To Build a Fire
This story was written in 1908 and takes place in the Yukon. The Yukon is way up north in Canada where it is very cold. Jack London was a real rugged kind of guy and his writing shows that. Jack London was involved in the Gold Rush way back at the end of the 19th century. This is when this story probably takes place. This story is all about survival and has a lot of details about the wilderness.
The man: This is the main character. He is traveling alone with his dog to meet up with his friends who are at camp. He thinks he is smarter and tougher than nature but he finds out the hard way he isn't.
Dog: This is the man's dog. It is a big husky (looks kind of like a wolf).
Old Timer from Sulphur Creek: This guy is not in the story, but the man mentions him a few times. The Old Timer gave the man all kinds of warning about traveling alone in the cold but the man never listened.
The boys: These are the man's friends. They are never in the story but the man mentions them.
The story starts out with the man walking through the Yukon wilderness alone. It's really, really, cold…like 75 degrees below 0. It's so cold, that when he spits, it freezes in the air. This is the first winter the man has been up in the Yukon so he doesn't really have an appreciation for how cold and dangerous it is. You find out he planning to meet up with "the boys" at an old claim (where they dig for gold). He figures he will be at camp that night.
Traveling with the man is a Husky dog. The dog knows it's too cold to be traveling and is unhappy, but follows the man. So, they travel along. The man is chewing tobacco and when he spits, it freezes in his beard. The man is traveling next to a creek and so he is watching for little springs of water that aren't frozen, because if you step in one of those, you get wet and you are in serious trouble. So, the man keeps walking watching out for these little traps. One time, he sends the dog ahead of him to check for these traps and the dog got it's feet wet. The dog licks the water off its paws immediately so it won't freeze and make his paws sore. The author talks about how the dog does this because its instinct tells it to, not because it understands. This is important because the author wants you to realize that instinct is very important to survive in the wilderness and that the dog has it, but not the man.
The man stops for lunch and is happy because he thinks he is making good time for his journey. He takes off his gloves to get his food and his hands get real cold real quick. He can't eat his food because of the ice on his beard from spitting tobacco. He forgot to build a fire (first mention of the title…Building a fire is key to survival in the cold) to thaw out and get warm. The man is a bit frightened because it is so cold, but he builds a fire and gets warm. The dog is happy.
Then, the man gets going again. The dog doesn't want to go but the man makes it come. The man walks a little while and then he falls into a water hole…remember those are very dangerous! Now he has to build a fire to thaw out his wet feet. He is pissed because he thinks this will make him late to reach camp. He knows it's important to build a fire because the Old Timer from Sulphur Creek told him last fall. So, he takes of his gloves to build a fire and they start getting really cold. His feet are starting to freeze. He remembers how the Old Timer from Sulphur Creek warned him that no one should ever travel alone in weather below 50 degrees. He thinks to himself that the Old Timer is wrong because he has almost finished building a fire and he will be fine. Then, it happens. He had started to build his fire under a tree, and while he was pulling twigs off the tree to use for the fire, it had made the snow from the branches fall onto the fire and put it out. He should have built the fire out in the open, not under a tree.
Now, the man realizes he is up shit creek without a paddle. The Old Timer was right because if he had someone else there, that person could have built the fire. But instead, he is alone and his feet are frozen and his hands are numb. He starts to build another fire but it's really hard because his fingers are numb. The dog is watching him as he tries to light the twigs but his hands are too numb to use his matches. He finally lights one but the twigs get scattered when he tries to get them lit and he realizes his fire has failed.
Then the man remembers some story of a guy who killed a steer and crawled into its carcass for warmth and survived. He sees his dog and thinks he will do this. He calls the dog, but the dog doesn't trust him one bit and won't come. He crawls over and jumps on the dog but the dog gets away. By now, his feet and hands are frozen and he can't feel them at all. He gets up though and starts to run wildly down the trail. He has this crazy notion he can run to camp and he will be ok, just lose some toes and fingers from frostbite. Of course, the camp is way too far away. Finally, he stumbles and falls. The dog comes and sits near him. The man realizes he is freezing to death and he pictures his friends finding his body the next day. Then he thinks to himself how the Old Timer was right. Then he falls asleep and dies. Freezing to death is not that painful actually. You just fall asleep and don't feel anything. Well, the dog realizes the man is dead and takes off down the trail to the camp.
THINGS TO MAKE YOU LOOK SMART
- The author's major theme here is instinct. You need instinct to survive in the wilderness.
- The dog has instinct and although it does not understand things like the man does, it is better equipped to survive.
- The man can represent Mankind's arrogance about how man is superior to nature.
- The author is trying to get the point across that Nature is unforgiving and unless you follow the rules, you will die.
- A good paper topic is a comparison between the man and the dog. Talk about how the dog exposes the man's lack of imagination. The man can't picture all the bad things that can happen in the wilderness, but the dog just knows things are bad.
- Jack London describes things through his characters. He lets them speak and tell the story.