Study Guide

The Man in To Build a Fire

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The Man

The narrator says early in the story that the man is a chechaquo, which is a Chinook word for "newcomer." But that's not all. Apparently, the "trouble" with this guy is that he's "without imagination" (3). That means that he is "quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significance" (3). In other words, the guy knows it's cold, but the monstrously huge arctic winterscape surrounding him doesn't inspire any profound thoughts about the fragility of his life and all that jazz. As far as he's concerned, it's just really cold.

In that sense, we think the narrator's suggesting that the man could save himself if he had a little more appreciation for how tiny and weak he is compared to nature. Then again, maybe all the dude has to do is listen to the old-timer from Sulphur Creek, who told him never to travel alone when it's colder than fifty degrees below. But he didn't.

The man's goal is to reach "the boys," who are hanging out (and probably partying pretty hard) at the mining camp on Henderson Creek. The man really wants to get there so he'll have a nice warm fire and some bacon to throw onto his biscuits. You can tell he's not all that concerned about his appearance, because his chin is crusted over with an orange-brown beard made of frozen spit and tobacco juice. Hardly what you want to see on an online dating profile.

Don't Panic and Carry a Towel

The man might be a newcomer to the Klondike, but he's no greenhorn. If you look at London's earlier work, like The Call of the Wild, you find that the author usually draws a really clear line between people who are tough enough to survive in the arctic wild and people who've been too spoiled by the modern world. But the man in "To Build a Fire" lacks nothing in toughness.

Despite his "trouble," he is worthy of our admiration. He builds a fire when he needs to, and is extremely good at remaining calm in spite of the killer weather and the first couple of misfortunes that befall him. This is not just because he's ignorant. Rather, the narrator makes it very clear that the man is "keenly aware of his danger" (19). He just subscribes to the hitchhiker's guide's maxim: don't panic. Maybe the whole reason he croaks in the end is the fact that he forgot the towel.

Still, the man manages to greet each new setback (like, say, finding his fingers frozen stiff) by forcing himself to stay calm. It's only at the very end of his life that he starts to panic, and this episode doesn't last long. The man quickly scolds himself for running around like an insane yeti, and decides to face death with dignity because, really, what else is there? He also admits in a half-dream that the old-timer from Sulphur Creek was right, showing that in the end he's been humbled by the great white Yukon.

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