When the story begins, we might assume that we are getting a peek at the thoughts of the unnamed man, who finds the day not just "cold and gray" but "exceedingly cold and gray" (1); but it is unclear whether these are his thoughts or the narrator's. The narrator describes the incredibly cold temperatures and the man's frozen face without much emotion or investment. It's really a toss-up to decide who cares less about the poor guy—the narrator or the wolf dog.
There's really only one time when the narrator seems surprised, and that's when an exclamation point is inserted after the falling snow from the tree has made sure that the man's fire is "blotted out!" (23). This could just reflect the man's shock, though, and not the narrator's concern. It might also be meant to shock us (and boy does it work). For the most part, though the narrator seems not to care one way or the other whether or not this guy dies, and wishes only to comment in a factual (sometimes downright preachy) way on what might have contributed to the his death.
In this story, Jack London puts a tragic spin on the classic tale of wilderness survival. The original 1902 version of this story was just straight-up adventure, with the man surviving because of his toughness and skill (although part of his face is missing, but hey, you can't win 'em all). In this later version, London decides to up the tragedy, having the man die because he is too proud to travel with a companion or listen to sage advice.
The only thing that really makes the story not seem like a tragedy is London's cold tone (no pun intended). Classic tragedy is usually pretty melodramatic and emo, but London's story lays out the facts in a straightforward manner, even at its most intense moments: "The man looked down at his hands in order to locate them, and found them hanging on the ends of his arms. It struck him as curious that one should have to use his eyes to find out where his hands were" (34). Really? You react to losing your hands with curiosity? Oh well, different strokes.
The story is also a quest of sorts, even though it's a colossal failure. Still, the man has a very clear goal toward which he strives in the face of all adversity. There's just that little snafu of him dying at the end. Quest? Failed.
Why does Jack London call this story "To Build a Fire" instead of "Building a Fire" or "The Importance of Fire"? Well for starters, it sounds a lot more poetic and nice. But the use of the infinitive "to build" (grammar nerd alert!) also makes the thought seem unfinished. Let's say someone walked up to you on the street and said, "To build a fire." You would stare at him or her and wonder, "Yes? What about it?"
The unfinished aspect of this title can actually convey a sense of yearning for fire that is unfulfilled, much like it is in the man's final attempt to save himself. After all, "To Build a Fire" in the frozen Yukon is one thing; to build a fire in the middle of a summer barbecue is another. By using such a simple title, London is able to make us reflect on how difficult a seemingly simple act can become when we change the setting behind it.
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."
You could definitely argue that along with our main man, the setting is the most important thing in this story. The story is set in the Yukon during the great Klondike Gold Rush, when over 100,000 people flocked to Canada's Yukon Territory in search of instant fortune. This mass migration brought a lot of young men into a very harsh wilderness, and a fair few of them had now idea how brutal their lives would become.
You can tell how important the setting is by how much London devotes himself to describing the cold wind and the ice crusting over the man's face: "The man's red beard and moustache were likewise frosted, but more solidly, the deposit taking the form of ice and increasing with every warm, moist breath he exhaled. Also, the man was chewing tobacco, and the muzzle of ice held his lips so rigidly that he was unable to clear his chin when he expelled the juice" (7). There's no way this story would be the classic it is if London wasn't so good at making you feel the chill of the air, and making you flex your hands to remind yourself you can still use them.
From the bubbling warm spring pools to the spruce tree that dumps snow onto the man's fire, the setting is constantly working against our man, whether it be through the "traps" of the hidden spring pools or the spruce that "capsize[s] its load of snow […] spreading out and enveloping the whole tree [until it] descend[s] without warning upon the man and the fire, and the fire [is] blotted out!" (23). The man tries his best to overcome nature, and actually does a pretty good job.
The setting is supposed to make not just a physical impression on us, but a spiritual and philosophical impression, too. It should take us out of our world of everyday comforts and remind us that somewhere out there is a harsh, unforgiving, and vast wilderness. From the very beginning, we learn that the day is not only "cold and gray," but "exceedingly cold and gray" (1), a permanent twilight with "no sun nor hint of sun, though there was not a cloud in the sky" (1). Sometimes, it can even seem like London's setting isn't even on the planet Earth, but some sort of frozen planet like Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back.
The narrator gives us a hint at how we should respond to this wilderness, suggesting that we should avoid the man's "trouble" by learning to appreciate our surroundings. Above all, we should allow ourselves to approach the Yukon setting with "imagination" (3). It should make us "meditate upon [our] frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man's frailty in general, able only to live within certain limits of heat and cold" and eventually take us into "the conjectural field of immortality and man's place in the universe" (3). But if you're not into all that heavy philosophical thinking, feel free to plow ahead into the Yukon wilderness with our main character, thinking only of biscuits and bacon. Just be prepared not to come out the other end.
For the most part, London's language is straightforward and easy to understand. But he does throw in a pretty long sentence every now and then. For example, the opening sentence of the story is thirty-nine words, and it might make you think the whole story is going to be a rough slog. But once you get used to its rhythm, the story unfolds fairly comfortably…
… for you, that is. Not for the main character.
The dispassionate tone might make you expect the writing to be bland, but London constructs sentences that give incredibly descriptive accounts of the setting and the main character's response to it. Just feast your eyes on this little jewel: "Day had broken cold and gray, exceedingly cold and gray, when the man turned aside from the main Yukon trail and climbed the high earth bank […] he paused for breath at the top, excusing the act to himself by looking at his watch" (1).
In terms of vocabulary, London is pretty easy to read. His ideas also flow in a logical way. If you look closely at this story (and we hope you do), you find that it's written in very neat paragraphs that are all similar in length. Some sentences can get a little long, but for the most part, London writes lines so punchy and compact they'd make Hemingway jealous.
Take for example the beginning of the story's second paragraph: "The man flung a look back along the way he had come. The Yukon lay a mile wide and hidden under three feet of ice. On top of this ice were as many feet of snow. It was all pure white, rolling in gentle undulations where the ice jams of the freeze-up had formed" (2). A big part of London's genius (and one of the reasons he's still so widely read) is that he really picks his spots when it comes to throwing out a million-dollar word. Yes, he might use a fancy term like "undulations," but he surrounds it with a whole bunch of one or two-syllable words to make its appearance much more effective.
In this case, fire obeys that old lit rule of thumb: if an object or thing appears in the title of a story, it's probably symbolic in some way. The presence of fire in this story represents life, and the absence of it shows that life is running out, as is the case when the man's fire gets blotted out by falling snow and he feels "as though he [has] just heard his own sentence of death" (24). A human needs fire in the arctic in the same way that one needs oxygen underwater. If it runs out, you're pretty much done for.
The man's struggle is a struggle against nature in which fire is the only natural thing in his corner. As the man puts it, "When it is seventy-five below zero, a man must not fail in his first attempt to build a fire—that is, if his feet are wet" (19). In an everyday situation, getting your feet wet might not seem like the end of the world. But when that happens in the frozen Yukon, it's not only building a fire that is important, but building one quickly. Whenever fire comes up in this story, you can always hear a tick-tock, tick-tock in the background—particularly when that fire gets snuffed.
Fire is also important because it highlights the difference between the man and his wolf dog. While the dog "yearn[s] back toward the fire," the man foolishly decides to keep moving toward his goal because he is "ignorant of cold, of real cold, of cold one hundred and seven degrees below freezing point" (16). In addition, the fire symbolizes the comfort the man hopes to achieve by making it to "the boys" at the camp, where "a fire [will] be going, and a hot supper [will] be ready" (4). The dog also yearns for this comfort, but doesn't think they need to go all the way to the camp to get it. "Just take out your matches and make one now!" it wants to shout at the man.
From the moment the man first takes off his mittens, you realize that his hands are going to be the star of the show. He tries to help his dog get ice off its feet, but is "astonished at the swift numbness" that strikes his fingers (13). At this early point in the story, his confused reaction shows you that he's not at all prepared to be traveling in such cold, and his hands will be the first to pay the price.
When his second fire gets put out by the snow falling from the spruce tree, the man recognizes that he's in deep trouble, and his failure to build a new fire is caused completely by the stiffening of his frozen fingers: "When he touched a twig, he had to look and see whether or not he had hold of it. The wires were pretty well down between him and his finger ends" (21). This image of fallen telephone wires helps convey just how drastically the harsh weather has shut down a vital part of the man's body that connects him to the world, just as a snowstorm would bring down telephone wires.
Much like the fire, the man's hands can mean the difference between life and death. By losing control of his hands, he is also unable to kill his dog and use its body to (wait for it…) warm his hands. Hands act as a sign of the man's prowess, his power. They are so important that he is even happy to feel pain in them, as long as he feels something: "After a time he was aware of […] a stinging ache that was excruciating, but which the man hailed with satisfaction" (27).
Ultimately, his hands and his fire meet in one final image of desperation, as he plunges his hands directly into burning flames: "His flesh was burning. He could smell it […] And still he endured, holding the flame of the matches clumsily to the bark that would not light readily because his own burning hands were in the way, absorbing most of the flame" (29). The pain is brutal, but the man understands that it's a matter of life and death, and holds them to the fire for as long as he can. Yet in the end, he loses both his hands and his life. In the most morbid of senses then, you could even say the man's life is in his hands. Just don't go stealing that phrase for the title of your next essay.
Throughout his literature, Jack London loves to write about dogs. He particularly loves to talk about dogs that are half-wolf because they symbolize the cross between civilization and wildness that characterizes the white north. Or at least, that's what he thought.
In Call of the Wild, London writes about a dog named Buck (although he isn't technically half-wolf) rediscovering his animal instinct in the Yukon after living a life of luxury on a California plantation. In the novel, Buck also forms a very close bond with a man named John Thornton.
But in "To Build a Fire," there "is no keen intimacy between the dog and the man" (16). The dog is just a "toil slave" that wants to be out of the cold, and it looks upon the man as a provider of food and fire, interchangeable with all the other humans who could provide these things. The man, on the other hand, is perfectly willing to use the dog's guts as a hand-warmer if he needs to. It's hardly the bromance of the century.
All we really know about the dog is that it follows at the man's heels and that it wants him to settle down somewhere and stay with a fire (which is a brilliant idea if you ask Shmoop). The dog obeys the man not only because he provides fire and food, but also because "the only caresses [the dog] had ever received were the caresses of the whiplash and of harsh and menacing throat sounds that threatened the whiplash" (16). In this quote, we are reminded that there is no love at all in the dog's obedience to the man, only violence and self-interest.
The wolf dog also symbolizes a connection to instinct, which lies in a "mysterious prompting that [arises] from the deep crypts of its being" (13). This is a knowledge that lies beyond the realm of human understanding—it's mysterious and primal. London describes as a form of awareness genetically inherited from one's animal ancestors: "But the dog knew [of true cold]; all its ancestry knew, and it had inherited the knowledge" (16). It's sort of like reincarnation, but a little more believable.
We are told again and again that the man is traveling across a gigantic shelf of ice more than three feet thick, and yet there are warm spring pools that "bubbl[e] out from the hillsides and [run] under the snow and on top of the ice of the creek" (11). They're there to remind us that the world beneath the man's feet is just as unpredictable and dangerous as the world above ground. In the face of so much cold, who would have thought that it'd be warm water bubbling up from the earth that creates the greatest danger? Situational irony, anyone?
And wouldn't you know it, it's his fateful fall through the ice that wets the man's feet and brings about the horrifying chain of events that will seal his Yukon doom (the worst kind of doom!). These pools complicate the cold and make every step potentially life threatening, because "to get his feet wet in such a temperature meant trouble and danger" (12). It's kind of like walking in a minefield, except instead of explosive devices, you've got equally deadly puddles of warm water, which, in any other situation might be kind of nice. It's really a shame the man can't get wet, because some of these warm spring pools sound like they'd make excellent hot tubs.
There are two main reasons the narrator of this story is omniscient instead of limited: first, the narrator not only tells us what the man is thinking, but contrasts it with what the dog is thinking, like in the following quote: "[The dog] knew that it was no time for traveling. Its instinct told it a truer tale than was told by the man's judgment" (6). Burn. Take that, unnamed man.
Second, the narrator shows its omniscience by actually stepping in and judging the man pretty harshly. It's not as bad as what you sometimes find in high school hallways, but still pretty judgmental. We get a clear idea of this in paragraph three, where the narrator tells us that "The trouble with [the man] was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significance" (3). The story would be quite different if the narrator didn't butt in on our reading like this. We might actually sympathize with the man a lot more. Instead, we get this pushy narrator telling us not to get too attached to this guy because he just might be a bit of an idiot.
The narrator is also the only thing that gives us an insight into the difference between the man and the dog's responses to the cold weather and nature in general: "To permit the ice to remain would mean sore feet. [The dog] did not know this. It merely obeyed the mysterious prompting that arose from the deep crypts of its being. But the man knew, having reached a judgment on the subject" (13). Passages like these show us why humans can be pretty pathetic compared to dogs, since while the man can "know" things, there's only so much he can be aware of through experience. The reason he winds up perishing in the arctic tundra is because when it comes to traveling in seventy-five below zero, you might only get one shot at survival, with no experience to rely on. Only instinct can save you.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.