Jack London

To Build A Fire

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To Build A Fire Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 24-page guide for the short story “To Build A Fire” by Jack London includes detailed a summary and analysis, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 15 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The Dangers of Unimaginative Thinking and Acceptance of One’s Own Death.

“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,…

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