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.

Summary

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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...

(The entire section contains 897 words.)

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