Study Guide

To Build a Fire Perseverance

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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.

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