To Build a Fire
by Jack London
Analysis: Plot Analysis
Most good stories start with a fundamental list of ingredients: the initial situation, conflict, complication, climax, suspense, denouement, and conclusion. Great writers sometimes shake up the recipe and add some spice.
Exposition (Initial Situation)
Biscuits, Bacon, and the Boys
The man starts out with only a slight awareness of how cold it is. He wants to get to the mining camp at Henderson Creek so he can whip his biscuits out of his sweaty shirt and fill them with greasy bacon. Yum! Plus is buddies are waiting for him there, keeping the fire warm. There's a dog walking at his heels, and only the dog seems to realize how crazy cold it is. The narrator in these early scenes is very (perhaps overly) expository in its direct commentary on the man's "trouble" (3), insisting before the story's even underway that the man is "without imagination" (3). Way to let us decide for ourselves, dear narrator.
As the plot unfolds, our main man becomes a little more aware of the sting in his cheeks, although he's not exactly quick on the uptake. When the man stops to build a fire and eat his lunch, he chuckles (that's right, chuckles) when his fingers go numb. Then he takes out his pipe and sits there in the warmth of his fire, thinking about how great he is. Meanwhile, the dog continues to have its doubts about traveling on such a cold day, and it doesn't want to leave the fire when the man gets up to keep walking.
All this exposition tells us that this is a guy who's keenly unaware of his surroundings, while his canine companion totally knows what's up. That sets us up for what can only be coming down the pike: consequences for this guy's hubris in the face of good ol' Mama Nature.
Rising Action (Conflict, Complication)
Uh-Oh, My Feet Are Wet
The man gets his legs wet and curses his luck, knowing that he'll be delayed an hour while he stops to build another fire and dry his boots. He succeeds in building another fire, but his fingers are getting too cold to bend or feel anything. When his next attempt similarly fails (thanks to some poor planning on his part), the man's really in it now.
Soon enough, sheer panic starts to rise up in him, and we readers are on the edge of our seats. He manages to calm his fears and take another stab at building a fire, but when that attempt fails, we know this is going nowhere good, and it's going fast. It's called dread, ladies and gentlemen, and we're feeling it.
Climax (Crisis, Turning Point)
Come here, Doggie
Now that the man knows he can't make another fire, he becomes more desperate. He looks to his dog and decides to warm his hands by killing the thing and plunging his hands into its warm guts. But after tackling the dog, he realizes that he has no way of killing it without his hands. So he has to let it go. In a final act of desperation, he takes off running for the camp, but eventually gives up.
The Old-Timer's Revenge
The man lies down in the snow and allows himself to slowly freeze to death, which he experiences as a drifting off into sleep. As he drifts away, he can see himself among his friends, the boys, walking down the creek from the camp and finding his own body. Then he finds himself inside a warm room with the old-timer from Sulphur Creek, and he admits out loud that the old-timer was right about not traveling alone on such a cold day. After making this admission, the man dies. But hey, at least he learned his lesson.
Man's Best Friend?
After the man has floated off to a frosty death, his dog waits for a while, confused at the sight of a human sitting in the snow without a fire. But when it smells death on the man, the dog howls for a few moments. Then it eventually trots off toward the camp, where it knows it will find food and a fire. Not exactly the most loyal dog in the world, but he's a survivor.