To Build a Fire
What’s Up With the Ending?
Then the man drowsed off into what seemed to him the most comfortable and satisfying sleep he had ever known. The dog sat facing him and waiting. The brief day drew to a close in a long, slow twilight. There were no signs of a fire to be made, and, besides, never in the dog's experience had it known a man to sit like that in the snow and make no fire. As the twilight drew on, its eager yearning for the fire mastered it, and with a great lifting and shifting of forefeet, it whined softly, then flattened its ears down in anticipation of being chidden by the man. But the man remained silent. Later the dog whined loudly. And still later it crept close to the man and caught the scent of death. This made the animal bristle and back away. A little longer it delayed, howling under the stars that leaped and danced and shone brightly in the cold sky. Then it turned and trotted up the trail in the direction of the camp it knew, where were the other food providers and fire providers. (42)
At the end of the story, the man decides that he's been acting shamefully by trying to make an impossible run for the camp. For the first time in the story, he's completely given himself to panic, but it's not long before he regains control and decides to die with dignity. Despite his blunder in traveling alone, you have to hand it to the guy for how well he handles his terrible situation. In this moment, he's perseverent, unflinching, and humble, too. He knows that he's relied too heavily on personal experience rather than instinct, and when it comes to the Yukon, you don't get the benefit of gaining wisdom when your first experience of something is also your last.
At the end of the story, the man also admits that the old-timer from Sulphur Creek was right about not traveling alone in such cold temperatures. He admits this very thing to the old-timer in a vision he has just before he dies. He also envisions himself coming to find his own body alongside his companions, "the boys," which might suggest that he has finally developed an imagination, which would have been handy a couple hours ago. Plus it suggests that he has finally admitted to the "trouble" that the narrator finds with him earlier in the story and has learned a valuable lesson in humility (albeit a little too late).
When the guy has died, his dog gets confused watching him lie in the snow. It knows something's wrong, and when it eventually smells that the guy is dead, it starts to howl. Now if the story ended on this note it might be sentimental, because you might think that the dog loved its owner and is in the process of mourning. But just as quickly as the dog starts to howl, it stops and heads onward to the camp, looking for a warm fire and food. It thinks of humans interchangeably as fire and food providers, thus confirming the book's unsentimental treatment of the man's death.
"Sorry, man. But a dog's gotta eat, and you're looking a little too frozen."