To Build A Fire By Jack London: Literary Analysis

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A man travels with his dog through the Yukon Territory, heading toward a mining camp. The dog understands it is too cold to travel but the man is arrogant and does not heed any previous warnings. They stop for lunch and the man builds a fire. They continue on and the man accidentally steps through the ice and soaks one of his legs. He quickly tries to build a fire under a tree to dry and warm himself, ignoring the severity of the situation. Snow falls from the tree onto the fire and puts it out. Now the man has trouble building a fire because he cannot feel his hands. While the dog may seem loyal, it is actually staying with the man out of self-interest. The dog knows that the man represents food and warmth. After he failed at making a fire, he attempts to kill his dog and use him for warmth, He plans to strangle the dog and cut its belly open. He calls the dog over and tries to crush it, but he can’t do that either, because his hands are already frozen. Desperately, he runs in the general direction of his friends but falls and finally freezes to death. Before he dies, he imagines being with his friends and finding his own body. The dog realizing his master is dead, runs along the trail to The dog heads toward the camp, where it imagines it will find fire and food.


Setting: To Build A Fire setting takes place in the Yukon Territory of Canada, during the great Klondike Gold Rush, when over 100,000 people flocked to Canada’s Yukon Territory in search of instant fortune. The land is hidden under several feet of snow, and the man is so far north that the sun has been absent for days. The temperature is about 75 degrees below zero It is also ‘exceedingly cold and gray’ (1). Not only does the setting give off a physical sense but it also gives off a spiritual or reality sense to it as well. This short story takes us out of daily comfort lives and reminds us to give a sense to reality that somewhere out there is a cruel and unforgiving wilderness. The setting of ‘To Build A Fire’ also has a significant effect on the plot and characters. The author, Jack London has taken a lot of pleasure when describing the cold wind and ice covering over the man’s face. ‘The man’s red beard and mustache were likewise frosted, but more solidly, the deposit-taking the form of ice and increasing with every warm, moist breath he exhaled. Also, the man was chewing tobacco, and the muzzle of ice held his lips so rigidly that he was unable to clear his chin when he expelled the juice’ (7). This story wouldn’t be good as it is if it weren’t for Jack’s use imagery.

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Tone/Mood: In this short story, the tone used by the narrator is very blunt and emotionless. The narrator tells everything the ways it is, without a lot emotion. The writing style by the author is direct and straightforward. In Spite of the straightforward writing style, the structure of each sentence written by Jack is very creative, and makes the reader imagine the situation and makes the situation in the story very vivid. An example of this is when the narrator says, “But it didn’t matter much, after all. What were frosted cheeks? A bit painful, that was all; they were never serious” (3). This quote was plain simple yet very vivid. It gives the readers a sense of sight, sound, and touch.

Jack also makes the readers feel as if they can position themselves as the main character in Yukon. However, it felt like Jack did not like or feel sympathy for his main character. He seemed to make the character arrogant and disrespectful to the environment and elders. It seemed as if Jack liked the dog and not the man because all of the good attributes were given to the dog. This can be showed right off the bat on the first page, “The trouble with him was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances” (1).

The mood in this story transitions very slowly, as the man discovers how unprepared he was for the extreme cold weather. At first the story is told with the most straightforward phrases with little excitement and shows the mans unconcerned behavior. He does not worry that it is not sunny because, that kind of weather is normal way up in the North. He is also so sure that by nightfall he will enter the campsite that he brings almost no supplies, only matches and lunch. Even his early sense of Yukon being extremely cold is not enough to convince him. “He ran blindly, without intention, in fear such as he had never known in his life. Slowly, as he ploughed and floundered through the snow, he began to see things again—the banks of the creek, the old timber-jams, the leafless aspens, and the sky. The running made him feel better. He did not shiver. Maybe, if he ran on, his feet would thaw out; and, anyway, if he ran far enough, he would reach camp and the boys” (8). In this quote, fear had become his final worst mistake. In this story, the man is represented at a calm steadiness at first, however would turn into a panicked flight at the end. His brief hopes are washed out by his failure to save himself. The brief explanations of the extreme cold and the gradual hypothermic death of the man at the end creates an uncomfortable mood.


· Fire

Fire is a repeated symbol in the short story ‘To Build a Fire’. It is a symbol of warmth and life. In successful building of a fire, the man is given a chance to live longer, but in a failed attempt, the life is put out. Fire and the efficient building of a fire have several purposes. Most of all, it is a life-sustaining factor in the Yukon’s deadly cold climate. Initially, fire is something to look forward to for the man It represents a break in the journey or a relaxed end to his journey when he arrives at the camp. He does not see the full importance of fire for survival until he is beyond the ability to create one. On the other side, the dog immediately craves for warmth, knowing his ability to protect them from the cold and help them outlast the extreme temperatures. Naturally, the dog ‘had learned fire, and it wanted fire.'(1). The ability to create a fire is extremely important survival tool for humans. The fire could’ve helped the man live and not die of hypothermia; however, he was being stubborn thinking he can outlast the weather. He could’ve survived if he had developed the instinct to stop, take a break, and create a fire, and not attempt to travel. In a way, the existence of fire in this story represents life, and the lack of it shows life is running out.

· The Dog

The dog in this story represents the instinct of animals and serves as a connection between humans and the natural world. The dog is clearly still a part of the natural world as it keeps its instincts and knows how to live without human resources to survive the cold weather. The dog also symbolizes as a connection to instinct because of his sense with the fire. Although choosing to stay close to the man even though he has no interest in him, the dog looks to him for food and warmth, he also understands wild survival. The dog is said to be just a “toil slave”(8) to the man, while is out in the cold and looks upon the man as a provider for food and fire, the man on the other hand, couldn’t care less about the dog and could just kill it for food or warmth if he needed to. “The only caresses it had ever received were the caresses of the whip-lash and of harsh and menacing throat-sounds that threatened the whip-lash” (3). We are reminded in this quote that in the dog’s loyalty to the man, there is no affection at all for the dog, the man only possesses brutality and self-interest.

Metacognitive Response

The story I think my selection would replace from the current reader would be “Teenage Wasteland.” The main theme in Teenage wasteland is mostly blame, authority and fear. As when Donny blames herself for bad attitude and the bad grades that she is getting. Or how Daisy is the one who is in authority, and it seems as if Donny blames herself for lacking confidence. Donny went from being to out of control to a complete introvert. It is seemingly wonderful at the end Daisy never gives up on Donny, it seems as if Donny had paid price for what can be described as teenage misdemeanors. The reason I think “To Build A Fire” should be replaced for this story is because it shows no moral message. Although it is a great read there is no clear good moral message sent for the students who will be reading this. The moral lesson in “To Build A Fire” is that people should not think they are more powerful than nature. However, in the real would people can apply this moral by thinking they shouldn’t think they are more powerful that anything as a matter of fact. For example, you should never think you are more powerful than other people. Having a big ego is terrible, you should never stop treating people with respect and have an arrogant way of an opinion on them. The man in “To Build A Fire” had a absolutely no respect for nature or the dog and the consequences for him was death. I believe this is an important lesson that can be suggested in several different ways. You should never think you are too powerful for something; it can bring down a great deal of consequences for yourself. The building of a fire therefore symbolizes life in the story, but also life through human knowledge and skill.


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