The Short Story “To Build a Fire”

“To Build a Fire” by Jack London is a short story about a man who is hiking through Alaska to find a camp and meet a group of people who the author refers to as “the boys.” Along the way, the man comes across a dog who follows the man for an unknown distance because the man seems to offer protection from the cold as well as food. At one point the man tries to kill the dog to use its insides as protection from the cold. He never gets close enough to the dog to be able to kill it, but begins to suffer from frostbite in his hands.

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Feverishly, he tries to light a fire but is unsuccessful in his attempts. Eventually, he succumbs to frostbite and ends up dead. The author put the man against an extremely harsh environment to show that no matter how rugged or tenacious an individual may be, we as humans are still helpless to Mother Nature’s will.

In the poem the man is taking bits and pieces of an unmentioned old man from Sulfur Creek. He seems to be giving the man advice about being in the Alaskan wilderness alone. At one point, the old man told him that “no man should travel alone in that country after 50 below zero” (London 72). It is obvious that the man is either incredibly stubborn or thinks that the old man’s advice isn’t worth taking. The man finally realizes that he should have taken the old man’s advice when he is about to die in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness.

The above is an excellent example of irony. The man refuses to take advice from someone who most likely has experience in trekking across terrain and in a similar climate. It is also very interesting to see that the man tried so hard to kill the dog, but the only one to die in the story was the man himself. Finally, the passage shows us that the man has a very strong will to survive. Unfortunately, this really begins when he is helpless and is dying of frostbite.

The idea of the dog having feelings for the man seems very odd considering that the man attempted to kill the dog. However, after the man died, London says that “With much lifting of its feet, it cried softly” (London 79). This is a very good example of personification because the dog seems to be exhibiting human emotions as a result of the man’s death. The fact that the dog stayed with the man even though he tried to kill it is appalling for the sole fact that even as an animal that has lived in the harsh Alaskan wilderness for most of its life, the dog suffers some abuse in exchange for protection. Here again is another excellent example of personification in London’s story. Many people are willing to suffer a certain amount of abuse in exchange for protection.

It seems that the man is incredibly selfish when it comes to his survival in the Alaskan wilderness. London says, “He would kill the dog and bury his hands in the warm body until feeling returned to them” (London 76). This shows the reader that the man will do almost anything to survive the extreme cold, including killing off his only companion. It also shows that the man is very apathetic to other forms of life besides his own when he is in the wilderness by himself.

Overall, London is very descriptive in his portrayal of the man and uses various thematic elements to describe him. These are including, but aren’t limited to irony, personification, and description of character. To Build a Fire is pretty easy to understand for most readers to understand. In conclusion, mankind seems to be helpless against nature no matter how much we may try to defy it.

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