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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So you’re going to teach Jack London’s “To Build a Fire.” Whether it’s your first or hundredth time, London's short story has been a mainstay of English classrooms for generations. While it presents challenging material—the cruel indifference of nature, the flaw of excessive masculine pride—teaching this text to your class will be rewarding for you and your students. Studying “To Build a Fire” will give them unique insight into naturalism, perseverance, and important themes surrounding free will, tragedy, and the enduring human instinct to survive. This guide highlights some of the most salient aspects of the text before you begin teaching.

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Facts at a Glance

  • Publication Date: 1908 
  • Recommended Grade Level: 7-9 
  • Approximate Word Count: 7, 200 
  • Author: Jack London 
  • Country of Origin: United States 
  • Genre: Tragedy, Adventure 
  • Literary Period: Realism, Naturalism 
  • Conflict: Person vs. Person, Person vs. Nature, Person vs. Self 
  • Narration: Third-Person Omniscient 
  • Setting: Yukon Territory, Canada, Turn of the 20th Century 
  • Structure: Short Story 
  • Mood: Tense, Cold, Dispassionate

Texts that Go Well with “To Build a Fire”

The Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1906) are both full-length novels by Jack London that explore similar thematic and geographical terrain as “To Build a Fire.” Both are set in the Yukon Territory during the Klondike Gold Rush and cast dogs as central characters, a narrative choice that allows London to widen his scope beyond merely human affairs. 

The Giver (1993) by Lois Lowry is a futuristic dystopian novel set in a society where everything from a citizen’s career to their spouse is designated by the central government. The novel follows Jonas, a twelve-year-old boy who is selected to carry the collective memories of his community. As Jonas realizes the drawbacks of living in an authoritarian society, he decides to leave his community and survive in the cold, bleak environment that lies beyond. 

The Grapes of Wrath (1939) by John Steinbeck is another iconic example of naturalism. Set during the Great Depression, The Grapes of Wrath follows the Joad family as they leave their home in the Midwest and travel to California in hopes of finding jobs and a prosperous life. The Grapes of Wrath considers the capacity for humans to be both cruel and kind in the wake of economic and environmental catastrophe. 

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is a 2008 novel set in a dystopian nation wherein the government mandates a yearly survival competition between representatives from each of its districts. When her younger sister is selected as the female representative from her district, teenager Katniss Everdeen volunteers to fight in her place. Like “To Build a Fire,” The Hunger Games explores perseverance and the human will to survive as central topics. 

Into Thin Air is author Jon Krakauer’s 1997 memoir about climbing Mount Everest. The story covers Krakauer’s personal motivation for the climb, the commercialization of the endeavor, and the unexpected storm that leads to eight fatalities near the mountain’s summit. Detailing the human experience of extreme climates in the technologically modern age, Into Thin Air captures the everlasting brutality of the natural world. 

“The Snows of Kilimanjaro” by Ernest Hemingway is a 1936 short story that considers a man’s last moments of life. Whereas “To Build a Fire” features a protagonist whose mind is free from thought, the protagonist in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” experiences visions of his past and of an imagined future as he lays dying of gangrene.

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Key Plot Points