To Build a Fire
"To Build a Fire" is a short story by American author Jack London. The famous version of this story was published in 1908. London published an earlier and radically different version in 1902 with a different ending, and a comparison of the two provides a dramatic illustration of the growth of his literary ability. This story is considered a prime example of the naturalist movement and of a Man vs. Nature conflict. It is also considered to be a reflection of London's own life after his experiences in the Yukon Territory.
A man is traveling on the Yukon Trail on a very cold day (−75 °F or −59 °C), accompanied only by a husky wolf-dog. The cold does not deter the man, a newcomer to the Yukon, who plans to meet his friends (who are referred to as boys) by six o'clock at an old junction. He walks along a creek trail, mindful of the dangerous, hidden springs, because getting wet feet on such a cold day is dangerous. The man continues on and, in an apparently safe spot, falls through the snow and gets wet up to his shins. He remembers an old-timer who had warned him that no man should travel in the Klondike alone when the temperature is colder than −50 °F (−46 °C).
With wet legs, he becomes scared and builds a fire to dry his clothes. He starts the fire underneath a tree, which is covered with snow, and feeds it with the lower dry branches. The agitation eventually upsets the loaded boughs, which dump their weight of snow onto the fire, extinguishing it. He tries to start a new fire, aware that he is already going to lose a few toes from frostbite. He gathers twigs and grasses, then tries to light a match with his frozen, numbed fingers. He grabs all his matches and lights them all at once, then sets fire to a piece of bark and his hands. He starts the fire, but accidentally pokes it apart while trying to remove a piece of green moss. The man decides to kill the dog and to put his hands inside its warm body to restore his circulation. But due to the extreme cold, he cannot kill the dog because he is unable to pull out his knife, or even throttle the animal. He lets it go.
In a desperate attempt to keep himself warm, he starts to run, trying to let the exertion heat his body. However, he has no stamina, and soon he stops and sits down. He imagines his friends finding his dead body in the snow, then himself telling the old-timer that he was right: It was foolish to travel alone. A warmth covers him and he falls into a deep, deadly, relaxing sleep. The dog does not understand why the man is sitting in the snow and not making a fire to warm them. As night falls, the dog comes closer to him and smells death on the man. It trots away "in the direction of the camp it knew, where there were the other food-providers and fire-providers".
1902 version 
The earlier version was first printed in The Youth's Companion published May 29, 1902. It differs in some details though the general structure and story line are similar; the primary differences being that there is no dog and the fire is not doused. The man suffers some permanent frostbite damage but survives, a little wiser for the ordeal.
There are only two main characters in "To Build a Fire," the man and his dog, although some count Nature as a third character. In the story, Nature is portrayed as the antagonist—the foe against which the man is pitted for survival. However, Nature does not act deliberately—it simply is, and it is the man's own folly which causes his death.
Other characters in the story are "the old-timer", a man who tries to warn the main character of the dangers that lie ahead if he decides to continue with his travels, and "the boys", the men with whom the man is supposed to meet up in the end.
An early short film was made in 1927-1928 by Claude Autant-Lara as Construire un feu. A 1969 film was made by David Cobham, with Ian Hogg as the man, with the story read by Orson Welles. A French version was made in 2003 starring Olivier Pagès, and an American one with a modified story in 2008.
- "To Build a Fire" Study Guide at What So Proudly We Hail Curriculum. Retrieved 22 February 2012.
- movies.yahoo.com To Build a Fire (1969)
- Internet Movie Database To Build a Fire (2003)
- Internet Movie Database To Build a Fire (2008)
|Wikisource has original text related to this article:|
- Alternate source for the full text of "To Build a Fire": This is the first, more juvenile version published in the Youth's Companion on May 29, 1902.
- Alternate source for full text of "To Build a Fire": This is the famous, second version of the story, published for an adult audience in The Century Magazine, v.76, August, 1908.