Howard is an avid short story reader who likes to help others find and understand stories.
"To Build a Fire" by Jack London is one of the most frequently anthologized short stories and one of my favorites.
It's written in the naturalistic style with a third-person omniscient narrator.
It's set in the Yukon Territory of Northwestern Canada, just east of Alaska.
The only two characters that appear in the story are an unnamed traveler and a husky, a dog closely related to the wild wolf. Reference is made to other people in the area whom the traveler knows, with special mention of an old-timer who offered some advice.
If you haven't read this story yet, I suggest reading it before a synopsis. It's well worth the time to get the full experience.
Synopsis of "To Build a Fire"
An unnamed man travels in the Yukon at nine in the morning. Accompanied by a husky, he is headed for a camp at Henderson Creek.
He is alert to the winter springs that could weaken the ice. At twelve-thirty he stops for lunch and builds a fire.
He continues his journey, but breaks through the ice and soaks himself halfway to the knees. He manages to gather enough wood to get a fire going. Before he can take off his moccasins, an avalanche of snow falls from a tree, putting out his fire.
He struggles to build another fire, but his frozen feet and hands make it difficult. A flame catches but soon goes out.
He tries to kill the dog and use its body for warmth, but he doesn’t have the strength in his hands.
He runs frantically along the trail but succumbs to the cold, freezing to death.
The husky waits, realizes the man is dead, then heads for the camp.
The numbers in parentheses below refer to the paragraph in the story where the reference can be found.
Theme: The Individual vs. Nature
Nature is a formidable opponent. The man is surprised several times by how quickly his hands go numb when he removes his gloves. His toes go numb as soon as he sits down to eat. (14)
The man battles the frost, but as “a creature of temperature…able to live within certain narrow limits of heat and cold” (3), he is ill-equipped to face it alone. After failing to relight his fire, “He was losing in his battle with the frost. It was creeping into his body from all sides.” (38)
The man is traveling alone in the brutal cold, despite being warned against this by an experienced traveler. There is a degree of strength and safety in community. When his fire is extinguished he thinks “If he had only had a trail mate he would have been in no danger now. The trail mate could have built the fire.” (24) A lone person is at a marked disadvantage.
The man’s frailty turns out to be no match for the wilderness. His hands are rendered nearly useless by the cold. (27, 33) He lacks the endurance to run all the way to camp when his situation is desperate. (37)
It is the man’s pride that allows him to begin his dangerous journey, prevents him from turning back when he realizes how cold it is, and ultimately leads to his death.
The previous autumn the man was warned by an old-timer not to travel alone at below fifty degrees. Rather than preventing the man from making this trip, he set out anyway. After soaking his feet he recalls this advice and thinks, “Those old-timers were rather womanish, some of them…Any man who was a man could travel alone.” (21)
A few hours into his trip, when he could easily turn back, he realizes it is even colder than fifty below. “But the temperature did not matter” (4) Obviously, the temperature matters a great deal. His overconfidence blinds him to the danger it represents. A little earlier the narrator states of the extreme cold, “It did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty.” (3) Pride warps his perception of his strength. He feels equal to this harsh environment.
The man’s pride is deep-seated. After the falling snow puts out his fire and his feet and hands are freezing, he thinks “Perhaps the old-timer from Sulphur Creek was right.” (24) This close to death, he still doesn’t admit unequivocally, even to himself, that he was wrong.
In contrast, the husky’s instinct is unclouded by pride. While the man feels confident, the husky “was depressed by the tremendous cold. It knew that it was no time for traveling.” (6) Early on the dog walks “with a tail drooping discouragement.” (9) Even with its natural protection from the elements and superior foot speed, the husky knows they shouldn’t be traveling.
1. Are there any examples of foreshadowing?
Immediately, the omniscient narrator describes the cold, the bleak environment, the seemingly endless trail, and the absence of the sun. The result is “an intangible pall over the face of things, a subtle gloom that made the day dark.” (1) We know something bad is going to happen, if not what.
The husky’s reaction intensifies the sense of danger to come. It is reluctant to make this journey and feels “a vague but menacing apprehension that subdued it and made it slink along at the man’s heels.” (6) If a naturally equipped, powerful animal feels menaced by this trip, the man is probably in for a fight he can't win.
The man also has a repetitive thought about how cold it is. (See next question) The reader knows he's only going to get colder the longer he's outside. We might anticipate a final battle with the cold.
The man’s beard is solidly frosted “and increasing with every warm, moist breath he exhaled.” (7) As a person can only take so much frost, and breathing increases the frost, the act of staying alive ironically moves the man closer to death. Now we know for sure that a life and death struggle is imminent, one that the man will probably lose.
2. What is the significance of the man’s recurring thought about how cold it is?
Many times in the narrative the man thinks about the cold, always in the same or very similar words. “It certainly was cold.” (5, 13, 15, 38) “It was very cold.” (10) “It was cold.” (15) These are superficial observations that don’t affect his behavior. The thought becomes a cliché, as if he is making small-talk with himself. These thoughts point out to the reader, but not to the traveler, how much danger there is.
The man is “quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances.” (3) Although the man is aware of the extreme cold, he misses it’s significance—it leaves very little room for error, so traveling alone is too dangerous.
3. What is the significance of the title?
The title refers to the first crisis in the story. It appears in the text as a part of this statement, “A man must not fail in his first attempt to build a fire—that is, if his feet are wet.” (19) The stakes are high at this point because the man only has one chance to build a fire if he is to avoid losing any of his body to the cold. If he fails on this attempt he will suffer some permanent damage.