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London, Jack. "To Build a Fire".

Note

This is the mature 1908 version of the story, radically different from the first 1902 draft.

 

Summary

Set in the Klondike. It is Arctic winter, an exceedingly cold day with no sun, and 75 degrees bellow zero. A man sets off to a camp. It is nine in the morning and he should be in the camp at six in the evening. He is accompanied by a big native husky. Instincts tell the beast that it is no time for travelling, the husky expects the man to return or to build a fire. The man's face is frozen. As he chews and spits tobacco, the juice freezes on his chin, creating an amber beard. His cheeks and nose become dumb, he knows they will be frosted.

The landscape makes no impression on the man. He lacks imagination. He crosses a frozen creek, but the snow covers dangerous traps. First the dog, which is sent forward, is caught in such a trap and wets its feet. They are immediately frozen. It is necessary to build a fire. The man's toes are getting numb, but he gets warm by the fire. The dog does not want to leave the fire. The man does not know the cold but the dog and its ancestors did. The beast inherited their knowledge. The dog makes no attempt to communicate its knowledge, is is a mere tool of the man.

The man falls into a spring covered by snow and wets himself to the knees. It is an imperative to build a fire. The man is in danger, he must not fail in his first attempt to build a fire when it is so cold and his feet are wet. When he stops walking fast, his blood circulation slows down and leaves the extremities (feet, fingers) go numb very quickly. The fire is a success and the man laughs at the warning that no man must travel alone in the Klondike when it is less than 50 degrees bellow zero.

He made a mistake of building the fire under a spruce tree. After some time the heavy snow of its boughs falls on him and the fire expires. The man is shocked. It is his own sentence of death. The dog watches the man's attempts with a certain wistfulness in its eyes. It looks upon him as the fire provider who is now failing. The man's fingers get frozen and he is unable to hold a match. He tries to use his mouth to hold it. He manages to lighten some seventy matches at once but the flesh of his hands catches fire and he feels pain even despite the numbness. He fails to build the fire.

The man thinks of killing his dog and burying his hands into its warm body, but the tones of fear in his voice make the beast suspicious. When he gets hold of the dog, he is unable to kill it with his numb hands. He realizes that is is a matter of life and death. He starts running blindly, hoping to reach the camp, but knowing he is to die. He must sit down to rest. He realizes that the frozen portions of his body must be extending because he feels warm and comfortable. The panic dissolves and he accepts the conception of meeting death with dignity. He pictures himself as he will be seen by those who will find his body the next day. He nods to the man who warned him no to go out alone when it is under 50 and admits he was right.

The dogs waits but is disturbed by the man's lying in the snow without making a fire. When the evening is approaching, it comes nearer to smell the death. It runs in the direction of the camp where it knows to find other food providers and fire builders.

 

Analysis

- the story interestingly features one human and one animal protagonist

- the namelessness of the man suggest the universality of his condition

- shifts between the thoughts of the man and the "consciousness" of the dog

- naturalistic ideas: a man's futile plight against the nature

- Darwinian survival of the fittest: the dog survives, but the man is too weak to survive alone

- unromantic concept of nature: the man does not appreciate its beauties and perceives nature as an enemy to be conquered

- pragmatic relationship between the man and the dog: no intimacy or affection, but a relationship enforced by the mutual need of each other in the struggle for survival

Basics

  • Author

    London, Jack. (1876 - 1916).
  • Full Title

    "To Build a Fire".
  • First Published

    In: The Century Magazine. 1908.
  • Form

    Short story.

Works Cited

London, Jack. "To Build a Fire". (1908). In: The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym et al. NY: Norton, 1989.

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