Study Guide

To Build a Fire Quotes

  • Primitivity

    At the man's heels trotted a dog, a big native husky, the proper wolf dog, gray-coated and without any visible or temperamental difference from its brother the wild wolf. The animal […] knew that it was no time for traveling. Its instinct told it a truer tale than the man's judgment. (6)

    The dog is not fully domesticated, which means that it's a lot closer to wild than say, a golden retriever. This isn't some dog to walk down the street on a leash. This thing might do what you want it if you crack a whip enough times, but it's not going to be your buddy. More importantly, the dog's primitive instincts give it an awareness of the wilderness that is superior or "more truthful" than the man's fancy-pants sense of judgment.

    The dog did not know anything about thermometers. Possibly in its brain there was no sharp consciousness of a condition of very cold such as in the man's brain. But the brute had its instinct. (6)

    The dog's instinct goes beyond the measurements of human thermometers, which are basically just something we've made up to communicate coldness to one another. From instinct's point of view, there's nothing really true about the measurements of thermometers. They are simply an arbitrary, meaningless way of talking about coldness, which pretty much speaks for itself when your spit freezes midair.

    [The dog] experienced a vague but menacing apprehension that subdued it and made it slink along at the man's heels, and that made it question eagerly every unwonted movement of the man as if expecting him to go into camp or to seek shelter somewhere and build a fire. The dog had learned fire, and it wanted fire, or else to burrow under the snow and cuddle its warmth away from the air. (6)

    Even though the dog relies mostly on instinct, it's still capable of learning from its experiences. For example, the dog probably wasn't born liking fire, but after being with the man for a while, it has learned that fire can make it comfortable on such a cold day.

    Once, coming around a bend [in the creek], he shied abruptly, like a startled horse, curved away from the place where he had been walking, and retreated several paces back along the trail. (11)

    This quote probably comes closer than any other to suggesting that the man has an awareness of his surroundings that might sometimes resemble animal instinct. The comparison with a horse is very telling here, for it is really the only exception to the clear line that the narrator draws between human judgment and animal instinct.

    Usually the snow above the hidden pools had a sunken, candied appearance that advertised the danger. Once again, however, he had a close call; and once, suspecting danger, he compelled the dog to go on in front. (13)

    The narrator shows here that our man is actually a pretty clever dude. He makes the dog go ahead of him at this moment; but it is important to remember that after he has had his lunch, the man neglects to take the same precaution, and ends up breaking through the ice himself. Perhaps if he'd used the dog the whole way down the creek, he might have avoided the event that would lead to his death.

    [The dog] dropped down in the snow and began to bite out the ice that had formed between [its] toes. This was a matter of instinct. To permit the ice to remain would mean sore feet. It 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, and he removed the mitten from his right hand and helped to tear out the ice particles. (13)

    The dog and the man realize that they need to get the ice off the dog's feet. The dog knows this because of the primitive instincts that speak "from the deep crypts of its being" and the man knows this because he has "reached a judgment on the subject." Even the man is capable of learning what to do in such a situation, while the wolf dog has inherited this knowledge from its instinct, which for London is a deeper form of awareness than human judgment—and certainly a more reliable one.

    The dog was disappointed [that the man was leaving] and yearned back toward the fire. This man did not know cold. Possibly all the generations of his ancestry had been ignorant of cold, of real cold, of cold one hundred and seven degrees below freezing point. But the dog knew; all its ancestry knew, and it had inherited the knowledge. (16)

    Instinct is specifically a kind of primitive knowledge that gets passed down from generation to generation in a species. It's a DNA thing (not that they knew what DNA was back then). The man has lost his instincts when it comes to dealing with the cold because too many generations of his ancestors have lived in more comfortable temperatures. The dog, though, has inherited this knowledge from its ancestors right up until the present day.

    The blood of his body recoiled before [the cold]. The blood was alive, like the dog, and like the dog it wanted to hide away and cover itself up from the fearful cold. (20)

    There is something in the man that is similar to the dog's instinct, which expresses itself in his (the man's) very blood when he's pushed to extremes.

  • Foolishness and Folly

    He was a newcomer to the land, a chechaquo, and this was his first winter. The trouble with him was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only the things, and not in the significance. (3)

    The man is a newcomer to the Yukon. The narrator uses a Native American (Chinook) word to describe him, suggesting that the narrator is more knowledgeable about the Yukon than the man. The narrator then builds on this narrative distance by pronouncing judgment on the man before we've even had a chance to see him in action and judge for ourselves. What is all this about the man's trouble? Why should we care if he doesn't appreciate the significance of things? What's wrong with just wanting biscuits and bacon? Biscuits and bacon are delicious.

    Fifty degrees below meant eighty-odd degrees of frost. Such fact impressed him as being cold and uncomfortable, and that was all. It did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man's frailty in general, able only to live within certain narrow limits of heat and cold; and from there it did not lead him to the conjectural field of immortality and man's place in the universe. (3)

    This quote builds on the narrator's earlier claim that the man doesn't appreciate the significance of things. Only here there's a connection between the man's lack of imagination and the fact that he might be foolishly endangering himself in the frozen Yukon. The man's inability to appreciate the significance of things makes him mistake the difference between fifty degrees below zero and seventy-five, a difference that might be enough to cost him his life.

    The furrow of the old sled trail was plainly visible, but a dozen inches of snow covered the marks of the last runners. In a month no man had come up or down that silent creek. The man held steadily on. He was not much given to thinking, and just then particularly he had nothing to think about save that he would eat lunch at the forks and that at six o'clock he would be in camp with the boys. (9)

    This passage shows us the man's thought process at work. He's not dumb, for starters. He can very keenly see that no one has traveled along the creek in some time. But his mind does not draw any conclusions from this, such as: hey, maybe this means I shouldn't be traveling today. Time and again, the man shows very clear perception, but then foolishly neglects to draw a helpful conclusion from it.

    He did not expose his fingers more than a minute, and was astonished at the swift numbness that smote them. It certainly was cold. He pulled on the mitten hastily, and beat the hand savagely across his chest. (13)

    The man continues to be surprised by how cold it is. As readers, we don't know what to make of this, since we might expect a newcomer to the Yukon to be much wimpier. We expect someone who's used to the cold to not mind it so much. But this man seems not to pay much attention to anything. His brain seems to be missing the part that draws wider conclusions from isolated pieces of information (kind of like the skill you learn when analyzing literature, wink wink).

    He pictured the boys finding his body the next day. Suddenly he found himself with them, he came around a turn in the trail and found himself lying in the snow […] It certainly was cold, was his thought. (40)

    This quote might suggest that when the man is about to die, he finally develops a little imagination and projects his mind completely beyond his freezing body. On the other hand, the repetition of "It certainly was cold" brings us right back to the man's simple, foolish thinking at the beginning of the story. There's a lot of ambiguity here, and as a reader, you might need to decide for yourself what the story is suggesting in these lines.

  • Man and the Natural World

    On the other hand, there was no keen intimacy between the dog and the man. The one was the toil slave of the other, and the only caresses it had ever received were the caresses of the whiplash and of harsh and menacing throat sounds that threatened the whiplash. (16)

    The dog doesn't care about the man's well-being. It's completely self-interested and it wants to be near the man for his food and fire. Also, it has been taught to fear the man's whiplashes. Sounds more like a slave than a companion.

    Now the tree under which he had [built his fire] carried a weight of snow on its boughs […] High up in the tree one bough capsized its load of snow […] It grew like an avalanche, and it descended without warning upon the man and the fire, and the fire was blotted out! Where it had burned was a mantle of fresh and disordered snow. (23)

    Nature seems to always be working against the man's best efforts to save himself. At first, it might seem as though nature is just plain out to get the poor guy. But the use of the word "disordered" to describe the fallen snow suggests that there is no rhyme or reason to what's happening. It's just randomness mixed with really harsh surroundings.

    And all the while the dog sat and watched him [build the fire], a certain yearning wistfulness in its eyes, for it looked upon him as the fire provider, and the fire was slow in coming. (25)

    This quote foreshadows the story's ending, suggesting in its first half that the wolf dog feels bad for the man, then undercutting this point by saying that the dog just wants fire to warm itself.

    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)

    Here, we seem to have a moment of tenderness between the dog and man. Confronted with the man's death, the dog howls out of sadness into the deep cold space of the night sky. The poetic images of leaping and dancing stars suggest a sort of cosmic beauty in the northern sky. But then the dog turns and casually "trots" away in search of other men who can provide food and fire. It has no special bond with the man, but just sees him as a failed provider of fire and food.

  • Perseverance

    Empty as the man's mind was of thoughts, he was keenly observant, and he noticed the changes in the creek, the curves and bends and timber jams, and always he sharply noted where he placed his feet. (11)

    This quote goes back to the narrator's criticism of the man as someone who doesn't think deeply about stuff. But even though he doesn't think deeply, the guy is still very aware of his surroundings. In fact, he's not all that bad for a chechaquo. The narrator reminds us that though he may be a rookie to these particular parts, the man definitely seems like a seasoned veteran of outdoor living for most of the story.

    Working carefully from a small beginning, he soon had a roaring fire, over which he thawed the ice from his face and in the protection of which he ate his biscuits. For the moment the cold of space was outwitted. (15)

    The man works carefully in a situation where most of us would be totally freaking out. The guy has to thaw out his face to eat his lunch, but he just takes it all in stride. We can't help but like him, even just a little bit, for this, which makes his eventual death all the more surprising.

    He worked slowly and carefully, keenly aware of his danger. Gradually, as the flame grew stronger, he increased the size of the twigs with which he fed it. He squatted in the snow, pulling the twigs out from their entanglement in the brush and feeding directly to the flame. He knew there must be no failure. (19)

    We still see the man working methodically, but this quote reminds us that the guy knows he's in deep now. In some of the other quotes, we might think that the reason he's so calm is because he's completely clueless. But this quote clears up the mystery for us and shows us that yes, he knows he's in danger, and yes, he continues to remain calm in spite of it. Nerves of steel, this one.

    Well, it was up to him to build the fire over again, and this second time there must be no failure. Even if he succeeded, he would most likely lose some toes […] Such were his thoughts, but he did not sit and think them. He was busy all the time they were passing through his mind. He made a new foundation for a fire, this time in the open, where no treacherous tree could blot it out. (25)

    The man doesn't stop to throw a pity party after his fire gets blotted out. He just deals with the problem right away. Yet the narrator also says earlier in the story that not stopping to think is the "trouble" with our man. The two positions seem to come into contradiction here, as the text paints a very admirable picture of the man, who remains focused and perseverant under pressure. And to be fair, a pity party at this particular moment would mean certain death.

    Next he gathered dry grasses and tiny twigs from the high-water flotsam. He could not bring his fingers together to pull them out, but he was able to gather them by the handful […] He worked methodically, even collecting an armful of the larger branches to be used later when the fire gathered strength. (25)

    Even after he's lost his hands, the man remains calm and works "methodically." This shows an incredible ability to persevere under pressure in difficult circumstances. At this point, you start to get an idea of why this man survives in the original version of this story. He certainly seems like a survivor at this moment, though an older and more mature Jack London would have different ideas (cue the ominous music).

    The thought of [death] drove him on, but he ran no more than a hundred feet, when he staggered and pitched headlong. It was his last panic. When he had recovered his breath and control, he sat up and entertained in his mind the conception of meeting death with dignity. (39)

    The man's reckless sprint for the camp might be the only moment in the story when he truly gives in to his panic. This moment doesn't last very long, though, before he regains his composure and accepts the fact that he should die with dignity. Again, there's something very admirable in this. The man has done absolutely everything in his power to save himself, but it seems like he might have been doomed from the start. He responds to this by keeping his dignity with one final act of bravery.

  • Pride

    It was a clear day, and yet there seemed an intangible pall over the face of things, a subtle gloom that made the day dark, and that was due to the absence of sun. This fact did not worry the man. He was used to the lack of sun. It had been days since he had seen the sun, and he knew that a few more days must pass before that cheerful orb, due south, would just peep above the sky line and dip immediately from view. (1)

    It's been days since the man saw the sun, but he's not all that concerned about it. Now this wouldn't be such an important quote, if it weren't for the fact that this guy is still a newcomer to the Yukon. This lack of concern suggests that he thinks he knows more about the Yukon than he actually does.

    He was bound for the old claim on the left fork of Henderson Creek, where the boys were already. They had come over across the divide from the Indian Creek Country, while he had come the round-about way to take a look at the possibilities of getting out logs in the spring from the islands in the Yukon. (4)

    This quote is really easy to miss, but it tells us a crucial piece of information about the main character. He has voluntarily separated from the boys he so badly wants to get back to in this story. This is very surprising, considering that the man is still new to the Yukon. Perhaps more than any other detail in the text, this one conveys just how cocky (and possibly reckless) the man is about his chances for survival in such a harsh climate.

    He had had no chance to take a bite of biscuit. He struck his fingers repeatedly and returned them to the mitten, baring the other hand for the purpose of eating. He tried to take a mouthful, but the ice muzzle prevented. He had forgotten to build a fire and thaw out. He chuckled at his foolishness, and as he chuckled he noted the numbness creeping into the exposed fingers. (14)

    In this quote, the guy chuckles at the fact that his face is frozen. Um, excuse us? He really doesn't seem to be getting the point, which is that it's really, really cold out. He even chuckles as he notices his fingers getting numb. This one line, in a sense, is a microcosm of everything that's about to happen. The cold creeping into his fingers is exactly what will destroy his last failed attempt to build a fire and save himself. This early in the story, though, the man is still chuckling about this, finding it all pretty hilarious.

    He remembered the advice of the old-timer on Sulphur Creek, and smiled. The old-timer had been very serious in laying down the law that no man must travel alone in the Klondike after fifty below. Well, here he was; he had had the accident; he was alone; and he had saved himself. Those old-timers were rather womanish, some of them, he thought. All a man had to do was keep his head, and he was all right. Any man who was a man could travel alone. (21)

    This quote draws a direct connection between the man's pride and his sense of masculinity. He criticizes the old-timer for being too womanish, and doesn't seem to have any appreciation for the fact that this old-timer probably knows a lot more about the Yukon than he does.