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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Significant Motifs

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Last Updated on July 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 958

Cold: In its omnipresence and destructiveness, the cold temperature functions as the antagonist of the story, creating the conflict the protagonist must overcome. The narrator’s descriptions of the climate—and the man’s initial nonchalance—create dramatic irony, foreshadowing the man’s demise. 

  • “Day had broken cold and grey, exceedingly cold and grey, when the man turned aside from the main Yukon trail . . .” 
  • “Fifty degrees below zero meant eighty odd degrees of frost. Such a fact impressed him as being cold and uncomfortable, and that was all. It did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature . . .” 
  • “That man from Sulphur Creek had spoken the truth when telling how cold it sometimes got in the country. And he had laughed at him at the time! That showed one must not be too sure of things. There was no mistake about it, it was cold.” 
  • “When it is seventy-five below zero, a man must not fail in his first attempt to build a fire—that is, if his feet are wet. . . . the circulation of wet and freezing feet cannot be restored by running when it is seventy-five below. No matter how fast he runs, the wet feet will freeze the harder.”

Fire: From its first appearance in the title to its final mention in the last line of the story, fire is a potent symbol. It represents hope, life, and survival. Fire directly correlates with the man’s physical and emotional state, and fire is fundamental to the relationship between the man and his dog. 

  • “He would be in to camp by six o’clock; a bit after dark, it was true, but the boys would be there, a fire would be going, and a hot supper would be ready.” 
  • “. . . he would have to build a fire and dry out his foot gear. This was imperative at that low temperature—he knew that much; and he turned aside to the bank, which he climbed.” 
  • “But he was safe. Toes and nose and cheeks would be only touched by the frost, for the fire was beginning to burn with strength. He was feeding it with twigs the size of his finger. In another minute he would be able to feed it with branches the size of his wrist, and then he could remove his wet foot-gear, and, while it dried, he could keep his naked feet warm by the fire. . . . The fire was a success. He was safe.” 
  • “He worked methodically, even collecting an armful of the larger branches to be used later when the fire gathered strength. And all the while the dog sat and watched him, a certain yearning wistfulness in its eyes, for it looked upon him as the fire-provider, and the fire was slow in coming.” 
  • “There were no signs of a fire to be made, and, besides, never in the dog’s experience had it known a man to sit like that in the snow and make no fire. As the twilight drew on, its eager yearning for the fire mastered it . . . A little longer it delayed, howling under the stars that leaped and danced and shone brightly in the cold sky. Then it turned and trotted up the trail in the direction of the camp it knew, where were the other food-providers and fire-providers.” 

Hands: Naturalist writing often confronts an individual’s ability to assert free will in the face of an environment outside of her control. In “To Build a Fire,” the man’s free will is directly associated with his ability to use his hands. His hands act as a barometer, revealing his fluctuating chances of survival. 

  • “. . . he removed the mitten from his right hand and helped tear out the ice-particles. He did not expose his fingers more than a minute, and was astonished at the swift numbness that smote them. It certainly was cold. He pulled on the mitten hastily, and beat the hand savagely across his chest.” 
  • “His wet feet froze the faster, and his exposed fingers numbed the faster, though they had not yet begun to freeze. Nose and cheeks were already freezing, while the skin of all his body chilled as it lost its blood.” 
  • “Suddenly he bared both hands, removing the mittens with his teeth. He caught the whole bunch between the heels of his hands. His arm-muscles not being frozen enabled him to press the hand-heels tightly against the matches. Then he scratched the bunch along his leg. It flared into flame, seventy sulphur matches at once! . . . His flesh was burning. He could smell it. Deep down below the surface he could feel it. The sensation developed into pain that grew acute. And still he endured it, holding the flame of the matches clumsily to the bark that would not light readily because his own burning hands were in the way, absorbing most of the flame.” 
  • “He would kill the dog and bury his hands in the warm body until the numbness went out of them. Then he could build another fire.” 
  • “The man looked down at his hands in order to locate them, and found them hanging on the ends of his arms. It struck him as curious that one should have to use his eyes in order to find out where his hands were. He began threshing his arms back and forth, beating the mittened hands against his sides. He did this for five minutes, violently, and his heart pumped enough blood up to the surface to put a stop to his shivering. But no sensation was aroused in the hands. . . . A certain fear of death, dull and oppressive, came to him.” 

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