To Build a Fire

To Build a Fire Summary and Analysis of Part II

Second Part Summary:

In a seemingly safe, solid spot, the man falls through the snow and wets himself up to his shins. He curses his luck; starting a fire and drying his foot-gear will delay him at least an hour. He gathers brush and builds a fire, aware that his numb feet must not remain wet. His exposed fingers (necessary to make the fire) are also numb, and having stopped walking, his heart no longer pumps warming blood as much throughout his body. But the fire builds up, and the man feels safe. He remembers the old-timer from Sulphur Creek who had warned him that no man should travel in the Klondike alone when the temperature was fifty degrees below zero. He thinks the old-timers are "womanish," and that even with his "accident," he had saved himself in solitude. Nevertheless, it is extremely cold, and his fingers are almost completely numb.

The man unties his icy moccasins, but before he can cut the frozen strings on them, clumps of snow from the spruce tree above fall down and snuff out the fire. Though building a fire in the open would have been wiser, it had been easier for the man to take twigs from the spruce tree and drop them directly below on to the fire. Each time he pulled a twig, he had slightly agitated the tree until, at this point, a bough high up had capsized its load of snow. It capsized lower boughs in turn until a small avalanche had blotted out the fire.


Naturalism maintains that individuals do not have free will, but that their environment shapes their behavior. The naturalistic world is based on a series of links, each of which causes the next (these causal links can be viewed as processes). Humans are never the first causal link; our actions are caused and determined by social, environmental, and biological factors. This philosophy, called determinism, is crucial in explaining why the naturalistic world is amoral. (Note: amorality is not the same as immorality. Immorality signifies a "bad" morality, while amorality means an absence of morality.) We see this amorality at play when the man falls through the snow: he curses his "luck." "Luck" suggests an action out of an individual's control; it is "luck" whether one wins the lottery or not. There is no moral judgment on his action; falling through the snow seems simply like bad luck, since the "unbroken snow seemed to advertise its solidity beneath." The man himself uses the word "accident" to describe the event. An accident also suggests something out of one's control, an unforeseen or unanticipated event.

For both problems that develop with the snow, London simply states "it happened." This phrasing implies passivity, even paralysis, on the part of the man, to whom "it" has "happened." He has not created the unlucky events--"it"--and therefore cannot take responsibility. Nature has indifferently and deterministically created these new conditions for the man. Indifferent, again, because it does not care if the man is there or not. Deterministic, because it seems fated and the man could not have avoided it.

Or could he have? Of the second accident, London ambiguously writes that it was the man's "own fault or, rather, his mistake." Why does London revise his definition? A "fault" implies free will and a role in the consequences that develop. The word "mistake," however, is much like "accident"; it is a less moral term that implies an isolated incident out of one's control. (A person usually makes a single "mistake" in an entire process, whereas if the person is at "fault," the responsibility of the entire process seems to rest on him.) Still, "mistake" suggests some individual responsibility or lack thereof, at least more than "luck" does. How, then, does individual responsibility exist in naturalism, which denies the existence of individual will? Put simply, if humans are not even in control of our own actions, why should we take responsibility for them?

Naturalism maintains that one should take responsibility insofar as one can anticipate potential consequences. Since the naturalistic world is based on causal links, it should be possible, to an extent, to predict the consequences of our actions. The man could not have anticipated his falling through the snow, and therefore it is merely bad luck. However, he should have anticipated that his other action--building a fire under a spruce tree--could carry potentially significant consequences--the snuffing out of the fire. Only in this anticipatory sense is he somewhat responsible.

Why should the man have anticipated danger? Other than ignoring the old-timer's advice and foolishly and lazily building the fire under the spruce tree, the man has proven himself incapable of making the associative mental projections that reveal causal links. London told us this much in the first half of the story; the man refused to meditate upon the cold and expand his thinking to more universal ideas about mortality. Moreover, the man frequently works with processes (again, processes are the causal links in the naturalistic world), such as building fires. But he pays attention to these processes only when they somehow benefit him, as with the fire. When the process is potentially harmful, he ignores it; London even refers to the causal agitation of the boughs of the spruce tree as a "process."

The man's unwillingness to think more deeply about processes saddles him with some of the responsibility for the fire's going out. However, we can also argue that the man seems not only unwilling, but also incapable, of thinking about these processes. Therefore, he never could have anticipated the fire's going out, and he cannot be held responsible. That London calls the second event the man's "fault," then his "mistake," suggests a blend of the two arguments: the man should have anticipated many of the dangers in the Yukon, but nature ultimately determines his behavior.