and inexperience, he feels that he can handle whatever comes.

His companion was a large husky dog.  With his many coats of hair and his instincts, the dog wonders why they are out in this weather. 

The temperature was somewhere between 50 -75 degrees below zero.  This made no impression on the man.  To him, the temperature just meant that he would be cold and uncomfortable.

As they two traveled through the white landscape, the man spat.  As soon as it left his mouth, it instantly froze, popped, and surprised the man.  

He was keenly observant of everything around him.  Unfortunately, he was unable to know exactly where to step, but for a while he was able to maintain his footing and not get his feet wet. 

At noon, he sat down to eat.  He tried but the ice muzzle of spit prevented him from taking a bite. Laughing to himself, he realized that he had not built a fire to warm up.  When he got up to build the fire, he discovered that he could not feel his legs or feet. 

He finally gathered the fire wood and built the fire. As he began to walk again, the worst thing that could happen did.  He fell through the ice halfway up to his knees. He would have to rebuild the fire and dry out his feet and boots. 

After some difficulty, he had the fire going again. He knows that if he does not dry out his feet, he will lose them.  Running will only make them freeze more in this kind of temperature. He believes that he is safe because the fire is blazing.  Then tragedy hits.

He had built the fire under a tree.  One of the limbs drops all of its snow on top of the fire, and puts it out.  Realizing how foolish it was to build the fire under the tree, he admits to himself that maybe the old timer knew what he was talking about. 

Hurrying to rebuild the fire, he attempts to gather more firewood. His hands have lost all feeling. He tries to light the first match. He does but drops it into the snow.  Finally, he lights the entire bunch of seventy matches and with no feelings in his hands,drops them into the snow. 

Desperate, he looks at the dog and thinks that if he kills the dog, he could warm himself in the insides of the dog. The dog does not trust the man and refuses to come up to him.  

There was no way that he could kill the dog because he could not hold the knife.  The man sits for a moment trying to calm himself.  He knows that it is likely that he will not survive.  

He could run, but he has no stamina.  

Several times he stumbled, and finally he tottered, crumpled up, and fell.  When he tried to rise, he failed. He must sit and rest, and next time he would merely walk and keep on going.  As he sat and regained his breath, he noted that he was feeling quite warm and comfortable.  Than the man drowsed off...

The dog observes the man and wonders why there is not fire.  He faces the man and waits but there is no reaction from him. The dog whined loudly and crept closer.  He smelled the scent of death.  The dog turns toward the trail and in the direction of the camp and fireproviders. 

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What are the man's character traits in Jack London's "To Build a Fire"?

The unnamed newcomer attempting to travel ten miles across Yukon wilderness in temperatures dropping to seventy-five degrees below zero is portrayed as an inexperienced, overconfident man. London illustrates the newcomer's lack of perspective and understanding of the dangerous environment by writing,

The trouble with him was that he was not able to imagine. He was quick and ready in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in their meanings. (2)

The fact that the newcomer is "quick" and "ready" emphasizes that he is rather careless and does not exercise good judgment. The newcomer's dog recognizes the dangerous situation and understands that they should not be traveling in these severe conditions. London once again directly characterizes the newcomer by writing,

He was not much of a thinker. At that moment he had nothing to think about except that he would eat lunch at the stream’s divide and that at six o’clock he would be in camp with the boys. (4)

The fact that newcomer is not much of a thinker reveals that he is in serious danger and foreshadows his fate. The newcomer does not take into consideration the temperature, dangerous natural elements, or distance of the journey. The newcomer's ignorance is a contributing factor that leads to his death. London also writes,

Empty as the man’s mind was of thoughts, he was most observant. (5)

Despite his ignorance and lack of understanding, the newcomer notices small changes in the natural environment and attempts to carefully traverse the frozen path without getting wet. Even though the newcomer is unfamiliar with the Yukon trial, he has some experience dealing with extremely cold temperatures and demonstrates his knowledge by immediately removing the ice from his dog's paws. London writes,

But the man knew these things, having learned them from experience. (6)

In addition to being unimaginative and ignorant, London portrays the newcomer as arrogant. After breaking through the ice and saving himself, London writes,

Well, here he was; he had had the accident; he was alone; and he had saved himself. Those old men were rather womanish, he thought. All a man must do was to keep his head, and he was all right. (9)

The newcomer demonstrates his arrogance by dismissing the advice from the old man on Sulphur Creek regarding the dangers of traveling alone in fifty below zero weather. After initially saving himself and successfully starting a fire, the newcomer arrogantly views the old man as "womanish."

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