To Build a Fire

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"To Build a Fire"
AuthorJack London
CountryUnited States
LanguageEnglish
Genre(s)Adventure, short story
Publication date1902, 1908

"To Build a Fire" is a short story by American author Jack London. There are two versions of this story, one published in 1902 and the other in 1908. The story written in 1908 has become an often anthologized classic, while the 1902 story is less well known. The 1908 version is about an unnamed protagonist who ventures out in the subzero boreal forest of the Yukon Territory. He is followed by a native dog and is en route to visit his friends—ignoring warnings from an older man about the dangers of hiking alone in extreme cold. The protagonist underestimates the harsh conditions and slowly begins to freeze to death. After building one fire and leaving it to venture on in his journey he later on attempts to build another but fails. He slips into unconsciousness and dies of hypothermia.

The 1902 version describes a similar situation with a different plot. Though the structure and story line are similar in both, in 1902 the weather is not as cold and horrendous, no dog follows the protagonist, the fire is not doused, and the man (named Tom Vincent) suffers only from permanent frostbite and survives to become a more melancholic but wiser person.

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]

1908 version plot[edit]

An unnamed man sets out to hike through the forests bordering the Yukon River on a winter day whose temperature has reached -75 °F (-59 °C). Having ignored warnings against traveling alone in such conditions, he is accompanied only by a large husky dog. The animal's instincts warn it about the dangers of the extreme cold, but the dog follows the man unwillingly. As they follow the course of a frozen creek, the man is careful to avoid patches of thin ice hidden by the snow that cover pockets of unfrozen water. His goal is to reach a group of prospectors ("the boys") at their camp by 6:00 that evening.

At half past noon, the man stops and builds a fire so he can warm up and eat his lunch. Shortly after resuming his hike, he accidentally breaks through the ice and soaks his feet and lower legs, forcing him to stop and build another fire—this one under a tree—in order to dry himself. As he pulls twigs from the brush pile around the tree to feed the flames, the vibrations eventually cause the snow to tumble down from the branches overhead and extinguish the fire. The man quickly begins to lose sensation in his extremities and hurries to light another fire, now starting to understand the warnings about the life-threatening danger posed by the extreme cold. He lights the fire, igniting all of his matches and burning himself in the process due to the numbness in his hands. While trying to remove a piece of moss from the fire, he inadvertently pokes the burning twigs apart and extinguishes them. With no way to start another fire, the man tries to kill the dog and use its body heat to save himself, but his hands are so stiff that he can neither strangle the animal nor draw his knife to cut its throat. Finally, he tries to restore his circulation by running toward the camp, but stumbles and falls multiple times in the snow. The man dies of hypothermia, imagining himself standing with "the boys" as they find his body, and the dog leaves the body after dark to find food and shelter at the camp.

Character relationships[edit]

The man and the wolf dog's relationship is followed throughout the story. The man has strict control of the dog, as explicitly mentioned by London. The dog is almost like the man's slave.[2] The dog is shown cowering before the man and following orders. There is no physical intimacy or compassion between the two. The man does not pet the dog or treat it fondly. In fact, the man forces the dog to go ahead of him when he suspects the ice will break. This helps to build the idea that the man believes nature is intended to serve him.[3] The man's interactions in this relationship is how the reader discovers the man's personality and character. By including the dog, the author makes the man less likable. London even describes the dog as his "toil-slave".[4]

While the man sees the dog only as his slave on the journey, the dog sees the man as a provider of his needs, which helps follow his instincts.[citation needed] Placing the dog in the story allowed London to show the wisdom of nature over the arrogance of the man, which eventually leads to his demise.[5] Placing the dog in the story also allowed London to show that animals survive through instinct and on the other hand London shows that men of limited intellect, such as man in the story, fail and don't survive.[6]

Themes[edit]

"Man vs. Nature" is one of the themes present in this short story. The protagonist decides to face the brutally cold temperatures of the Yukon Territory, despite being warned by an older man. The short story depicts the protagonist's battle of life and death while highlighting the importance of the fire.

One theme illustrated in the story is the man's human sense of judgment contrasted with the dog's animal instincts. Throughout the story, London hints that the dog has more knowledge of survival than the man. The judgment-versus-instinct theme is evident when the man builds the first fire. While the dog wants to stay by the fire to keep warm, the man is determined to keep moving. As the dog reluctantly follows the man across a frozen river, the dog is more cautious than the man.

The protagonist's desperation is evident throughout the majority of the story. It is noticeable soon after the man falls into a frozen-over river. In order to save himself, he scrambles to build a fire but is too busy worrying about his health to notice the mistake of building a fire underneath a tree which has collected an enormous amount of snow. After the first fire is put out, his desperation becomes more defined as he seemingly will do anything to survive, including attempting to kill his dog for warmth and using all his matches at once in a final attempt to light his last fire. His desperation for survival and his fear of death cause his final demise as he freezes to death at the end of the story.[4]

Another evident theme in the story is perseverance. Although the man makes several mistakes and is getting frostbite in his fingers and toes, he continues to fight for survival.

Another theme that is present is that of wisdom and experience. London shows us throughout the story that the man lacks the knowledge in order to survive in the Yukon.[7]

Stupidity and arrogance are personified in the story's protagonist. For example, he goes through the extremely cold territory alone, despite going for the first time. He laughs off the crucial advice of traveling with an acquaintance because he thinks he knows what he's doing. This arrogance results in the protagonist putting himself in a dangerous situation that was preventable. At first, he thinks it's nothing and that everything will be fine. By the end of the story, he dies as a result of his arrogance. Through this story, London shows how the man's demise is due to his humanity and lack of thought when going into this journey. Also, he shows that the dog survives because of following its instincts which is something that the man does not pay attention to.[8] Another example of arrogance occurs when the protagonist disregards the possibility that there may be situations he cannot overcome. The old man warns the protagonist of this and also seems to have a better understanding of the natural world, respecting the fact that there are some situations the man will be unable to control. Not only does the old man see the protagonist's stupidity, but the dog notices the man's lack of knowledge about the terrain and its obstacles after he fails to keep a fire going.

Succumbing to death is another theme in the story: more specifically the peace that may be found in death. London foreshadows the death of the man early in the story, so it is not a surprise that the man dies. However, London depicts death quite differently than many other authors do. The man drifts off into a calm, peaceful slumber devoid of suffering and pain. London's use of relaxing words dissuades the reader from feeling a great deal of sympathy for the man, as the death is merciful and graciously anticipated, rather than sad. In contrast to more dramatic depictions of death, London's depiction reveals death as a peaceful escape from tumult and pain.

Individualism is another common theme London portrays in the story. The man only relies on himself to get him through the Yukon; he doesn't believe that he needs any help. This theme can also be connected to the theme mentioned above of the man's judgment, and the man's arrogance.[9]

1902 version[edit]

The earlier version was first published in The Youth's Companion on May 29, 1902.[10] It differs in some details, though the general structure and storyline are similar; the primary differences are as follows: in the first version it is not as cold, there is no dog, the fire is not doused, and the man (named Tom Vincent) suffers some permanent frostbite damage but survives, sad but wiser.

Films[edit]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "To Build a Fire" Study Guide at What So Proudly We Hail Curriculum. Retrieved 22 February 2012.
  2. ^ Ulicne, Chris. "The Unmentioned". Stone Hill College. Retrieved 5 April 2018.
  3. ^ Fleissner, Jennifer (January 2013). ""To Build a Fire": An Environmentalist Interpretation". America In Class. Retrieved 5 April 2018.
  4. ^ a b London, Jack (August 1908). "To Build a Fire". The Century Magazine. Vol. 76. pp. 525–534. Retrieved April 16, 2019 – via London.Sonoma.edu. Full text of the famous second version, published for an adult audience.
  5. ^ Jeanne Campbell Reesman (Winter 1997). ""Never Travel Alone": Naturalism, Jack London, and the White Silence". American Literary Realism, 1870-1910. Vol. 29 no. 2. University of Illinois Press. pp. 33–49. JSTOR 27746687.
  6. ^ Bowen, James K. (1971). "Jack London's "To Build a Fire": Epistemology and the White Wilderness". Western American Literature. 5 (4): 287–289. ISSN 0043-3462. JSTOR 43017420.
  7. ^ Welsh, James (2004). "Masterplots II: Short Story Series". Revised Edition. 1: 1–3. Retrieved 16 April 2019.
  8. ^ Bowen, James (1971). "'To Build a Fire': Epistemology and the White Wilderness". Western American Literature. 5 (4): 287–289. doi:10.1353/wal.1971.0004.
  9. ^ "James Madison University - Log in". commons.lib.jmu.edu. Berkeley Electronic Press. Retrieved 2018-04-10.
  10. ^ London, Jack (May 29, 1902). "To Build a Fire". Youth's Companion. Vol. 76. Retrieved April 16, 2019 – via London.Sonoma.edu. Full text of the first, more juvenile version.
  11. ^ "Construire un feu". UNIFRANCE (in French). Retrieved 2019-04-17.
  12. ^ "Construire un feu (1930)". Internet Movie Database.
  13. ^ "To Build a Fire (1969)". Yahoo! Movies. Archived from the original on 2006-05-16.
  14. ^ "To Build a Fire (2003)". Internet Movie Database.
  15. ^ "To Build a Fire (2008)". Internet Movie Database.
  16. ^ Samuel François-Steininger. "To Build a Fire". Indiegogo. Retrieved 2019-04-17.

External links[edit]