To Build a Fire: an Environmentalist Interpretation

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Mankind has been evolving to better withstand Mother Nature since they first migrated out of Africa. Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” will show the deadly consequences when man does not come prepared for harsh weather. The main character represented in the story has a presumptuous attitude and lacks the fortitude to take on Mother Nature. This overconfidence would unironically lead to his ultimate downfall.

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His overconfidence in his hiking ability is made aware towards the beginning of the story. The man was only carrying his “lunch wrapped in his handkerchief” (London 66). Him showing up with nothing more than lunch, really shows how unexperienced he was going into the trip to meet up with his friends. An old man at Sulphur Creek would warn him and told him “no man should travel alone in that country after 50 below zero” (London 72). Instead of heeding the old man’s advice, he laughed at it and continued traveling.

Jack London continues to portray his overconfidence when he tries to first eat his sandwich. His lips are freezing from the constant exposure to the freezing weather that he couldn’t eat the sandwich. His lack of awareness leads to him forgetting to build a fire and getting warm again. So after successfully getting the fire going, he remembers back to what the old man had said from earlier and refers to it as “womanish advice” (Hatton 22). So now he can try to cool off those legs that had been taken a dip in the water earlier, if not for his own blunder.

He had built this fire under a spruce-wood tree and “dumps snow on it and extinguishes it” (Hatton 22). Now he was starting to wonder whether that old man was on to something.

The Man vs Nature conflict continues with Man accepting that the old man was right and that no person should travel alone in this weather. His hands were completely numb from the frost, so he had to improvise. He mustered the pack of matches in his “arm muscles that were not frozen” (London 75) and was able to grasp the pack. All 70 of the matches went up in flames at once and he immediately dropped it. “He held the flame of the matches to the bark that would not light readily because his own burning hands were taking most of the flame.” (London 75) This could have easily been avoided if he had brought a partner along with him and not been so ignorant or he had been prepared with enough gear. He still has to stuffer through the wrath of Mother Nature as result of his own faults.

This was now a shivering man with no way to stay warm. He stared at the dog and the readers knew that he was thinking of something disturbing. “He would kill the dog and bury his hands in the warm body in it until feeling returned.” (London 76) The man’s call did not work on the dog at first because the dog had something the man did not throughout the story. “He, with simply his animal instinct is aware of the dangers of the cold.” (Ramirez). He eventually got the dog to come to him, but lost control. “He discovered his hands could not grasp.” (London) “His hands are frostbitten.” (Ramirez) He still managed to grasp the dog, but that’s all he could do. The man could not bring himself to kill the dog. The dog then scampers away about 40 feet and watched him but did not know what was quite happening to him.

Death was not staring the man straight in the face and he knew it. He didn’t just have to worry about losing limbs to frostbite anymore, he had the real possibility of dying. It’s interesting that behind his overconfidence had been hiding his fear throughout the story and Jack London didn’t directly reveal it until towards the end. The man was could not control himself anymore. “The fear made him lose control of himself and he turned and he ran along the creek bed along the old trail.” (London 77) The slight sensation of warmth would not last long. He still thought he could make it to his friends with only a few lost fingers. The though of death kept coming up in his head. “He tried to keep this thought down” (Enviormentalist)” He just simply didn’t have the endurance to make it to the camp and fell into the ground. He tried to get up and fell back into the ground. He had to rest and get some energy.

He started walking this time and told him self he felt better. The man throughout the entirety of the story is delusional with himself with the idea the idea that he will make it up until the very end. It wasn’t until during this final trek, when he touched his nose and realized there was no feeling that nothing was bringing life back to his body. That fear made think that the rest of body most be slowly freezing. “He tried to keep this out of his mind and to forget it.” (London 78) The fear that he had been avoiding trying to keep away could no longer be pushed away, because in his mind, he kept thinking about. This pushed him over the limit and he sprinted in a frenzy that was no longer than 100 feet. He fell into the snow and could continue no more. “It was his last moment of fear” (London 78) He pretty much accepted that he was going to freeze in his current state and sleeping wasn’t the worst way to go. He pictured his friends leaving the camp and finding his body the next day. The man would see himself and the guys the next day.

He was no longer apart of himself. The dog howled and smelled the scent of death on him, and then ran of to be at the cabin with the guys and get some food.

Overconfidence can be terrible the person who is knowingly doing it, like Jack London showed in the book. The man was battered and beaten by Mother Nature because of his refusal to take advice from the old man and a combination of inexperience and arrogance. He was never worried about it until the very end and it was to late by then. “Thoughts did not worry the man” and “Experiences made no impression.” (Keep His Head 89) are both great examples of the lack of distinct instincts the dog had and the man did not. He never once worried about freezing out in the cold because if he had, he would have brought extra clothes and food. His overconfidence just ended up being a cover up for his fear and lack of realization that he wasn’t fit for that journey.

Works Cited

Haddon, David. “Never Absolute Zero.” Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, vol. 25, no. 1, Jan. 2012, pp. 21–23. EBSCOhost,

London, Jack. To Build a Fire.

Mitchell, Lee Clark. “‘Keeping His Head’: Repetition and Responsibility in London’s ‘To Build a Fire.’” Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 13, no. 1, Mar. 1986, p. 76. EBSCOhost,

Ramirez, Nicole. “Summary: To Build a Fire.”, 25 Sept. 2014,

“‘To Build a Fire’: An Environmentalist Interpretation – Lesson Plan.” Leading the American Revolution, George Washington: Correspondence, Portraits; Military Broadsides, Primary Sources for Teachers, America in Class, National Humanities Center, 7 June 2016,

“To Build a Fire.” Full Text – Epilogue – Chapter I – Owl Eyes,

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To Build a Fire: An Environmentalist Interpretation. (2020, Apr 14). Retrieved February 8, 2023 , from

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