To Build a Fire by Jack London: Summary & Analysis

The Story-line / Plot Summary

“To build a fire”, the short story authored by Jack London has two versions. The first one was published in 1902 and the other version was published in 1908. Both of them are based on the same plot but have different twists towards the end.

In the 1908 version, there’s an unnamed protagonist who decides one day to venture around and hike through the sub-zero Tundra areas of Yukon territory to meet up with his friends and is accompanied by a dog. Though an older man, or as the author has described, an old-timer of the Sulphur Creek had warned him that the area was too dangerous and not to venture in those areas alone, he ignores his advice thinking he can survive and the conditions may not be as harsh as the old man had said.

But when his spit turns into ice in mid-air, he feels it actually is cold but remains calm and confident nevertheless. He smartly avoids all the ice traps and thin ice layers, but during the journey a layer of ice breaks under his feet and one of his legs gets soaked in the ice-cold water till his knee. He realizes that he won’t be able to walk much due to the numbness from the soaking wet cloth so he decides to light a fire.

Under a tree, he starts putting dry leaves, tiny twigs, branches and lights a fire. He puts the foot-gear for drying and tries to warm himself up a bit by the fire. While doing so, he laughs at the old-timer Sulphur Creek, thinking he was too womanish and meek. Taking pride in himself that he had survived this much. Not long after this though a mound of ice from the leaves of the tree falls right on the fire. Only then he realizes that he should have brought along a friend. The man curses his luck, even panics but wills himself to remain calm and attempts to light a fire again but fails miserably. Then he attempts two more times to build a fire but his hands were too frozen and numb to even light a match. But still in his arrogance, he doesn’t realize the gravity of the situation he’s in. He believes that he’ll survive.

The man tries to keep his blood circulation normal by running but the cold is too harsh and he gets too tired to even stand. He couldn’t even feel his legs and hands. He even thinks of killing the dog just so he could put his hands in the warm body and keep himself alive. The man tries to call the dog towards him but something in the look of his eyes or his voice kicks the survival instincts in the dog. The dog walks away from the man and doesn’t let him near itself.

After more attempts he realizes his foolishness and arrogance and decides to meet his end with dignity. In short he accepts that he was wrong to think that he could fight with nature and that the old-timer of Sulphur Creek was right. Then he dies of hypothermia.

In the 1902 version of the story, the plot is same though there’s no dog to accompany the man, the man’s name is Tom Vincent and he doesn’t die in the end. He gets a permanent frostbite though. But still he realises his arrogance and survives to become a wiser person.

To Build a Fire: A Commentary

The 1908 version of ‘To build a fire’ by Jack London has often become an anthological classic whereas the 1902 version is less known and less popular as compared to the former one.

The background is quite extreme. It’s too harsh to survive but the man in his arrogance and stupidity invites his own peril. The message is quite clear as well; you cannot fight with nature when she’s at her worst.

From the beginning, the author builds up a certain curiosity in the reader’s mind with the slow tension build up. And of course, the line ‘it definitely is cold’ and the fact that he even thought and tried to kill the dog just to keep his hands warm will give you chills. The writing style is simple yet powerful and even elegant at times.

All situations are quite ironical as well because from the beginning it was clear that the man shouldn’t do this. Yet he does it anyway just to prove everyone wrong. Having confidence on yourself is great but over-confidence can kill you. In this case it literally killed him.

The description of the harsh surrounding is really interesting; it can grab the reader’s attention in a few minutes without giving away too much. London’s way of depicting the man’s emotions: over-confidence, arrogance, stupidity and of course desperation is really great and some lines may actually ring in your ear even after you have finished reading it.

All in all, the author has done a spectacular job in terms of description and meaningfulness.