Study Guide

The Old-Timer from Sulphur Creek in To Build a Fire

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The Old-Timer from Sulphur Creek

This old guy once told the main character about how cold it can get in the Yukon wilderness—a tip that our man promptly ignores. In fact, when the main character first recalls this old man's advice, he remembers how "he had laughed at him at the time!" (15). Laughing at an older, more experienced man is something that proud men often do in traditional stories; but very rarely do they get away with it.

Throughout the story, the protagonist slowly realizes that he's in big trouble, and this dawning awareness is reflected in his changing attitude toward the old-timer: "the old-timer on Sulphur Creek had told him about [freezing feet], and now he was appreciating the advice" (20). This changing attitude reaches its final stage at the moment of the man's death, when he thinks about the old-timer and admits that this man was right about not traveling alone in such cold weather. He flat out says, "You were right, old hoss; you were right" and it's the only dialogue spoken in the entire story (41). Put that little trivia tidbit in your back pocket.

Unlike the main character, the old-timer from Sulphur Creek might be able to see beyond the surface of the world and appreciate the "significance" of things. He seems to have learned the great lesson of the north, which is that human beings are just tiny bags of flesh and blood competing against thousands of miles of rock and ice and snowy spruce trees. Earlier in the story, the main character thinks this old man (and other old men like him) can be a little too "womanish" (21). But as we find out later, the main character ends up dying largely because he has underestimated the old-timer's wisdom.

That leaves the final score at old-timer = 1, unnamed man = 0.

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