About the Author
John Griffith Jack London (born John Griffith Chaney) was well-known literary figure and a pioneer in the world of commercial magazine fiction in the U.S.A. He was one of the first fiction writers who made a large fortune from his fiction alone. However, the road to prosperity was not an easy one. He was brought up in poverty. He has his education in Oakland High School and then in the University of California. Later, he became a part of a radical literary group called ‘The Crowd’ in San Francisco. The Call of the Wild and White Fang are among his well-known novels. Among his short stories ‘To Build a Fire’, ‘An Odyssey of the North’ and ‘Love of Life’ became very popular.
London was a committed socialist. He was highly inspired by the ‘Communist Manifesto’. He was a great supporter of socialism, unionization and rights of workers. As he had been a seaman and oyster pirate, he was basically an adventurist. ‘To Build a Fire’ incorporates his adventurous spirit.
About the Story
It is an adventure or misadventure story. It records the struggle of a determined man for his very survival on an extremely cold day. Nature is there in all its icy fury to thwart any challenge to its powers. The man, a solitary hiker, and his dog depart form the main Yukon trail (near the border of current day Alaska) to be reunited with his travelling companions (called ‘the boys’) at the Henderson Camp. He is sure to reach his destination at the end of the day which is extremely cold and snowy. Trailed by his dog he continues his journey. His cheekbones start freezing. He knows about the dangers of frostbite, but he does not care much. One he is able to build a fire, he warms himself and the bog a bit, and then resumes his walk. Then he falls in to a concealed spring and wets himself upto his shins. His feet and fingers are numb. He recalls the pieces of good advice give by the old-timer from Sulphur Creek, which he has not cared to follow. His attempt to built a fire does not succeed. He beings to run to escape death by freezing. Ultimately, he reconciles himself with the fact of death. The distance is too long and he has no stamina left. He decides to sleep to a peaceful death. The dog, sure of his master’s death, runs to reach the camp to find other food-providers and fire-providers.
The solitary hiker : The protagonist called the man (representative of all those who are daring and adventurous) set out on a short journey in Yukon to a base camp where his friend were possibly waiting for him. He was accompanied by a wolf-dog. It was a very cold, snowy morning. The man hoped that if everything went well he would meet his friends by six o’clock in the evening. He was well aware and well-prepared for the walk along a creek trail. His unprotected cheekbones, he knew, would soon freeze, but he did not care. He was aware of the danger of concealed springs. Even getting one’s feet wet on such a cold day when the temperature was seventy-degrees below zero was dangerous. After sometime he stopped for lunch and built a fire to warm himself. The god, too, enjoyed the warmth sitting near the fire.
A hidden danger : The man resumed his walk. For half an hour he could not see any signs of water under the snow. Then all of a sudden he fell through the ice into water and wet himself up to his shins. He cursed his luck. His feet and fingers were numb. He recalled the words of the old-timer from Sulphur Creek that no man should travel in the Klondike when the temperatures fell down to fifty degrees below zero.
Failure to build the fire : The man tied to build the fire. He untied his icy moccasins. He gathered wood and was able to build a fire among some pine trees, which was a mistake. should have made the fire in the open. He took twigs from the tree and dropped them directly under the fire. As he shook the tree, the snow on the boughs fell down and blotted out the fire. The man got scared and decided to build a new fire again. He gathered twigs and grasses with a lot of difficulty. His fingers were numb and almost lifeless. He failed to light a match. Then he grabbed all the seventy matches and lighted them simultaneously to set fire to a piece of bark. With numb hands he tried to protect the fire from pieces of moss and in so doing he actually extinguished the fire.
A weird idea : Seeing the dog a crazy idea stuck his mind. He has heard a man who survived a winter storm by killing a bull and crawling inside the carcass for the warmth. He thought of killing the dog and warming his hands inside hits body. The man caught the suspicious dog somehow, but realized that his hands were too numb to hold a knife he could not kill it. So he let the dog go.
Peaceful death : The man became panicky as he realized that he could not escape death. Frostbite was not little worrisome. He started running along the creek, with the dog at his heels. He felt good at first, but then he lost his stamina. He fell and could not rise. He got up again and started running. Again he fell. Then he sat quietly and decided to meet death with dignity. He had been running recklessly rather than accepting the inevitable. He imagined his friends finding his body tomorrow. He fell off into a comfortable sleep. As the night came, the dog detected death in the man’s scent. It ran away in the direction of the camp where it was hopeful of getting fire and food from other human beings.
Heroic will to fight : The major theme of the story is the heroic will to fight. One who is determined to achieve the goal despite formidable challenges and seemingly insurmountable obstacles is the real hero. One who is bold enough to face even death with calm resignation is nothing short of a hero. This kind of iron will is what the hiker reveals in the story. He has realized his folly to travel alone and that too on a snowy day when the temperature is seventy-five degrees below zero. But he does not give up. Along with his dog he moves on and on. His body parts being to be numb. He builds a fire, warms himself and moves on. He falls into a hidden spring and wets himself. His hands and feet are numb. He fails to built the fire. At last, he starts running to reach his destination. The thought of death does not deter him from abandoning his journey. But a point of total exhaustion soon comes. He decides to confront death with dignity. He sits down calmly and sleeps to a calm death.
Overconfidence : Another theme of the story, contradictory to the one mentioned earlier, is that one should not be overconfident of one’s powers and abilities. It is only in overconfidence that one makes blunders . The hiker in the story has been clearly warned not to venture out alone when the temperature dips fifty degrees below zero. But even then he starts his journey on such a day without a trailing companion. He is either foolhardy or foolish. He takes unnecessary risk and meets his dom.
The writer, no doubt, seems to eulogize the heroic spirit, but at the same time gives us a sound advice. He wants us to develop the ability to think of the future consequences of our present actions or facts. Before understanding anything in life we must think of its consequences. The man in ‘To Build a Fire’ has many good human traits – doggedness, persistence, daring, etc – but he lacks the capacity to think of the consequences of his actions. He has ignored all the pieces of good advice given to him by the old-timer from Sulphur Creek. He recalls them at every turn of bad luck but it is too late to mend. Consequently, he has to decide to accept the inevitable (death) with dignity, and that is truly his moral victory in defeat.
The title of the story ‘To Build a Fire’ is both apt and suggestive. Fire, we know, is the source of life, especially in the conditions in which the protagonist of the story finds himself in. He has ventured out on a short journey on a very cold day. The temperature is about seventy-five degree below zero. The man, though a accompanied by a dog, has no human being to be of help to him. He has totally ignored the good pieces of advice given to him by the old man at Sulphur Creek.
The inevitable happens. Due to extreme cold he suffers from frostbite. His face becomes numb, and his cheeks are frostbitten. And very soon his hands and feet are also num. His condition becomes precarious with his fall in a concealed spring in the ice.
He is confident that he can survive. He has the means to build a fire to warm himself. He pauses for lunch and is able to make a fire. The dog sitting by it also feels at ease. The journey is resumed. Soon there is the necessity to build the fire again. The time luck evades the man. He builds the fire but a pile of snow from the boughs overhead falls on the fire, putting it out completely. By this time, the man’s fingers have become frostbitten. He does his best but fails to build the fire again.
This failure proves to be costly to the man. This proves to be a turning point in his life. The fear of death makes him panicky. He runs and runs, but to no avail. Finding no escape from death, he dozes off to peaceful death in the snow.
Thus, ‘fire’ remains at the centre of the story. It remind us that it is life whereas snow is death. The title of the story is , therefore, appropriate and suggestive as well.
The man, the protagonist in the story, is purposely not given any name. He is more than a specific person. Though he is a realized character, quite realistic, with a mix of good an bad qualities, he is also a type. He represents those who are careless and rash and yet heroic in their will.
He is a man who is not given to much thinking. He does not think of the consequences of his actions. He has been clearly warned by the old-timer from Sulphur Creek that no man should travel, and especially alone, in the Klondike when the temperature is fifty degrees below zero. But he ignores all the warnings. He starts travelling on a very cold, snowy morning, along with a husky wolf-dog. Due to his careless nature he commits many mistakes. He builds a fire not in the open but under a spruce, snow-covered tree. His fire goes out soon. Then he depends too much on temperature in terms of degrees Fahrenheit – a scientific indicator. Unlike to dog, he never uses instinct which would tell him that his actions are dangerous.
He is somewhat a crazy fellow. He has heard about a man who survives a winter storm by killing a bull and crawling himself into the carcass for warmth. Recalling this incident he somehow catches hold of the dog. He wants to kill it and put his hands inside its warm body to restore his circulation. He realizes that he cannot hill the dog because his hands are too numb to hold the knife. He lets the dog go.
Despite several weaknesses, the man is really courageous. He does not give up easily. When he realizes that he will die, he starts running. Exhausted, he falls down, but rises again and starts running. He falls down again. Ultimately, he decides not to be foolish. He cannot escape death. He will have to accept the inevitable. So he stops his struggle for life. He decides to meet death with dignity. He lies down on the snow and sleeps off to death.
He is undoubtedly determined and persistent. He continues to pursue his goal to the last. He remains undeterred by many handicaps, both physical and mental. When the much-needed fire goes out, he starts to rebuild the fire. His fingers have grown numb. He cannot handle the matches. He holds the full pack of matches and strikes the whole pack at once. His hands burn out, and he smells his flesh burning. He does not care, and goes on with building the fire, though in vain.
In short, the man is dogged, overconfident fellow. He meets his doom because he is too individualistic and careless.
The dog that accompanies the solitary hiker remains in focus in one way or the other, though it does not play any role in the story. It is a husky wolf-dog and it has been used as a contrast to the man. If the man in the story represents intellect, the dog represents instinct. The story highlights these two contrasting traits. The man, conscious of the need of warm clothes, matches , maps, thermometers is well-equipped, but he lacks instinctive awareness and knowledge. On the other hand, the dog has only his instincts to rely on. He simply uses his instinct to know and understand the world around.
The dog has its own natural advantages – fur and a keen sense of smell. Unlike the man, it knows instinctively that travelling in such a cold weather is unsafe. When its feet get wet, it bites at the ice that forms between toes. It even knows that something is dangerous in the voice of the man when he calls it to come near. It tries to avoid him.
It is instinctively wise. Though it cannot create a fire, it knows its value. It sits near the fire and relishes its warmth. When the man dies, its smelling power tells it about death. Its instinct makes it to run and find the nearby camp of men to get food and shelter. Thus, its instinct helps it to keep away from death. Its attitude, however, reveals that it feels no affection for the man. It has been only his toil-slave, often whipped to work.
A Meaningful Story : ‘To Build a Fire’ , as its title suggests, is quite a meaningful story. It highlights the symbolic value of fire in our life. In the midst of snow , a symbol of death, fire is a guarantee of life. When it extinguishes it indicates to the man that his death is now inescapable.
In another way, the story becomes meaningful. On the metaphorical level, it contrasts instinctive knowledge with intellectuality. Jack London’s main aim in writing this story is to make us aware of the value of instincts in life, particularly in extreme situations. Instincts are the best guide for surviving in the harsh Yukon. Ironically, it is the god who instinctively knows that cold conditions in which they – the man and the dog – are travelling are dangerous, while the man doesn’t, simply because of his faith in his intellect. So in spite of many advantages – thermometers, woolen clothes, maps, matches and a thinking brain – the man perishes, whereas the dog with only its protective fur and a keen sense of smell survives.
Narrative : The story is set in the Yukon territory, near the border of current day Alaska. It is told in the third person by the omniscient narrator in a simple and straightforward manner. It moves from the present to the future. It is unusual on the part of the man to start his journey on a day when the temperature is seventy-five degrees below zero. His action is caused by his rash nature and overconfidence. It leads to tragic consequences for him.
The rising action coves most part of his journey, culminating at a point when he fails to build a fire and the thought of death begins to overpower him. This is the climax of the story. Though it comes quite late, it forms the middle of the action.
Then there is the falling action leading to catastrophe. The idea of death is so frightening that the man runs and runs with all his might to escape death. But he soon realizes the futility of his attempt. So he decides to accept the inevitable .He lies down on the snow to sleep to death. His death sensed by the dog makes it run to a safer place.
The plot, which is designed to have tragic effect, is built systematically on details which presage the tragic outcome of a foolish venture.
Language : An adventure story has to be simple. It cannot be completely and overtly figurative. The author vividly describes the setting (the icy cold surroundings suggestive of death), the two characters, the man (symbolic of intellect) and the dog (symbolic of instinct) and the destination, a camp where there is peace and comfort (suggestive of distant heaven). At times he uses figures of speech. An apt simile comes towards the end to describe the man’s self-realized hopeless state – ‘he had been making a fool of himself, running around like a chicken with its head cut-off.’
Most of the story is, however, descriptive in nature. The description is minute, exact and expressive. There are three instances of descriptive imagery that stick to our memory for long:
- The crackling of the man’s spittle in the air because of freezing cold outside.
- The burning of the man’s flesh on his hands as he lit the pack of seventy sulphur matches.
- The panic running to escape from death by the man.