To Build a Fire Study Guide

To Build a Fire

To Build a Fire by Jack London

"To Build a Fire" is a short story by Jack London about a man in the Yukon traveling through the woods on a cold winter's day. After his mouth is frozen shut by saliva, he attempts to start a fires that is doused when snow falls from a tree. He tries repeatedly but fails because his limbs grow numb and lose coordination. He attempts to run to his destination but, after collapsing several times, dies. The story deals with themes of man versus nature and the will to live.

At 9:00 on an extremely cold winter morning (−75 °F or −59 °C), an unnamed man leaves the Yukon Trail, expecting to meet his associates ("the boys") at a mining claim by 6:00 that evening. The man is accompanied only by a large husky dog, whose instincts tell it that the weather is too cold for traveling. However, the weather does not deter the man, a relative newcomer to the Yukon, even though the water vapor in the man's exhaled breaths and the saliva from the tobacco he is chewing have frozen his mouth shut. As he hikes along a creek, he takes care to avoid pockets of unfrozen water hidden beneath thin layers of ice. He stops tobuild a fire and thaw out so he can eat his lunch, but after he begins hiking again, he breaks through the ice and soaks his feet and lower legs.

More angry over the accident than concerned for his own safety, the man builds a fire under a tree to dry his clothes as sensation begins to fade from his extremities. The snow from the tree's loaded boughs eventually tumbles down, extinguishing the fire and frightening the man for the first time. He gathers materials for a new fire with and lights it with great difficulty, burning himself with his matches in the process, but accidentally pokes it apart while trying to remove a piece of moss. He seizes hold of the dog, planning to kill it and use the carcass for warmth; however, he finds that he can neither draw his knife nor strangle the animal with his frozen hands. In a final desperate attempt to warm himself up, the man tries to run along the trail but repeatedly stumbles and falls. Finally understanding the truth of the local residents' warnings about the cold, the man succumbs to hypothermia and dies, imagining himself to be with "the boys" as they find his body the next day.

The dog watches the man's body for some time, not understanding why he is not moving nor building a fire. When it realizes that he is dead, it hurries off along the trail, toward a campsite where other men can provide fire and food. This is how the story ends.

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