Life and Death in “To Build a Fire”

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“To Build a Fire” is a short story written by John Griffith Chaney, better known as Jack London. London was an American author that was born on January 12, 1876 in San Francisco, California. He grew up in a middle-class family in which he had to work and read whenever he had spare time. He was a very intellectual and hardworking person that spent most of his time in public libraries, studying whatever he could get his hands on. He was able to learn all the things a normal student who has studied for four years of high school, in just one short year. His writing career began when his mother persuaded him to enter a writing contest. At just the age of fourteen, London won the contest against students from the colleges Stanford and Berkely. After this, he realized he had a knack for writing. Towards the beginning of his career, he was not making much profit. He was writing just for his love of it. He wrote many short stories, and he even covered the Russo-Japanese War in 1904. This was a very important historical time period, and London had the privilege to cover the event. (“Jack London”). Towards the end of his life, he spent majority of his time writing. He produced numerous works, totaling up over fifty books in about seventeen years, an astounding number in such a short period of time (Britannica). He wrote many works of literature in his lifetime, and he accomplished it by hard work, dedication, and his love of writing. In one of London’s short stories, “To Build a Fire,” he uses setting, tone, and imagery to produce a story about a man that is on a journey to meet a friend in freezing cold weather miles away from where he currently is, accompanied by a dog that feels very strongly for his owner. So strong that he abandons his own instincts to follow his owner to his death at the end of the story.

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Within London’s short story, “To Build a Fire,” takes place in the Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush. During the Klondike Gold Rush, thousands of people were in Canada in search of the gold. During this time period, many of the people that traveled to search for the gold had no idea how brutal the weather would be. They were more worried about the gold in California that the weather was not a concern to many of them. In the short story, “To Build a Fire,” the man is in the process of crossing from one town to the other in the harsh weather. He is supposed to reach the next town over by six o’clock. He does not expect the weather to be as cold as it is, and he continues to deny it as the story goes on, resulting in his fate. From the very beginning of the story, London describes the weather as being, “exceedingly cold and gray,” (London). The author could have used numerous other words to describe the weather, but he chose to use the words “exceedingly cold” to dramatize how miserable the weather was, almost putting the readers into the shoes of the man in the story. London describes the setting extremely vividly throughout the story, and he makes sure to reemphasize how cold it is as the story goes on. Because of this, it is quite obvious that London finds that the setting is a critical part of telling the story. He writes, “… but more solidly, the deposit taking the form of ice and increasing with every warm, moist breath he exhaled,” (London). This quote is one example of how London uses the setting to emphasize how brutal the weather is going to be on his long journey. Because of the awful weather ahead of them, it is clear that the man’s dog is very hesitant to cross the path, while the man ignores all the obvious warnings of the dangers ahead. The narrator makes the condition of the weather very clear, and this moves the story along by showing the reader how ignorant the man is in the story to willingly take this long journey to a town that is far beyond him.

The second literary device that the author uses in this short story is the use of tone throughout the story. The tone throughout the whole story is dispassionate and uninvested. The narrator that tells the story does not use much emotion throughout the story. Everything he says is pointblank and does not use much emotion at all. It repeatedly described how frozen the man’s face is and how harsh the weather is without showing any empathy towards the man or his dog. In the quote,

“…he knew also that there were streams of water that came out from the hillsides and ran along under the snow and on top of the ice of the creek. He knew that even in the coldest weather these streams were never frozen, and he also knew their danger,” (London).

It is very obvious that the man is suffering in this part of the story, but the narrator does not use any sympathy towards the man. He does not empathize the man or the dog, however, the reader is meant to feel concern for the man’s wellbeing. He did not show any compassion throughout the story for the man, the dog, or the outcome of whatever was going to happen to either of them. In the following the quote, “This man did not know cold. Possibly none of his ancestors had known cold, real cold. But the dog knew, and all of its family knew. And it knew that it was not good to walk outside in such fearful cold,” (London) the narrator has no sympathy for the man. The author’s diction at this point in this story shows that he no longer feels bad for the man in the cold because of his own decisions.

The man was suggested to stay away from the cold from other men because each of them knew the cold would be growing stronger as the time passed. The traveler thought he could outsmart the weather and make it to his destination before the weather became too powerful. “…it can be said that the man is naïve when he ignorantly considers his circumstances and is therefore ill-prepared for the predicament that befalls him. The wintery white land is not a beautiful inspiration to the man because the artistic part of his mind is still quite premature” (MissAniss) However, in the end of the story the man dies from the temperature. He tried to use his resources by building fires to keep him warm, but nature always backfired for him. He was traveling miles and slowly his body was becoming more and more affected by the cold. The traveler began to lose the mobility of his fingers and toes then slowly lost feeling in his face and other limbs. Because of his quick loss of bodily functions, he began to panic and was trying to survive based on what he knew of survival. He began to build fires to keep himself and the dog warm in the decreasing temperature. However, with every attempt to make a fire he was growing more in danger. Nature was not his friend in his journey to find the other man. His fires kept dying because of other forces of nature. Due to his choices to not stay where he was told to stay, his fires died every time causing him to fall deeper and deeper into a state of death. This shows that he was too headstrong and not willing to listen. He let his mind and heart get to him leading to his death. If the man would have waited to travel when the weather was meant to be safer, he would have made it safely to his destination and never have even came close to death. However, he was reckless, and fate fell upon him like he was warned by the other men to avoid.

The dog in the story is an important character. He is the only character who seems show any form of intelligence to the situation. “The main trait of the animal’s inner characterization is his wisdom coming from his instinct of survival. Unlike his master, the dog is aware that such a cold weather is not for traveling, and that the cold can be dangerous for living creatures” (“To Build a Fire Analysis”). His instincts kick in and throughout the whole story he is aware of the danger that lies ahead of him. He is scared and whines throughout the story because of his concern of the weather and the fate of his owner. The dog knows of the fate that lies ahead of his owner and tries to warn him and keep him from travelling any further into the death that awaits him at the end of the story. However, he is still loyal to his owner and continues to follow him on his journey until the very end. He uses his own natural instincts to keep himself alive and watches as his owner carelessly walks into his own death. In his own attempt at keeping himself alive, he ends up watching his owner die because of his own choices. He lies with his owner as he slowly passes from the cold and waits until his final breath until he leaves. He then walks to the spot that his owner was trying to reach to meet the men who were waiting for him at the end of the journey. This shows the loyalty of the dog and that instinct that he possesses that were capable of keeping the man and his dog alive.

Towards the end of the story, the man is almost in between life and death. Most people would be concerned for the man’s wellbeing, but that is not the case with the narrator. He shows how the decisions the man makes affects his decision between life and death. Because of how careless the man is, he ends up dying due to how stubborn he is. The man believes he can outsmart the weather and the suggestions of the other men. He had every chance to go back to the town he came from, but he continued to go further to reach the other town. The character of the dog was created to show how the instincts of the dog were meant to help the man survive. However, he lost his life because he was too stubborn to follow along with what nature was telling him to do. The reader is likely to worry and feel very strongly for both characters within the story, but that was not the case with the narrator. As the traveler grew closer and closer to death, he envisioned his life and the decisions he made to get to this point. The dog stayed with him to show the loyalty he had for his owner and stayed with him and his took his last breath.

Works Cited

  1. Britannica, Inc., 8 Jan. 2019, www.britannica.com/biography/Jack-London.
  2. “Jack London.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 15 Apr. 2019 www.biography.com/writer/jack-london.
  3. Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopedia. “Jack London.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia MissAniss. “Literary Criticism: Psychological Effects in To Build a Fire.” Owlcation, Owlcation, 18 Jan. 2017, owlcation.com/humanities/PostmodernismNovelReview.
  4. “To Build a Fire | Analysis.” Målrettet Hjælp Til Gymnasiet – Studienet.dk, www.studienet.dk/engelsk/analyse/to-build-a-fire/characterization-of-the-dog.
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Life and Death in "To Build a Fire". (2021, Mar 20). Retrieved February 6, 2023 , from
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