To Build a Fire Summary

"To Build a Fire" by Jack London is a 1908 story about a newcomer to the Yukon who travels through the extreme cold with his dog, despite warnings that it is too dangerous.

  • The man falls through a thin patch of ice. Knowing that he'll freeze to death if he doesn't dry his feet, he tries to build a fire.

  • Just as the man gets the fire burning, a pile of snow falls from an overhanging tree, putting it out. The man's fingers have become frostbitten, and he cannot build another fire. The dog watches as he dies.

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Last Updated on May 22, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 897

To Build a Fire” is a naturalist short story by Jack London which follows an unnamed man and a dog as they hike through the bitterly cold forests along the Yukon River in Canada. The story takes place over the course of one day. It begins at nine o’clock in the morning, when the man stands overlooking the trail, estimating that he will arrive at camp at six o’clock that evening. He continues to walk towards his destination and is unbothered by the cold, which—unbeknownst to him—has reached −75°F. The cold worries the dog, who senses danger.

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They make their way to a divide in the stream, where the man has decided he will eat his lunch. On the way, he is careful to test the ice he is walking on in case it is thin and causes him to fall through into the freezing water. At one point, he makes the dog walk ahead to test the ice, pushing it forward when it hesitates. The dog falls through. As the man helps the dog to remove the ice from its paws, he is surprised to notice that his own hands are numb, and hits them against his leg to restore feeling in them.

At half-past twelve, they arrive at the creek’s divide and stop to eat lunch and warm themselves by a fire. The man thinks back to how he had laughed when being warned about the cold temperatures of the region, but he doesn’t dwell on the coldness. As he sets off once again to resume the hike, the dog is reluctant to leave the warmth of the fire.

After approximately half an hour of walking, the man suddenly falls through ice, which soaks him up to his knees. He decides to build another fire to dry himself. He works carefully, aware that he must succeed on his first try or risk losing his fingers and toes to the frost. Once the fire has started, he begins to remove his shoes. Suddenly, a branch above his head moves, dropping snow onto the fire and extinguishing it. He berates himself for being so foolish as to build the fire directly under a tree, and he starts to build a new fire in an open space.

While gathering the new materials, the man’s hands grow increasingly numb. Realizing that he cannot grasp pieces of bark to start the fire, he starts to swing his arms and eventually regains some feeling in his fingers. In the short amount of time it takes him to take out a pack of matches from his pocket, his bare hands become numb again, and he accidentally drops the whole pack into the snow.

Now aware of the danger he faces as he becomes increasingly cold, the man carefully maneuvers the matches into his hands and manages to get a single match between his teeth. After dropping the first one, he drags another across his leg, and succeeds in lighting it after much effort. Holding the match up to the tree bark, the smell of the smoke goes up his nose and causes him to cough and drop the match into the snow.

Drawing the whole pack against his leg, all seventy matches suddenly light at the same time, and start to burn his hand. The man endures this because it restores feeling in his hand, which then develops into pain. Once the bark has caught the flame, he drops the matches and begins building a fire with any materials he can find. A large piece of wet moss falls onto the fire. Shaking from the cold, the man tries to push it away, but inadvertently scatters the entire structure, causing all of the matchsticks to extinguish.

The dog watches this anxiously, because it relies on the man for the warmth of a fire. Looking at the dog, the man decides to kill it and use its body heat to restore the feeling in his hands, after which he might build another fire. The dog senses that something is wrong by the man’s tone of voice and moves away from him. Sitting in the snow, the man manages to call the dog over to him and traps it in his arms. Realizing that he cannot kill the dog—without any feeling in his hands, he cannot wield a knife or strangle the dog—the man frees it.

Desperate, he begins to run along the trail towards the camp. This warms him, but he almost falls several times and lacks the stamina to continue when he eventually does fall into the snow. He realises that he feels warm but numb and that his body is increasingly freezing. In a panic, the man resumes running, and the dog follows at his heels.

The man falls once again, and this time he does not try to get up. Feeling an overwhelming sense of calm, the man accepts his inevitable death and imagines himself with his friends (“the boys”) as they find his body the next day. He thinks back to the man at Sulphur Creek, who warned him against travelling alone in such extreme conditions. The dog watches as he eventually dies, and it howls. Eventually, it runs away from the body and towards the camp, where it knows there are other people to provide food and fire.

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