Here's the sitch:
A guy and his dog want to make tracks to a mining camp so they can sit beside a warm fire and chow down on bacon and biscuits. There's just one little problem: they've got at least nine hours of hiking ahead of them, and it's minus seventy-five degrees Fahrenheit.
So yeah, it's really cold.
Like many of his stories, Jack London's "To Build a Fire" takes place in the snowy world of the Yukon, where it's so cold your spit freezes before it even hits the ground. Jack London spent a very influential part of his young life mining for gold in the arctic north, and returned to the States a changed man. He was certain that civilization and its modern conveniences had turned everyone (and men in particular) into a bunch of wimps down south. And he felt that people needed to reconnect with their animal instincts if they wished to remain strong against the pampering forces of the modern world. The Yukon seemed like a really good place to do that. (It also seemed like a really good place to get your hands on some gold.)
That said, the protagonist of "To Build a Fire" is no wimp. In fact, he's pretty darn tough. But the guy is a little too confident, and as the narrator of the story remarks, he doesn't really appreciate the significance of the things around him. He is, in short, shortsighted. So this story is a parable of sorts about how it takes more than toughness to survive in the Yukon, with a larger lesson about the merits of humility and preparedness tacked on.
Published in 1908, "To Build a Fire" is a rewrite of (and huge improvement on) an earlier story that appeared in a boy's adventure magazine in 1902 and had a wildly different ending. Around this time, American readers couldn't get enough of literature that was based on the Klondike Gold Rush, which occurred when the discovery of gold led more than 100,000 people to flock to Canada's Yukon Territory between 1897 and 1899. Jack London was a part of all of this hullabaloo, and it made its way into much of his fiction.
From the get-go, the revised 1908 version of this story was a hit. Up until 1980, it was almost impossible to find a high school literary textbook that didn't include it. Nowadays it's fallen off the radar a bit, but we think it deserves a spot front and center in the American literary canon because, as writer Timothy Egan says, it's "one of the best short stories ever" (source). 'Nough said, no?
After facing the brutal chill of life as a gold prospector in the Yukon, a 21-year-old Jack London decided that all of our fancy modern conveniences were making our lives a little too easy. And that was more than a hundred years ago. Today, you can picture him as that old man who likes to rant about how much tougher and more resourceful folks were back in the good ol' days when he walked twelve miles to school in the snow.Yeah, that's not exactly Santa Claus.
But in the end, Jack has a good point to make, especially for our super-techno modern world filled with laptops, cell phones, tablets, and hundreds of other convenient-yet-somehow-always-out-of-battery things. By confronting us with the brutal power of nature, London reminds us that there's a world out there that doesn't care about our fancy gadgets and modern achievements—a world where we can never take survival for granted, let alone internet access.
In much of his fiction, London tries to take his readers on the same journey he took to the Yukon when he was a young man, and he wants this journey to affect people as strongly as it did him. In "To Build a Fire," we have a main character whose hands get so frozen he has to try and light a fire by holding a match between his wrists. By exploring every brutal detail of this man's struggle with the Arctic wilderness, London reminds us that no matter how cushy we feel inside our homes and malls, there is a brutal nature out there, just waiting to get its hands on us. We might never have to face it head-on ourselves, but it's still out there, and it can make all of our comforts and conveniences seem pretty shallow by comparison.
At the very least, the story gives us a pretty great lesson in toughness and perseverance. The next time we feel like whining about homework or exams, we might just say to ourselves, "Well, at least I can still feel my fingers!"