To Build a Fire Summary and Analysis by Jack London

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This Build a Fire short summary briefly recapitulates the storyline. To Build a Fire is the story of an arrogant, over-confident hiker who, against the warning of one of the natives of Yukon, thinks that he can venture into the sub-zero frigid areas all on his own, and meet his friends at a camp in the evening. From the very beginning of the story, London establishes for the readers how cold it is. The hiker’s spittle froze mid-air, and his cheeks became frost-bitten. All along the hiker is accompanied by a husky, who trudges along with him not out of loyalty, but because it knew that the man would provide fire. The man ultimately does provide fire when he lights one up to have lunch.


The hiker had been careful all along to not step on ice-traps that hid underneath its surface springs and pools, even sending the dog first to check the terrain. However, despite his scrupulousness, the man ends up breaking through the ice and wetting himself. Cursing aloud his bad luck, the man quickly tries to light a fire to warm his footgear and freezing legs. However, the fire he lit was short-lived for an avalanche of snow dropped from the tree above onto his fire, snuffing it out. Braving his freezing body, the man tries to light another fire, but fails miserably. Unable to handle the cold, the hiker even tries to kill the dog so that he could warm his hands inside its body, but his hands were so frozen and numb that he could barely hold the dog tightly for too long, leave alone strangle it.

Scared that he would lose his life, the man began running like a headless chicken in the direction of his friends’ camp. However, the man lacked the endurance that was required for such a run to be successful. He stumbled and fell multiple times. And ultimately, defeated by the cold, he decided to rest and meet death with dignity. This is when drowsiness began to creep upon him. And as he passed away in his sleep, he has visions of his friends finding his body. He mumbles to the native who had warned him to not travel alone when the temperature was below fifty that he was right. Eventually, the man dies, and the husky after catching the scent of death moves on towards the direction of the camp, where he knew he would find others who would provide fire and food.

To Build a Fire Story Summary

This To Build a Fire story summary elaborates on the events that take place in the story.

An unnamed protagonist decides to hike through the sub-zero Yukon territory on his own on a harshly cold morning, when there is no hint of sun and the frozen landscape around is covered in snow till the eyes can see. A new-comer to the land, the protagonist is unfazed by the cold, not because he is used to it, but because he believes that he can survive the harsh conditions. He believes so against the advice of an old-timer of Sulphur Creek who had warned him that no man should travel through those dangerously frigid areas alone when the temperature is below fifty. He is convinced that he can reach his friends at the camp at Henderson Creek by six in the evening, where they will greet him with fire and food, if he keeps trudging on, braving the cold.

A sense of foreboding is created is when the hiker spits and the spittle freezes mid-air – an indication that the temperature is colder than below fifty. The juice from the tobacco he was chewing formed amber crystals on his beard, and his cheeks were close to being frost-bitten. The man has for a companion a wild husky, who was accompanying the man for it knew that men were fire-providers, and it yearned for the warmth of fire.

The hiker was keenly observant of where he was stepping, for there were plenty of ice-traps around, concealing springs and pools. And getting himself wet meant danger and delay. When he was unsure, he made the dog go first to check if the ground ahead was indeed steady enough to walk on. Pleased with his pace, around noon, the man set up a fire and ate his lunch, while the husky enjoyed the protection of the fire. There was no real intimacy between the man and the dog. The man kept rebuking him, while the dog only followed him in want of fire.

Once the man proceeded with his hike after lunch, at a seemingly safe spot, the man broke through the ice and wet himself to the knees. The only way to survive this debacle was to light a fire and warm his footgear and his soaked self. Under a tree, he gathers dry leaves, tiny twigs, and branches to light a fire. As the fire began to gain strength, the hiker laughed at the advice of the old-timer from Sulphur Creek, and prided himself on undertaking the ordeal of venturing through the frigid lands all alone.

As the man keeps pulling twigs from the tree with difficulty for his fingers were frozen, an avalanche of snow falls from the tree above and puts out his fire. This puts the half-frozen man in a state of panic, and for the first time he wishes he had a mate. However, he tries to remain calm and build another fire – a task that seemed next to impossible for his fingers were too frozen to function, so much so that he could not even pull out a matchstick, and had to use his teeth. When he tries to light the birch bark using his mouth, the smoke makes him cough up and the match goes out. For his next attempt, he tries to light all the matches using his burning hands as a stump, but fails miserably and is unable to light a fire.

Completely incapacitated by the freezing, the man has the wild idea of killing the husky and putting his hands inside its warm body. But his hands were so numb from the frigid cold that he was unable to even hold the dog for too long. By this time, no amount of beating and thrashing could restore life into his hands, and they hung lifeless from his body. It was at this juncture that the fear of losing his life first gripped him. This threw him into a state of panic, and he began to run wildly in an attempt to pump blood into his hands and limbs. He thought that if he kept running, his body would pump blood and warm itself, unless the cold put him out before he could reach his friends at the camp.

His plan of running all the way to his friends failed for he did not have the endurance required for that kind of running with freezing limbs. He kept stumbling and falling, and eventually the man gave up and decided to meet death with dignity, instead of running around like a headless chicken. Slowly, drowsiness took over him and he prepared himself to pass away from hypothermia in his sleep. However, before passing away he pictured his mates finding his body. He even saw himself with his mates, looking down at his own dead body.

During his last moments, the man reiterates what he had been telling himself all along the hike – that it was indeed very cold. He mumbles to the old-timer that he was right, and then fades away into his eternal sleep. All along the husky sat there, watching the man die, confused as to why the man was not building a fire. And when the dog finally caught the scent of death, he moved on in the direction of the camp, looking for other food and fire-providers, leaving behind the dead hiker.

To Build a Fire Analysis and Critical Appreciation

Through his story To Build a Fire, Jack London has presented to us the classic conflict of man versus nature. Harsh inhabitable environs have been a common setting in Jack London’s stories, which he uses skilfully to show the elemental struggles of man for survival, and how insignificant he is when compared to the enormity of nature. This To Build a Fire analysis seeks to show how this short story highlights the notion that nature is unconquerable and despite being the most evolved specie on earth, even man can’t survive in nature when she is at her harshest.

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The hiker had underestimated the impact that cold can have on the human body and had over-estimated his ability to survive alone in the harsh Yukon territory. In his arrogance, he had even laughed at the feebleness of an old-timer of Sulphur Creek who had warned him that no man must venture alone in those inhospitable lands when the temperature was below fifty. However, as the hike progresses, we find that the warnings of the old native were indeed sound. Despite being very careful, the hiker ends up breaking through the ice and getting himself wet. His attempts to build a fire failed for his fingers were numb and dysfunctional, and he ends up collapsing on the ground and dying. This death of the hiker implies the victory of nature over man. On the other hand, the dog that was following the man survives because the dog is nature itself, and is hence equipped with the means to survive it. Man, on the other hand, is a creature of intellect as opposed to survival instincts. However, intellect cannot help a man when the temperature is below freezing point and his body is incapacitated. The hiker uses all the brains he can to survive the harsh cold, from using his hands as stump to light a fire to running like a headless chicken to keep his blood pumping. However, in the end, the hiker’s body gives up and stops complying with his brains. Nature claims what it was meant to claim.

The third person point of view has been used very well by Jack London in this short story. He uses the omniscient narrator to give us insights into not only what the man is thinking but also what the dog is thinking. This contrast between how the man and the dog approach nature shows us how limited a man is when it comes to survival in harsh conditions. The dog, guided by pure instinct, knew that it was an awful idea to venture out in the cold; whereas, the man, guided by intelligence and numbers, thought he could survive anything if he uses his brains. However, the death of the man in the end shows how wrong the man was in his estimation of what cold and harsh environs can do to a man. Because the narrator is omniscient, we also get a long commentary on the lay of the Yukon land and the harsh cold. The omniscient narrator describes how there is no sun over unbroken expanses of white, and how the cold is so tremendous that even spittle freezes mid-air.

The tone used in the story is apathetic and detached – just like nature, which actually helps in the creation of the frigid setting. The language used is simple and straight-forward. The plot is fast-paced and action-packed. The ending of the story, where the dog moves on leaving behind the dead hiker shows how life goes on, and that mortal men are insignificant in the grander scheme of things like nature and survival.

To Build a Fire Setting and Plot

To Build a Fire setting comprises the sub-zero frozen lands of Yukon where no life could survive due to harsh conditions. In this setting we have snow-covered grounds that go on for miles and miles, and are only broken by thin trails and some trees. The temperature of the setting is even less than fifty below zero; and we get an idea of how cold the environment is when we find that even the juice from the tobacco the hiker was chewing turns into amber crystals and settles on his beard. The choice of such frigid harsh setting makes sense, because what Jack London wished to show through this story was the insignificance and futility of man when pitted against raw nature. It is because of this setting that London has been able to show the struggle for survival that all men must put up when nature tries to claim them. However, in this story, the setting, i.e., nature wins and the character, the hiker loses.

The plot of this short story has a fast pace and is action-packed, save for the places where the omniscient narrator comments on the surroundings and the cold. In the rising action, we have the man trying to navigate his way through the cold Yukon region. A climactic point comes when, despite being careful, the man breaks through the ice and wets himself. After that the falling action begins with the downfall of the hiker, as he fails to light a fire. The resolution that the plot offers is tragic, as the story ends with the man losing his life to the harshness of nature.

To Build a Fire Theme

The overarching To Build a Fire theme is the futility of man when pitted against nature. Throughout the story, we see how, despite being careful and calculative, the hiker ultimately ends up losing his life to hypothermia, because one cannot trump nature when it is at its harshest.

We also have in this story the theme of primitivism, which gets established through the dog. The dog had the primitive instinct to avoid the cold and hunt for fire; whereas the hiker, guided by intellect, did not think much of the cold and ventured all alone into sub-zero frigid land. We see in this story how primitivism trumps intellect, just as nature trumps man.

Another theme of this story is pride. Although there are no direct hints, but one can glean that venturing all alone into frigid lands was a matter of pride for the hiker. He paid no heed to the warning of an old-timer who said he should not hike without a partner when the temperature is below fifty and even laughed at his feebleness. This shows that the hiker was a proud, arrogant man who thought he could conquer nature. However, one can say that it was his pride and arrogance that ultimately led to his demise.

To Build a Fire Character Analysis

The protagonist of To Build a Fire is a headstrong stubborn individual, who against the warnings of the natives of Yukon, believes that he can venture into the frigid territory all by himself. What London says about this character is that he had cold logic and rationale, but what he lacked was imagination, i.e., he failed to understand the significance of things. To him, the temperature fifty below zero meant nothing except, ‘very cold’. He failed to understand that such an extreme temperature entailed frostbites and numb and senseless fingers and toes, and eventually hypothermia. He thought that he could survive the cold if he used his brain right. However, he forgot to gauge that nature is not predictable. And it is because of this unpredictability of nature that he fell into a pool of concealed water and his fire was snuffed out by an avalanche of snow. If the man were less proud in his abilities and were more attuned to his primitive instincts of survival, then he would never have undertaken this journey alone, imagining ahead the perils that might lie ahead. Foolish as the man was, his perseverance was commendable. Even during his lowest moment when his body had become numb, the protagonist keeps on striving to survive. He runs like a headless chicken to pump blood into his body. However, this perseverance of his, although commendable, could not save his life. And he ends up losing his breath to the will of nature.

Another character in this story is the husky who accompanied the hiker in want of fire. The dog posits a stark contrast to the hiker, for the dog was attuned to his primal instincts of survival. The omniscient narrator reveals how the dog was flummoxed by the fact that the man kept venturing into the frigid cold and did not stay safe next to the fire. In this sense, the dog acts as a foil to the main protagonist; and the purpose of the dog in the story is to show what the man is lacking, i.e., primal survival instinct.

To Build a Fire: Conclusion

To Build a Fire is a simple short story that delineates the life-threatening adventure of a man who dared to explore the sub-zero lands of Yukon all by himself. Proud and foolish as the man was, he ended up dying of hypothermia. On the other hand, the husky that accompanied him survives, for it was attuned to its primal survival instincts. The message that this story then bears is that nature will claim whatever it deems fit when it is at its harshest; and no man, no matter how intelligent and capable, can combat nature that is designed to kill. Struggles of survival in harsh inhospitable environs were the common stock of many Jack London’s stories, and To Build a Fire is no different in this regard, for it is ultimately the tale of the ineffectual struggle of survival of a lone man in Yukon.


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