To Build a Fire by Jack London

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What happens in To Build a Fire?

A chechaquo (newcomer) to the Yukon territory foolishly ventures out into the cold despite warnings not to. He plans to meet his friends at the next human settlement by six o'clock that night. He is accompanied by a wolf-dog, a husky, that feels no affection for him.

  • The naive newcomer ignores the warnings of an old-timer in Sulphur Creek who says it's too cold to travel. Even the man's dog is reluctant to venture out into the snow.

  • The man has brought a lunch of bacon and biscuits with him. He builds a small fire and sits down to eat, pleased with the distance he has traveled. After lunch, the man falls through a thin patch of ice. He knows that he'll freeze to death if he doesn't dry his feet, so he tries to build a fire.

  • Unfortunately, a pile of snow fall on the fire, putting it out. By this time, the man's fingers have become frostbitten, and he's unable to build himself another fire. The wolf-dog watches dispassionately as the man dies. Alone, the dog heads to the next camp to seek warmth and shelter.

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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...

(The entire section is 2,370 words.)