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 1902, 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, accompanied by his dog, to visit his friends—ignoring warnings from an older man about the dangers of hiking alone. The protagonist underestimates the harsh conditions and slowly begins to freeze to death. After trying and failing to build a fire, he slips into unconsciousness and dies of hypothermia.

The 1902 version describes a similar situation, but with a different plot. Though the structure and storyline 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]

Character relationships[edit]

The man and the dog's relationship is followed throughout the story. The man is in strict control of the dog, as explicitly mentioned by London. The dog is almost like a slave to him.[2] The dog is shown cowering before the man and following orders. There was no physical intimacy between the two. The man did 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]


"Man vs. Nature" is one of the themes present in this short story. The protagonist decides to face the brutal 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.

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. 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 the 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 judgement, and the man's arrogance.[5]

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 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.[6] In the ending of the story as well, the man or Tom Vincent, eventually reached his companions at the other camp while also regaining feeling in both his hands and his feet after obtaining frostbite.[7]



Short story naturalism maintains the particular trait of foreshadowing by placing the protagonist in a life-threatening environment. As such, the man being placed in extremely cold temperatures and inclement weather provides readers with the hint of the man's death by the end of the story.[14]

London uses foreshadowing throughout the story leading up to the man's eventual death. Starting from the moment the old timer from Sulfur Creek advises the man not to go on his journey, bad things begin to happen to the man. His saliva freezes over his mouth because of the dangerously low temperature, the man falls through ice, the man builds his fire underneath a tree and snow falls off the tree, extinguishing his fire, and, finally, he can't clutch the dog to hold it down to kill it.[15]

All of these situations in the story lead the reader to think the man will die in the end and all the readers' speculations come true as the man does in fact die at the end of the story.

See also[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. ""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. 76. Full text of the famous second version, published for an adult audience.
  5. ^ Press, Berkeley Electronic. "James Madison University - Log in". Retrieved 2018-04-10.
  6. ^
    • London, Jack (May 29, 1902). "To Build a Fire". The Youth's Companion.
    • London, Jack (May 29, 1902). "To Build a Fire". Youth's Companion. Full text of the first, more juvenile version.
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^ Internet Movie Database
  12. ^ Internet Movie Database
  13. ^ Official animation short film website
  14. ^ Harrington, Ellen Burton (2008). Scribbling Women and the Short Story Form: Approaches by American and British Women Writers. New York: Peter Lang Inc. p. 79. ISBN 978-1-4331-0077-2.
  15. ^ Ashmun, Margaret (1914). Modern Short-stories. Macmillan.

External links[edit]