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Literature / To Build a Fire

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"To Build a Fire" is a classic Canadian Western 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.

"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.


  • An Aesop: Do not take a cold day lightly! Always, always prepare for when going out into the cold. Some of the circumstances were out of the man's control, but the story makes a point of noting how he was underprepared for going out on an exceedingly cold day.
  • Bad People Abuse Animals: Downplayed. The fact that "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" doesn't win the man any sympathy points.
  • Carcass Sleeping Bag: The man attempts to kill his sled dog with the intention of warming his hands in the entrails. It doesn't work because by then his hands are too frozen to keep hold on the animal.
  • Evil-Detecting Dog:
    • Right from the start, the dog's instincts tell it that traveling in such frigid weather is a terrible idea, and the man is noted to have no such instincts. As there was no close bond between the man and the dog, the dog doesn't warn him in any way, and he ends up freezing to his death.
    • Later, 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.
  • Frozen Body Fluids: It is -75 degrees Fahrenheit; when the man spits, the spit freezes mid-air with "a sharp, explosive crackle."
  • The Ghost: There are constant references that the man makes in his mind to an elderly native in Sulphur Creek who supplied him information and even warns him that it would be dangerous to go out all alone, but the man laughed at him. He pays dearly for ignoring his advice, and he internally acknowledges this.
  • Hard-to-Light Fire: Half of the story is focused on trying to build a fire when the temperature is -75 F and your hands are numb and stiff. It turns out to be too hard.
  • Kill It with Ice: The man freezes to death.
  • Nature Is Not Nice: The story's conflict is man vs. nature. The protagonist underestimates the danger of hiking alone in the Yukon wilderness in extreme cold: he falls into a creek, fails to build a fire, and freezes to his death.
  • No Name Given: The characters are referred to only as the man and the dog. In the original 1902 version, the man was named Tom Vincent.
  • 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.
  • Replacement Goldfish: Upon realizing the man is dead, the dog has no affection for him and immediately leaves to find other humans and heat.
  • Shoot the Dog: When the man's hands become too cold to light another fire, he attempts to kill the dog so he can warm them enough in its innards and give his fingers the mobility needed to make another one. Unfortunately for him, his hands are also too cold to actually do any real harm to the dog.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: A man travels in the Yukon during incredibly cold weather with only a lone dog as his only company, tries to build a fire, accidentally gets it extinguished, fails to build another one, and pointlessly dies freezing to death in the middle of nowhere. Ironically, the literal dog in the story survives.
  • Snow Means Death: London vividly describes the snow that smoothly extends as far as the man can see. There's also a more acute variant in play with the scene where the man's first fire is smothered by snow falling out of the tree he built the fire under.
  • 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, sets 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. note