To Build a Fire

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"To Build a Fire"
Author Jack London
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Adventure,short story
Publication date 1908

"To Build a Fire" is the title of two short stories by American author Jack London published in 1902 and 1908. The 1908 story has become an often anthologized classic; the 1902 story describes a similar situation but has a different, less memorable plot. The 1908 "To Build a Fire" is an oft-cited example of the naturalist movement that portrays the conflict of man vs. nature. It also reflects what London learned in the Yukon Territory.[1]

Summary of 1908 story[edit]

At 9:00 a.m. on an extremely cold winter's day (−75 °F or −59 °C),[2] an unnamed man leaves the Yukon Trail, expecting to reach his associates (referred to as "the boys") by six o'clock at a claim "on the left fork of Henderson Creek." "The man," as he is called throughout the story, is accompanied only by a dog, "a big native husky, the proper wolf dog," who "knew that it was no time for traveling." But the cold does not deter the man, a relative newcomer to the Yukon. He proceeds along a creek trail, taking care to avoid hidden springs. The weather is so cold that the saliva from the tobacco he is chewing freezes his mouth shut, and he has to build a fire to thaw out sufficiently to eat lunch. Shortly thereafter, he breaks through an "ice skin" and soaks his feet and legs "halfway to the knees."

More angry than frightened by the accident, the man builds a fire to dry his clothes. With great difficulty (for he is aware of sensation rapidly ebbing from his freezing members) he starts a fire underneath a tree, but disaster strikes when snow from its loaded boughs extinguishes the fire. For the first time the man is frightened: "It was as though he had just heard his own sentence of death." He tries to start a new fire, but cannot light a match with his frozen, numbed fingers. He tries to hold a match with his teeth, but is choked by the fumes from the flame. In desperation he holds his matches with the heels of his hands and lights them all, burning his flesh as he gets a fire going once again. But his freezing limbs are losing their coordination, and while trying to nourish the flame he "disrupt[s] the nucleus of the little fire" and it goes out. He thinks of killing his dog to be able to warm his hands in its carcass, but with his numb hands he has lost the ability to hold his knife.

In a last attempt to keep himself warm, he runs toward his destination, hoping that his exertion can warm his body enough to keep him alive long enough to reach "the boys." But he can no longer feel his feet, and when he stumbles and falls, he finds he needs to rest before he can get up. Feeling panic rise within him at the thought "that the frozen portions of his body must be extending," he is able to get up and run on, but he slows to a walk, runs again, then falls. A "last panic" enables him to get up one more time and run "no more than a hundred feet," but he "stagger[s] and pitch[es] headlong." Calmer now, he addresses himself to the task of "meeting death with dignity." Before he dies from hypothermia, he has a vision of himself among "the boys" who will find his body the next day: "He did not belong with himself any more, for even then he was out of himself, standing with the boys and looking at himself in the snow." He falls into "the most comfortable and satisfying sleep he ha[s] ever known." This fits some descriptions of a Near-death experience.

His dog, not understanding why "the fire provider" is sitting in the snow instead of making a fire to warm them, comes closer and catches "the scent of death." A little later the dog turns and trots "up the trail in the direction of the camp it knew, where there were other food-providers and fire-providers."

1902 version[edit]

The earlier version was first published in The Youth's Companion on May 29, 1902. It differs in some details, though the general structure and story line are similar; the primary differences are: in the first version it is not so cold, there is no dog, the fire is not doused, and the man suffers some permanent frostbite damage but survives, sadder but wiser.[3]

Films[edit]

An early short film was made in 1927-1928 by Claude Autant-Lara as Construire un feu.[4] A 1969 film was made by David Cobham, with Ian Hogg as the man, and Orson Welles as the narrator.[5] A French version was made in 2003 starring Olivier Pagès,[6] and an American one with a modified story in 2008.[7]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

External links[edit]