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Literature: To Build a Fire
"To Build a Fire" is a classic short story by Jack London, originally published in 1908 in The Century Magazine. It involves an unnamed man up in the Yukon Territory during the savagely cold Yukon winter, who is working a gold claim. He leaves the Yukon Trail, accompanied only by his dog, headed for the gold claim where he will meet his fellow prospectors ("the boys"). The man has an unfortunate accident when he falls through an "ice skin" and soaks his pants and lower legs. This accident quickly escalates into a very dangerous situation when the fire the man builds is extinguished by snow falling off the boughs of a tree. He manages to start a second fire but, as he struggles with his frozen hands, he accidentally puts it out. He tries to warm himself up by running to his destination, but his feet and legs are too frozen, and he falls down and gives up. The man freezes to death, whereupon the dog leaves him to look for more humans.

"To Build a Fire" is one of Jack London's most famous and best remembered works, and is often found in school literature textbooks. Read it here.


Tropes:

  • Down To The Last Match: Subverted. The man actually has plenty of matches, but he winds up lighting them all at once when fumbling with his frozen fingers.
  • Evil-Detecting Dog: The man has an idea to slice open the dog and stick his hands in the dog's guts to warm his fingers, so he can grip the matches to build the fire. The dog hears the note of fear in the man's voice and shies away from him. The man finally succeeds in calling the dog to him, but his hands are too frozen to either grip his knife or strangle the dog.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Discussed Trope, when the man finally realizes that he is screwed, because his hands are too frozen to build a fire and the camp is too far away for him to walk to on his frozen legs.
    "When he had recovered his breath and control, he sat up and entertained in his mind the conception of meeting death with dignity."
  • Failed a Spot Check: Averted. The man is quite careful to check for springs that never freeze and thus are dangerous to step in when it's so cold. The one he does step in is at "a place where there were no signs", where the snow looked smooth and safe.
  • Hard To Light Fire: Turns out to be too hard, when the temperature is -75 F and your hands are numb and stiff.
  • Kick the Dog: Literally—"there was no keen intimacy between the dog and the man" because "the only caresses it had ever received were the caresses of the whip-lash and of harsh and menacing throat-sounds that threatened the whip-lash." This serves to make the man something of an Asshole Victim.
  • Kill It with Ice: The man freezes to death.
  • Nature Is Not Nice: Getting stuck in the Yukon wilderness in winter is a bad idea.
  • No Name Given: For the man or the dog.
  • The Remake: The famous 1908 story was actually the second Jack London story by this name. The first version, published in 1902, does not include the dog, and the man succeeds in building a fire and survives.
  • Snow Means Death: London vividly describes the snow that smoothly extends as far as the man can see.
  • Title Drop: Variations on the phrase "to build a fire" are repeated eight times.
  • Too Dumb to Live: The man was told by a veteran prospector that no one should travel alone when it's colder than -50 F, that it's too dangerous. The man, a newcomer to the Yukon, set out alone anyway. Even the dog knows that hiking cross-country in such weather is a bad idea. ("It knew that it was no time for travelling.") And then he makes one critical mistake which he doesn't think about until it's too late—he builds his fire under a tree rather than out in the open.
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