Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” is a story about an unnamed man on a journey thru the Yukon alone in deadly cold conditions. He is followed by a wolf dog that is also unnamed. He is traveling to meet his boys at on old claim near Henderson Fork. The man is arrogant in his thinking believing that he is able to make the journey alone, even though a sourdough from Sulphur Creek had warned him never to travel alone when the temperature is greater than fifty below. The temperature during his journey is seventy five below. Along the way he breaks thru the ice and the freezing water wets him half way up to his knees.
Faced with a life and death dilemma, he desperately attempts to build a fire as his faculties begin to leave him. The setting in the story is paramount in the effect it has on the reader. London used his own personal experience from his time in the Klondike during the gold rush to enable the reader to fully appreciate the challenges the environment has presented to the man. London’s expert use of imagery causes the reader to feel like they are freezing right along with the man and the wolf dog. Jack London was born as John Griffith Chaney on January 12, 1876.
There is no evidence that his mother Flora Wellman was married to his alleged father William Chaney and when Chaney learned of the pregnancy he demanded that Flora have an abortion. When she refused, Chaney denied any responsibility for the baby. Falling into a depression, Flora made an unsuccessful suicide attempt. When John was born his mother turned his care over to an ex-slave who became his main mother figure throughout this life. Later in 1876 Flora married John London and took her baby, later to be called Jack, back to live with them in Oakland California where Jack completed grade school.
London had his sights set on the Univ. of California Berkley. He studied intensely for an entire summer preparing for certification exams and was admitted into the college in 1896. Sadly, due to his financial situation he was forced to withdraw a year later and he never returned to graduate. Not long after he dropped out of college, London joined his brother in law sailing to the Klondike to join the gold rush. This was to become the setting for some of London’s greatest works. However, his time in the Klondike took its toll on London’s health.
Like many others, he suffered from malnutrition and also developed scurvy. He endured a constant gnawing pain in his hip and legs. His face was left marked, a constant reminder of his struggles in the Klondike. There was a priest who was known as “The Saint of Dawson”, he ran a facility in Dawson City where London was able to receive shelter, food and any medicine that was available. It was London’s personal struggles during this time that inspired his short story “To Build a Fire”, which many critics have assessed as his best work.
The popular version of “To Build a Fire” which was published in 1908 is actually a rewrite of an earlier version published in 1902. In the earlier version, the man had a name, Tom Vincent, there is no dog following him, the cold was not as deadly and the story had a happy ending. Tom Vincent built his fire under a tree and survives, shaken but all the wiser. London revised the story during a voyage thru the tropics. He realized the story had more serious potential. When critics have compared the two they describe London as having “evolved into a mature artist, his narrative gifts in full flower. The latter version has been described as a great work of literary art compared to the earlier version being a good children’s story. From the very first line, London sets the tone of the story as being depressing, frightening and challenging opening with “Day had broken cold and gray, exceedingly cold and gray,” He then goes on to describe how there was no sun in the sky, even though it was a clear day there was a gloom that lingered all day. London repeats the description in various ways a few times throughout the story to emphasize the importance of the setting, how seriously mother nature should be taken.
These descriptions foreshadow impending doom for the lone traveler who minimized the potential danger of his journey alone. “But all this-the mysterious, far-reaching hair line trail, the absence of sun from the sky, the tremendous cold, and the strangeness and weirdness of it all-made no impression on the man. ” During the man’s journey the thought “It certainly was cold. ” or some version of the thought was repeated seven times. However, the man continued to minimize how deadly his surrounding could be. Not seeming to care much about is exposed cheeks and nose, feeling that it was just a little frostbite. “But it didn’t matter much, after all. What were frosted cheeks? A bit painful, that was all, never serious. ” Even though this was the man’s first winter and his experience was limited he dismissed the advice from the old man at Sulphur Creek. Advice he would later regret not taking seriously. The main conflict in the story is clearly between the man and his environment. The man was at a clear disadvantage, having little experience, being arrogant and not relying on his instincts.
Even when the man fell thru the ice and wet himself half way to his knees his first feeling was anger. He was mad that he wouldn’t make it to the camp by the time he had planned. Instead of worrying about the hour he may be delayed he should of immediately thought of the seriousness of his situation. What the man was lacking was instinct. The wolf dog in the story is used to show the difference between dog’s instinct and the man’s intellect. The dog is not able to assess the exact temperature in terms of degrees as the man can but it does not need to.
The dog has pure instinct. Without thinking, the dog knows that the cold is dangerous, that walking across the ice overflow is too risky, it knows to bite off any ice that forms between its toes, it even knows not to lie too close to the fire so its fur doesn’t get singed. “The animal was depressed by the tremendous cold. It knew that it was no time for traveling. Its instinct told a truer tale than was told by the man’s judgment. ” “The dog had learned fire, and it wanted fire, or else to burrow under the snow and cuddle its warmth away from the air. Because of the man’s ignorance and misjudgments, he would lose his battle with the cold. The wolf dog, driven by instinct, would survive and move on to the next fire provider. The story keeps the reader engaged by using subtle hints of impending doom. It holds your interest, wondering what will happen next. When the story reaches its climax, the man falls thru the thin ice wetting himself. Now his journey is more than challenging and dangerous, he is in a life and death situation. This is the part of the story where the actual title is pertinent.
The title alone “To Build A Fire” sounds like instructions of some type. And the story does in fact instruct one on how to actually build a fire. Everything from making the base for the fire, to using birch bark as a fire starter and slowing building up the size of the kindling. Just as it instructs one how to build a successful fire it also teaches what not to do like build your fire under a tree with snow filled branches, and not to disturb the nucleus of the fire. Not only does this story teach one how to build a fire but the entire story can be interpreted as a set of instructions.
It teaches what to look for when crossing dangerous frozen water, it teaches that if your spit freezes in midair before reaching the ground then it’s colder than fifty below. It can even be seen as a basic do’s and don’ts manual for traveling in the Yukon. London’s ability to draw from his personal experiences in the Klondike enabled him to use powerful imagery and create a setting so real that the reader to feels like they are right there in the story freezing along with the man. “To Build a Fire” examines intelligence vs. instinct, arrogance vs. experience making for an interesting, realistic and suspenseful read.