Study Guide

To Build a Fire Summary

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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.

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