To Build a Fire by Jack London

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Overview

Jack London's short story "To Build a Fire" is about a newcomer to the Yukon who travels out into the extreme cold with only his dog for company, despite warnings that it is too dangerous.

  • After traveling a satisfactory distance from his starting point, the man decides to rest and eat. After lunch, he 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. By this time, the man's fingers have become frostbitten, and he's unable to build himself another fire. His dog watches dispassionately as he dies.

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Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“To Build a Fire” is an adventure story of a man’s futile attempt to travel across ten miles of Yukon wilderness in temperatures dropping to seventy-five degrees below zero. At ten o’clock in the morning, the unnamed protagonist plans to arrive by lunchtime at a camp where others are waiting. Unfortunately, unanticipated complications make this relatively short journey impossible. By nine o’clock that morning, there is no sun in the sky, and three feet of snow has fallen in this desolate Yukon area. Despite the gloomy, bitter, numbing cold, the man is not worried, even though he has reason to worry. At first he underestimates the cold. He knows that his face and fingers are numb, but he fails to realize the seriousness of his circumstances until later in the story. As the story unfolds, the man gets progressively more worried about the situation. At first, he is simply aware of the cold; then be becomes slightly worried; finally, he becomes frantic.

His only companion is his wolf-dog. The animal, depressed by the cold, seems to sense that something awful might occur because of the tremendously low temperatures. The dog is frightened, and its behavior should show the man that he has underestimated the danger.

At ten o’clock, the man believes that he is making good time in his journey by traveling four miles an hour. He decides to stop and rest. His face is numb, and his cheeks are frostbitten. He begins to wish that he had foreseen the danger of frostbite and had gotten a facial strap for protection. He tells himself that frostbitten cheeks are never serious, merely painful, as a way to soothe himself psychologically and force himself not to worry about the cold. He knows the area and realizes the danger of springs hidden beneath the snow, covered only by a thin sheet of ice. At this point, the character is very concerned about these springs but underestimates the danger. Getting wet would only delay him, for he would then have to build a fire to dry off his feet and clothes. Every time he comes on a suspected trap, he forces the dog to go ahead to see if it is safe. He begins to feel increasingly nervous about the cold.

By twelve o’clock, he is still far away from his camp and anticipates getting there by six o’clock, in time for dinner. He is pleased with his progress, but, in reality, he is simply reassuring himself that there is no need to worry. He decides to stop and eat lunch, a lunch he had planned to eat with his friends at the camp. His fingers are so numb that he cannot hold his biscuit. He reflects back to the time when he had laughed at an old man who had told him how dangerous cold weather could be. He now realizes that perhaps he had reason to worry and that he had forgotten to build a fire for warmth. He carefully builds a fire, thaws his face, and takes “his comfortable time over a smoke.” Then he decides that he should begin walking again. The fire has restored his confidence, but the dog wants to stay by the warmth and safety of the fire.

The man’s face soon becomes frozen again as he resumes his journey. Lulled into a false sense of security by the fire, he has become less and less aware of his surroundings and steps into a hidden spring, which wets him to his waist. His immediate reaction is anger because he will be...

(The entire section is 2,370 words.)