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To Build A Fire Essay Question

SOURCE: “The Theme of Jack London's ‘To Build a Fire,’” in American Book Collector, Vol. 17, No. 3, November, 1966, pp. 15–18.

[In the following essay, Peterson discusses the motif of the journey in “To Build a Fire.”]

Judged simply by the number of times it has been selected by the editors of anthologies, “To Build a Fire” is Jack London's most popular and presumably his best short story. What merit editors find in it, I can only speculate; but I imagine that it is admired as a fine example of a suspenseful story with a strong theme presented in vivid, realistic detail. All this, of course, it is; and it is interesting to recall in this connection that, aside from the death of the protagonist, the story treats of precisely the range of experience that London himself had had in the northland. He too, in his relations with cold, dogs, fires, and all the rest of the exotic mise en scène, had never become more than a chechaquo; and writing within that narrow range of experience, he recreated a moment of truth about the Yukon more clearly and credibly than anywhere else in his fiction.

Valid as it is, however, an interpretation which halts at the careful contrivance of suspense, a strong theme—by which is meant, I suppose, the primitive struggle for survival—and precise, realistic details cannot explain the appeal of the story, which, like all serious fiction, hints at a depth and richness of meaning below the level of literal narration. In this paper I wish to discuss this “depth and richness of meaning,” or theme, particularly in terms of the fable and the characters. To put the discussion into context, let me summarize the story even if its great popularity guarantees that most readers are familiar with it.

A man, whose name is not given, is traveling alone, except for an almost wild dog as companion, in the far north in the dead of winter. Although aware of the dangers of the journey, the man is confident. He is alert and careful; but even so he accidentally breaks through the surface of a frozen stream and gets his feet wet. When he fails in his attempts to build a fire to dry himself, he dies. His wolf-dog companion leaves the body to seek food and warmth with the dead man's companions waiting in camp.

The fable unfolds as a journey taken in the face of serious danger in which the conflicts between man and nature and between man and dog provide the drama. But I wish to consider here the journey itself, presented in the first sentence of the story in a passage that is both rhetorically impressive and charged with implication:

Day had broken cold and gray, exceedingly cold and gray, when the man turned aside from the main Yukon trail and climbed the high earthbank, where a dim and little-traveled trail led eastward through the fat spruce timberland.

These details, admirably foreshadowing the events of the story, tell how a man leaves the well-trodden path of the familiar world of men to follow a faint and difficult trail into a world of mysterious (“dim and little-travelled”) but significant (“fat spruce timberland”) experience. The very rhythms of the passage reinforce the meaning. The shifts from the initial iambic rhythm to anapestic and back to iambic follow the movement of the passage from the scene itself (“Day had broken …”) to the first action (“… turned aside …”) and to the second (“… climbed the high earth-bank. …”). The double stress upon “earthbank” emphasizes the boundary between the realms of familiar and unfamiliar.

The journey thus brilliantly announced is, as I have implied, more than a literal journey, although the hard, realistic surface of the narrative may obscure what ought to be obvious. The nameless man (his anonymity is significant) is a modern Everyman who, if not precisely summoned, nevertheless takes a pilgrimage the end of which “he in no wise may escape.” At the realistic level, the direction of the journey is toward camp and safety, a return to the comfortable, sensual world of the known and familiar, but it becomes a journey into the unknown with the possibility of illumination as well as the risk of disaster. Hence another analogue, what Maud Bodkin, after Jung, has termed the archetypal theme of rebirth, suggests itself.

For Miss Bodkin, the rebirth theme consists of a double movement—downward toward disintegration and death and upward toward redintegration and life, but life greatly enriched. Jung terms this latter change “subjective transformation” and the result the “enlargement of personality.” The pattern is similar to what Toynbee calls “withdrawal and return.” “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is a rich and exciting work employing this theme, whether formulated in Jung's or Toynbee's terms; but the theme is a common one in fiction, including London's. “The Story of Jees Uck” (1902), an obvious instance, tells of Neil Bonner, a spoiled young man who is forced by his father to leave the civilization that has corrupted him and to live in the northern wilderness. There he has experiences, including a liaison with Jees Uck, a native girl, which give him new insights and values. These he takes back to civilization where he becomes a prominent member of his society.

“To Build a Fire” is of this general type. The central character—like Neil Bonner and the Ancient Mariner—has a misconception that must be changed, for living in such ignorance is a kind of death. At the beginning of the story we are told “That there should be anything more to it than that [cold as a fact requiring certain simple precautions] was a thought that never entered his head.” Extreme cold is a metaphor for a whole range of experiences beyond the man's awareness, and the point of the story is not that the man freezes to death but that he has been confronted with the inadequacy of his conception of the nature of things.

Neither the analogue of Everyman nor of the archetypal rebirth quite fits, however. The man, unlike Everyman, undergoes no redemption; nor, like Neil Bonner and the Ancient Mariner, does he return to civilization changed by the intensity and significance of his experience. He does not even have a moment of illumination as he dies. He comes nearest to insight when dying, he thinks, “When he got back to the States he could tell the folks what real cold was.” The inadequacy of the vision is indicative; had he been capable of truly comprehending his experience, London implies, he might not have died. Inexact as the analogues are, however, they define the kind of story “To Build a Fire” is and show that its significance lies in something profound and universal in the fable.

Before turning to a discussion of the characters, I must call attention to several details of the setting that seem to me symbolic. The “dark hairline” of the main trail and the “pure snow” on the broad frozen Yukon suggest the narrow limits of the man's rational world compared with the...


The story is set in the depth of winter in the Northwest Territories, a place profoundly inhospitable to human beings. The plot is straightforward: On a single, sunless day, an unnamed man undertakes a nine-hour walk along a faint and little-traveled trail in brutally cold weather—75 degrees below zero, 107 degrees of frost. Bound for the mining camp, where his companions are waiting, he takes a roundabout way so that he can scope out the “possibilities of getting out logs in the spring from the islands in the Yukon” (2). Save for the clothes he wears, a watch, his lunch, some chewing tobacco, some matches, and a few pieces of birch bark, he takes precious little with him. He is, however, accompanied by a husky, who seems far more impressed and depressed by—and instinctively aware of—the “tremendous cold” (3). He starts his trek at 9:00 a.m., pauses at 10:00, arrives at his lunch destination at 12:30 p.m.—exactly the time he had set for himself—builds a fire, eats, takes a leisurely smoke, and resumes walking, aiming to make camp by 6:00 p.m. But suddenly, “it happened” (7): he accidentally steps into an icy spring. To dry off, he successfully builds another fire, but he does so under a “fully freighted” tree, whose boughs soon capsize their loads of snow and snuff the fire out (9). Despite the frost that has already affected his fingers, he valiantly attempts to build a third fire, but, alas, he fails. He then makes a couple of attempts to run before deciding to meet death “decently,” “with dignity” (14). He sits down and slips into a frozen sleep, watched over by the increasingly bewildered dog, who eventually wanders off and presumably makes his way back to camp.

Section Overview

Citizens from many nations, for quite different reasons, sought to penetrate the Northwest Territories. We can imagine, for example, a story like London’s about a French Jesuit priest losing his life while trudging through the Northern winter for the purpose of baptizing a newborn Huron Indian. We would be invited by such a tale to admire or even be inspired by the deep piety, the sacrificial spirituality, of such a Frenchman. We also have an historical British example in Sir John Franklin, who set out in 1845 with 129 men and two amply stocked ships to find the Northwest Passage, a route through the Arctic from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. Although his expedition failed and all aboard were lost, Franklin stood for many decades as a proud symbol of British naval prowess and national, even imperial, honor. Noble impulses, like piety and honor, still inspire. But Jack London’s anonymous adventurer is out on the Yukon River, all alone in the dead of winter, searching for a profitable business opportunity: Jack London’s man is clearly an American. So are the story’s larger themes. But before getting to them, we need to look carefully at the protagonist of the story: his character, his deeds, and his purposes. We will also want to decide what we think of him.

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