First Part Summary:
A man turns off from the main trail in the Yukon (in Alaska) on an extremely cold, gray morning. He surveys the icy, snowy tundra. The cold does not faze the man, a newcomer to the Yukon, since he rarely translates hard facts, such as the extreme cold, into more significant ideas, such as man's frailty and mortality. He spits, and his saliva freezes in mid-air, an indication that is colder than fifty degrees below zero. He shrugs it off; he is going to meet "the boys" by six o'clock at the old claim near Henderson Fork. He has taken an alternate route to examine the possibility of getting out logs in the spring from the islands in the Yukon. He feels his lunch of biscuits inside his jacket, warming against his skin.
The man walks through the thick snow, his unprotected cheekbones and nose feeling numb. A husky wolf-dog follows him, instinctively depressed by and apprehensive of the cold. Every warm breath the man exhales increases the ice deposit on his beard. He passes over more terrain to the frozen bed of a stream, ten miles from his destination, where he plans to eat lunch. The faintness of the last sled-trail in the snow indicates no one has been by in a month, but the man pays it no mind; still, he occasionally thinks that it is very cold, and automatically and unsuccessfully rubs his cheekbones and nose to warm them. He realizes his cheeks will "frost," and wishes he had prepared for this, but decides that frosted cheeks are only painful and not very serious.
Though the man does not spend much time thinking, he is observant of the curves and the possibility of dangerous springs in the creek as he wends along it. If he crashed through one, he could potentially get wet up to his waist, and even wet feet on such a cold day would be extremely dangerous. As he continues, he avoids several springs. At one point, suspecting a spring, he pushes the reluctant dog forward to investigate. The dog's feet get wet, and it instinctively licks and bites at the ice that forms between its toes. The man helps the dog, briefly removing his mitten in the numbing cold.
A little after noon, the man takes out his lunch. His frozen beard prevents his biting into it, and his fingers and toes are numb, so he decides to build a fire. He thinks about the man from Sulphur Creek who gave him advice about the cold; he scoffed at it at the time. He takes out matches, gathers twigs, and starts a fire. He thaws his face and eats his biscuits. The dog warms itself near the fire. After, the man continues up a fork of the creek. The dog wants to remain with the fire or at least burrow in the snow, but since there is no "keen intimacy" between the two, the dog does not try to warn the man for his own sake; it is concerned only with its own well-being. Still, it follows the man.
"To Build a Fire" is the quintessential naturalist short story. Naturalism was a movement in literature developed largely by Emile Zola, Theodore Dreiser, Edith Wharton, Stephen Crane, and Jack London in the late 19th-century. Its major themes (which will all be explained and explored in greater depth here) are determinism over free will; the indifference of the environment; survival; absence of moral judgment; instinct over intellectualism; a fascination with processes; the emphasis of narrative over character; depiction of characters in the lower classes; and more realistic language befitting such characters and settings.
"To Build a Fire" reveals much about itself and its naturalist origins in its title. "To Build a Fire" sounds almost like an instruction manual, and the story does, indeed, teach the reader how to perform various acts, such as building fires, avoiding dangerous springs, and navigating a creek. As in Herman Melville's Moby Dick (not considered a naturalist novel, but it shares many of the same concerns), where the reader learns all about whale hunting, the reader leaves the story with a sense of the processes at work in its world. We see other processes in effect, too, such as the layers of snow and ice that have built up in the Yukon, or the ice that accumulates on the man's beard.
The title also implies the need for survival. London might have (unwisely) given his story the unpleasant title "To Survive, You Need To Build a Fire." Naturalism is interested in the deep conflicts that bring out the brute instincts of man. London's story provides one of the oldest conflicts in literature and life: man versus nature. The man is at constant risk of freezing in the brutal cold, and soon mere survival, rather than the prospect of finding gold, will become his preoccupation.
The man is clearly not an experienced Yukon adventurer. He ignores all the facts that indicate danger--he underestimates the cold, he ignores the absence of travelers in the last month, he de-emphasizes his soon-to-be-frostbitten cheekbones. Again, processes are important: he does not make any mental processes, taking facts and assigning them increasing significance. While this may seem at first like an intellectual deficit, what the man truly lacks is instinct--the unconscious understanding of what the various facts mean.
The dog, on the other hand, is pure instinct. While it cannot intellectualize the cold as the man can, assigning numerical values to the temperature, it has "inheritedknowledge" about the cold. Without thinking, the dog knows the cold is dangerous, knows the spring is risky, knows to bite at the ice that forms between its toes, and even knows not to get too close to the fire for fear of singeing itself.
While the main conflict is man versus nature, it would be inaccurate to say that nature actively assaults the man. Nature does not go out of its way to hurt the man; it would be just as cold without the man's presence, as well. Rather, the environment is indifferent to the man, as it frequently is in naturalist literature. The bitter environment does not aid him in any way, and it will not notice if he perishes. In the same way, the dog does not care about the man, only about itself.
Even London does not seem to care about the man too much--or, more precisely, he does not make any overt moral judgments about the man. He merely conveys the objective facts, pessimistic though they may be about the man. For instance, in describing the man's inability to make mental leaps, London only states "That there should be anything more to it than that was a thought that never entered his head." London never denounces outright the man's foolhardiness; his most aggressive comment, "The trouble with him was that he was without imagination," is only a suggestion that the man will encounter trouble because of this deficit.
Likewise, London maintains an air of neutrality with his prose, objective and reportorial. He focuses mostly on the narrative and little on the man's interior world and history--indeed, we never even know the man's (or the dog's) name. He is less an individual and more a representative of all humanity, especially humanity up against nature. Also in keeping with the naturalist tradition, the man is obviously not a member of the upper class. Like "the boys," he hopes to strike it rich by prospecting for gold, as did many during the Yukon Gold Rush in the late 19th-century, or even by selling logs.
One major point of naturalism not discussed yet is determinism. It will become more important in the next part of the story.