Study Guide

To Build a Fire

To Build a Fire Summary

There's a bearded man walking through the Yukon wilderness on his way to a mining camp on Henderson Creek. Oh yeah, and there's a half-tame wolf dog following along at his heels. When the man spits into the air, he hears a snap, crackle, and pop. No, this doesn't tell him that his breakfast cereal is ready. It tells him that it must be really cold out, because his saliva is basically exploding in mid-air. That's downright apocalyptic if you ask Shmoop. The dog's instinct tells it not to travel in such cold, but the man doesn't seem all that concerned.

Did someone say foreshadowing?

When the man reaches Henderson Creek, he decides to follow it all the way to the camp. For some reason, walking across the ice instead of solid ground strikes him as a good idea. When he takes off his mittens, he's shocked to find his fingers go completely numb in a matter of seconds.

As the man continues his journey, he thinks back to a conversation he had with an older, more experienced man from Sulphur Creek (there seem to be a lot of creeks in the Yukon). He remembers the old-timer telling him that it's a really bad idea to travel alone in temperatures below minus fifty. But the man thinks the old-timer is a wimpy old coot and keeps walking. Ignoring the advice of an older and wiser mentor, eh? That tends not to work out in most stories.

The man plunges through the ice and wets his feet. He's annoyed that he'll have to stop and build another fire. When oh when, he wonders, will he get to sit by a fire and eat bacon with the boys? He builds his second fire under a tree, but when he pulls twigs off the bottom of the tree, he causes snow to fall off the branches and put out his fire. Just his luck! Or that was dumb. Now his hands are getting really numb, and he needs to quickly build another fire to warm them. By this point, his hands are so frozen that he can only use them as stumps. He's so clumsy he ends up bungling his next fire and putting it out. Okay, this is getting serious.

In desperation, he tries to kill his dog so he can cut it open and warm his hands inside its body (We won't blame you for saying "Ewwwww!") But without his hands, there's no way for the man to kill the dog in the first place, and his attempt to give the animal a killer bear hug fails miserably. With no options left, the man does his best Forrest Gump impression and starts running as hard as he can for the camp. But the place is still hours away, and he quickly runs out of steam.

He scolds himself for acting so shamefully and decides to meet death with dignity. With his last spark of brain activity, he imagines himself alongside his camp friends, discovering his own body the next day. Then he's transported into a warm room with the old man from Sulphur Creek. He admits to the old-timer that he was wrong about traveling alone, and then finally croaks.

The dog waits for him to get up out of the snow; but after it smells death on him, the animal howls into the night sky. When it's finished howling, it forgets about the man and continues along the creek toward the camp, where it knows there will be a warm fire and some tasty grub. Man's best friend indeed.

  • To Build a Fire

    • An unnamed man is making his way through the white snow of Alaska. And it's really, really cold out.
    • He's not concerned about the cold or the lack of sunlight, but not because he's used to it. He's actually a chechaquo, or "newcomer" to the Yukon.
    • The narrator then tells us that the man's "trouble" is that "he is without imagination" (3).
    • See, the guy knows the day is cold, but doesn't really spend any time wondering about how his frail human body will stand up to it. He doesn't seem to grasp how tiny and ant-like he is in this giant abyss of arctic snow.
    • Spitting into the air, the man hears a sharp crackle and realizes that his saliva has frozen before hitting the snow. This means that it must be colder than fifty degrees below zero.
    • The narrator tells us that the man is heading for a mining camp on Henderson Creek, where a bunch of his buddies are waiting for him with a nice fire and some tasty bacon.
    • Traveling alongside the man is a native husky, which is closer to a wolf than your average dog. The husky isn't all that happy about traveling in such chilly weather, but it stays on the man's heels, hoping that the man will soon stop to make a nice cozy fire.
    • There are nine hours of hiking ahead of the man, so we readers get the sense that he's a pretty tough dude, even if he doesn't know all that much about the Klondike.
    • When he finally reaches Henderson Creek, the man starts walking along the ice. The creek is frozen to the bottom, but there are some underground hot springs that make little pockets of water in the ice, and it's very dangerous to get your feet wet when it's so cold out. Did we mention that it's really, really cold?
    • Always the gentleman, the man decides to send the dog ahead of him.
    • As expected, the dog breaks through the ice and gets it legs wet. The man helps get the ice off the animal's feet, and is surprised by how quickly his fingers go numb when he takes them out of his mittens.
    • After he stops to build a fire (Title!), the man whips out his half-frozen biscuits and chows down.
    • When he gets up, the dog is reluctant to leave the fire, for obvious reasons.
    • After walking for a while longer, the man breaks through the ice himself and has to stop and build a fire all over again to dry his boots and warm his feet.
    • As he builds a new fire, he thinks about an old man from Sulphur Creek who told him that folks should never travel alone in the Yukon when it's colder than fifty degrees below zero.
    • But he thinks the old-timer is a little too "womanish" and gives himself a big pat on the back for being a "real" man. Of course when he tries to build his next fire, he can barely grip a twig with his fingers. Yeah, super manly.
    • The man gets another fire going; but he's made a mistake by building it under a spruce tree.
    • When he keeps pulling twigs off the tree, he shakes the thing so that a bunch of snow falls off its branches and buries his fire. He almost freaks out at his bad luck, but stays calm and starts to build another fire.
    • The man has more trouble this time around because his fingers are so numb he can't pull a single match away from his pack of seventy. He tears one out with his teeth, but when he tries to hold the lit match to a piece of birch bark, the smoke goes up his nose and almost makes him cough up a lung.
    • For his next attempt, he lights all of his matches at once and just holds them to the kindling by using his hands as stumps.
    • The fire kindles, but when the man tries to load some more fuel onto it, he breaks up the fire with his clumsy hands and scatters the pieces in all directions. They all go up in smoke, and now the man knows he's in really big trouble.
    • He starts to wonder if the old-timer from Sulphur Creek might have been right about this never-travel-alone business.
    • When it seems like he's out of options, the man gets a crazy idea and starts to look at his dog as if it were a giant mitten. He thinks that if he can kill the dog, he can plunge his hands into its body and warm them until the feeling comes back.
    • Next thing you know, he tackles the dog, only to realize that there's no way he can kill the animal. He can't use his hands to grab a knife or strangle the thing, so he gives up and the insulted dog runs forty feet away and stops there to watch the man.
    • The man realizes that there's a pretty good chance he's going to die, so he starts running as fast as he can in the direction of the mining camp.
    • He feels his body heat up at first and grows optimistic. But then he runs out of gas and realizes that he'll never make it. He feels ashamed for running around like some shmuck, so he decides to meet death with dignity.
    • Lying down in the snow, the man drifts off into sleep.
    • As he dies, he has a vision of himself with his crowd of buddies discovering his own body the next day. Then he thinks of the old timer who warned him against traveling alone, and admits that he was world-class idiot to do so.
    • The man dies.
    • The dog doesn't know what's going on at first, but after it catches the smell of death, it howls for a while and then trots off toward the camp, where it knows it can get food and have a nice fire. And bacon.