51 pages 1 hour read

Jack London

To Build a Fire

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1902

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “To Build a Fire”

“To Build a Fire” is a short story by American writer Jack London. It was published in Century Magazine in 1908, and this guide references the 1908 edition. An earlier version of the story was published in Youth’s Companion in 1902. It is one of London’s many adventure stories based in the Klondike, where he prospected as a young man. There are six film versions of the story.

The story is set during the 1890s gold rush in the Klondike region of the Yukon. At daybreak, an unnamed man turns off the main Yukon trail to follow a seldom-used trail through spruce timberland. It is winter and the sky is clear, but there is no sun. In a few days, the sun will again appear above the horizon.

He looks back at the path of the Yukon river, which is covered with several feet of ice and snow. In the distance, he sees the “dark hair-line” (1) that is the main trail. The man is unmoved by the landscape. As a “newcomer in the land” (2), his unaffectedness is not attributable to experience. Rather, he is not imaginative. He is “quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances” (2). It is far below freezing, but this doesn’t compel him to consider his own human frailty.

Carrying onward, the man spits, and it freezes before hitting the ground. He’s on his way to a prospector camp, “where a fire would be going, and a hot supper would be ready” (2). He has his lunch tucked against his skin and smiles when he thinks about taking a break to eat it. His lunch is the only thing he carries.

A large husky follows behind the man. The dog’s instinct tells it that it is too cold to be traveling. It is 75 degrees below zero. The dog expects the man to find shelter and start a fire. The dog’s fur and the man’s beard are both frosted. The man chews tobacco. When he spits, the juice remains on his chin and turns his beard amber. He checks his watch and calculates that his pace is four miles per hour. At 12:30 pm he should arrive at the forks, where he plans to eat lunch.

There are no tracks on the trail. It has been a month since anyone has followed this path. The man acknowledges that he has never felt such intense cold. He uses his mittened hand to rub his exposed nose and cheeks, but they again go numb as soon as he stops rubbing. He doesn’t consider frosted cheeks to be a serious health concern.

The man notes the subtle changes in the snow-covered creek’s formation and is careful where to place his feet as he walks. He knows there are springs that bubble up and could cause him to step through the ice and into water. This is a great danger and compels him to walk carefully.

Two hours pass and he continues to look for signs of under-ice pools. At one point, he senses this danger and tries to coax the dog into walking in front of him. The dog won’t do it, so the man pushes it forward. The ice breaks, and the dog’s legs get wet. The dog’s instinct compels it to lick away the ice. The man helps to remove the ice from the dog’s fur.

It is noon and there is still no sun; the day is as bright as it will be. The man arrives at the forks and is pleased with his pace. He is confident he will make it to camp by six o’clock that evening. He pulls out his lunch, exposing his fingers, which quickly become numb. He tries to eat his biscuit, but his “ice-muzzle” (6) prevents him from biting into it. Because he has stopped moving, his toes go numb inside his moccasins. He stamps his feet and waves his arms until feeling returns. He remembers an old man who warned him about how cold it could get in this country. Though he laughed at the man, he now realizes the truth of his words. He builds a fire and thaws his face over it. The dog enjoys the fire while the man eats his biscuit.

The man continues down the trail, much to the disappointment of the dog, who wants to remain near the fire. The man’s ancestry doesn’t instill in him a true understanding of the cold; however, the dog’s lineage does provide this understanding. The dog is essentially the man’s slave and does not care about the man’s welfare. The man makes whipping sounds, compelling the dog to follow him away from the fire.

The man’s foot breaks through the ice, and he becomes wet halfway to the knees. He is angered because this will delay his arrival in camp by an hour. He climbs up an embankment and starts a fire. Because his feet are wet, he is in serious danger; therefore, he “work[s] slowly and carefully” (8) at the fire’s construction. Failure to construct an adequate fire could lead to his death. 

He has to take off his mittens to build the fire. Because he is no longer walking briskly, his blood circulation weakens, and his extremities quickly go numb. His wet feet are beginning to freeze, and his nose and cheeks are already frozen.

The fire is now burning, making the man feel safe. He recalls the old man’s advice that no one should travel alone across the Klondike when the temperature is colder than 50 below zero. He feels proud that, despite this advice, he has saved himself and is successfully making the transit by himself. His fingers are “lifeless” (10), and he struggles to hold a twig. He starts to remove his ice-covered moccasins, but from above the over-weighted tree boughs dump snow on the fire, snuffing it out. He realizes that removing twigs from the lower branches had caused the avalanche of snow to fall.

The man feels “as though he ha[s] just heard his own sentence of death” (10). He now understands that he should have followed the old man’s advice about not traveling alone across the Klondike. Though he figures he will lose some toes, he knows he must try to rebuild the fire. He’s losing dexterity in his fingers but manages to lift twigs and bits of moss. The dog watches, hoping for fire.

The man tries to pull a piece of birch bark from his pocket but cannot grip it. He uses his teeth to pull on his mittens and uses all his power to beat his hands against his sides. He feels envy when he sees the dog sitting in the snow, “its wolf-brush of a tail covered warmly over its forefeet” (11).

Sensation begins to return to the man’s fingers. He removes his hand from its mitten to grab the birch bark. He tries to light the bark, but his fingers are again numb, and he drops the matches into the snow. He “devot[es] his whole soul to the matches” (12). Because he no longer has a sense of touch, he tries to fully rely on his vision to retrieve the matches. He again puts on the mitten and scoops the matches into his lap.

The man manages to get a match to his mouth, which he finally manages to light by scraping it against his leg. However, the smoke goes into his nose, causing him to cough and drop the match, which falls to the snow and goes out. He again acknowledges that he should’ve listened to the old man’s advice about traveling with a partner.

In a desperate move, he removes his mittens and manages to get all his remaining matches into his hands. He scratches the matches against his leg and all 70 are ignited at the same time. Though he can’t feel his flesh burning, he can smell it. Deep below his skin, he starts to feel the pain. Still, he holds onto the matches and attempts to light the bark. His endurance fails and he drops the matches, which sizzle in the snow. However, the bark has been lit. He places twigs and dry grasses on the bark. A piece of moss falls directly into the flame. With shivering hands, he tries to poke it away, but he causes the fire to break apart and go out.

He looks at the dog, which “put[s] a wild idea into his head” (13). Recalling a survival story in which a man survived a blizzard by crawling into a steer’s carcass, he decides he will kill the dog and bury his hands inside its body for warmth. He calls the dog to him, but the dog senses the danger and does not obey the command. The man crawls toward the dog, and it moves away from him.

The man uses his mouth to put on his mittens and stands up. His standing position, as well as “the sound of whip-lashes in his voice” (14), compel the dog to come to him. The man reaches for the dog, but he has no feeling in his hands and cannot grab it. He uses his arms to hold the dog against him, and it struggles to get away. The man realizes that he has no means of killing the dog. Because he has no feeling in his hands, he cannot use his knife. He releases the dog, and it moves 40 feet away, where it watches him.

In an attempt to regain feeling, he again beats his hands against the side of his body. This doesn’t work and a fear of death becomes increasingly present. He becomes panicked and starts running along the trail. The dog follows him. He runs “blindly, without intention, in fear such as he had never known in his life” (15). He is no longer shivering and thinks about running all the way to camp. He also thinks that he will soon freeze to death. He clings to the hope that he will reach the boys and they will save him. In the back of his mind, the thought remains that “he would soon be stiff and dead” (15).

As he runs, it’s strange to him that he cannot feel his feet. He realizes he doesn’t have the endurance and starts stumbling. He sits down to rest and regain his energy. Surprisingly, he is no longer shivering. This briefly comforts him, but he then understands it is because he is becoming completely frozen. He imagines his frozen dead body and again starts running. The dog continues to follow him. The man falls and the dog looks at him, “curiously eager and intent” (16). The dog’s apparent well-being angers the man and he curses it.

The cold begins to fully consume him. He goes another 100 feet and falls, feeling “his last panic” (16). Resigning himself to death, he considers how to best die with dignity. He hopes to sleep his way into death, noting that there are worse ways to die than freezing. He imagines the boys finding his body, and then imagines himself alongside the boys when they make this discovery. In another vision, he tells the old man that he was right. He “drowse[s] off into what seemed to him the most comfortable and satisfying sleep he had ever known” (17). The dog waits for him until it realizes that no fire will be made. It catches the scent of death, howls under the stars, and makes its way toward camp, hoping to find others who will provide it with food and fire.