To Build a Fire


"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 becomes a lesser known story. The 1908 version is about an unnamed protagonist who ventures out in the sub-zero tundra of the Yukon Territory, accompanied by his dog, to visit his friends. Though he was warned by an older man about the dangers of hiking alone, the protagonist ignores him. The man underestimates the harsh conditions and slowly begins to freeze to death. After trying and failing to build a fire in order to warm himself up, 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 be a more melancholy 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]

Summary of 1908 Story

On an extremely cold winter day (−75 °F or −59 °C), an unnamed man and his native wolf-dog go on the Yukon Trail after being warned of the dangers of traveling alone in extreme weather conditions by an old man from Sulfur Creek. With nine hours of hiking ahead of him, the man is expecting to meet his associates ("the boys") at a camp in Henderson Creek by that evening. The man is accompanied only by his dog, whose instincts tell it that the weather is too cold for traveling. However, the weather does not deter the man, a relative newcomer to the Yukon, even though the water vapor in the man's exhaled breaths and the saliva from the tobacco he is chewing have frozen his mouth shut. As the man hikes along a creek, he takes care to avoid pockets of unfrozen water hidden beneath thin layers of ice. He stops and builds a fire to thaw out so he can eat his lunch, and soon after continues hiking. Shortly thereafter, he breaks through the ice and soaks his feet and lower legs up to his knees.

More angry over the accident than concerned for his safety, the man builds a fire under a tree to dry his clothes as sensation begins to fade from his extremities. He pulls twigs from the nearby underbrush to feed the fire, but the resulting vibrations eventually cause the snow on the tree's loaded boughs to tumble down, extinguishing the flames and frightening the man for the first time. He gathers material for a new fire and lights it with great difficulty, burning himself with his matches in the process. However, while trying to remove a piece of moss, he inadvertently disturbs and extinguishes the flame. He seizes hold of the dog, planning to kill it and use the fresh carcass for warmth; however, he finds that he can neither draw his knife nor strangle the animal with his frozen hands. In a final desperate attempt to warm himself up, the man tries to run along the trail but repeatedly stumbles and falls. Finally understanding the truth of the old man's warnings about the cold, the man succumbs to hypothermia and sleeps his way into death, imagining himself to be with "the boys" as they find his body the next day.

The dog does not understand the situation at first, but after it catches the smell of death, it howls for a while and then trots off toward the camp, where it knows it can get food and fire.[2]


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.

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 illustration 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.

1902 Version

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, sadder but wiser.[3] In the ending of the story as well, the man or Tom Vincent, eventually got to his companions at the other camp. While also eventually regaining feeling in both his hands and his feet after obtaining frostbite.[4]

  • Construire un feu (1927-1928) is an early short film by Claude Autant-Lara.[5]
  • To Build a Fire (1969) was made by David Cobham, with Ian Hogg as the man and Orson Welles as the narrator.[6]
  • To Build a Fire (2003) is a French version starring Olivier Pagès.[7]
  • To Build a Fire (2008) is an American version with a modified story.[8]
  • To Build a Fire (2016) is an animated short film directed by Fx Goby.[9]
See Also
  • "The Little Match Girl", a short story by Hans Christian Andersen about a child dying of hypothermia
  • "The Beggar Boy at Christ's Christmas Tree" (1876), a short story by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  1. ^ "To Build a Fire" Study Guide at What So Proudly We Hail Curriculum. Retrieved 22 February 2012.
  2. ^ London, Jack (August 1908). "To Build a Fire". The Century Magazine. 76.  Full text of the famous second version, published for an adult audience.
  3. ^
    • 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.
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^ Internet Movie Database
  8. ^ Internet Movie Database
  9. ^ Official Animation short film Website
External Links
  • To Build a Fire public domain audiobook at LibriVox

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