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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In "To Build a Fire," why did the second fire fail?

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You would do well to read the story - this is an excellent and, in some ways, terrifying story that pits man against Nature and with Nature easily winning and showing its might and strength against the pitiful arrogance of the man. Let us remember the reason why the man is trying to light a second fire - he has fallen through thin ice and desperately and urgently needs to light a fire to dry his moccasins and shoes and socks and warm his feet. Failure to do this effectively and efficiently could result in death at worst or frostbite and amputation at best. However, the man's mistake leads to the quenching of the flames and sets off a series of cause and effects that results in the man's death:

It was his own fault, or, rather, his mistake. He should not have built the fire under the spruce tree. he should have built it in the open. But it had been easier to pull the twigs from the bush and drop them directly on the fire. Now the tree under which he had done this carried a weight of now on its boughs. No wind had blown it for weeks, and each bough was fully freighted. Each time he had pulled a twig he had communicated a slight agitation, so fare as he was concerned, but an agitation sufficient to bring about the disaster. High up in the tree one bough capsized its load of snow. This fell on the boughs beneath, capsizing them. This process continued... it grew like an avalanche, and it descended without warning upon the man and the fire, and the fire was blotted it!

Thus by taking the "easy" option and the quicker option of building a fire beneath the spruce tree, the man has ensured that the fire would be quenched by the snow that fell when he was picking up the wood from the base of the tree. Again, he has shown himself to be not wise enough to brave the dangers of Nature, and will pay the price.

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In "To Build a Fire," how did the second fire go out?

The man has little trouble building the first fire.

Working carefully from a small beginning, he soon had a roaring fire, over which he thawed the ice from his face and in the protection of which he ate his biscuits. 

But later on he breaks through the snow-covered ice into a spring and wets himself halfway to his knees. He is forced to build a second fire, a process which the author Jack London describes in more detail. For a short time the man feels safe and comfortable. His dog also enjoys the warmth of the fire with him. But then the man realizes that he had made a serious mistake--a chechaquo mistake. He had built his fire under a big spruce tree that was heavily shrouded in snow. His pulling twigs off the tree and nearby brush had created enough agitation to upset the extremely precarious balance of snow on the branches of the spruce tree all the way up to the top. Also the heat from his fire must have had some effect in shifting the snow on the heavily laden branches.

It was his own fault or, rather, his mistake. He should not have built the fire under the spruce tree. He should have built it in the open....High up in the tree one bough capsized its load of snow. This fell on the boughs beneath, capsizing them. This process continued, spreading out and involving the whole tree. It grew like an avalanche, and it descended without warning upon the man and the fire, and the fire was blotted out! Where it had burned was a mantle of fresh and disordered snow.

Now the man is in serious trouble and is becoming badly frightened. When he tries to build a third fire out in the open away from the trees, his hands have become so frozen that he cannot light his matches. Jack London again describes the man's efforts to build a fire, but in the end the man ignites all his wooden matches at once and is still unable to keep the pitiful little fire going. Eventually he freezes to death in the snow and his dog abandons him.

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In "To Build a Fire," what causes the second fire to go out?

Arrogance. If you read the story carefully, the reason why the second fire went out, and really the reason why the second fire had to be lit in the first place, is pure arrogance. A key theme of this story is how dangerous taking nature for granted really is as we are presented with an unnamed protagonist who tries to battle through the deep Alaskan winter and fails dreadfully, resulting in his death. If he had had more respect and understanding of nature and his place in it, he would not have died.

However, the second fire specifically goes out because the protagonist had made it underneath a spruce tree which was covered with snow. As he pulled out twigs to start the fire, the snow was disturbed until finally the snow that was on the top bough fell, causing a mini-avalanche as it hit the other lower-down branches and extinguishing the fire:

It grew like an avalanche, and it descended without warning upon the man and the fire, and the fire was blotted out!

Thus it was the lack of thinking and foresight of the man in placing the fire under the spruce tree rather than in the open that resulted in its becoming extinguished.

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