A Literary Analysis of Jack London’s To Build a Fire

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The main character in Jack London’s short story “To Build a Fire” experiences the harsh conditions of being stranded outside in Alaska during winter. He feels the numbness in his hands and feet, unable to move or feel them. There is a looming sense of potential death as he sits there helplessly. London uses various elements such as characters, settings, plot, and imagery to convey his reasoning throughout the story.

Even before Alaska became a state, a man and his dog were braving the frigid temperatures of seventy-five below zero to travel along the Yukon trail. It had been a month since anyone had hiked this trail. This man, who was new to the area and had never hiked in winter before, had received advice from an old wise man. The old man warned him against hiking alone during the winter. However, the man disregarded the advice and did not think that the weather was too extreme for hiking. This was evident when his spit froze before it even hit the ground.

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The man and his dog ventured away from the group to explore different sections along the Yukon trail in search of firewood. The intense cold resulted in icicles forming on both the man’s beard and the dog’s fur. They spent the entire day hiking to maintain their blood flow and stay warm given the harsh conditions. In order to combat the freezing temperatures, the man would use his mittens to rub his cheeks and nose, attempting to retain some warmth. The trail, recently covered with snow, contained various pools of water ranging from ankle-deep to waist-deep. Becoming wet in this weather could be fatal for the man. Towards evening time, he accidentally stepped into one of these concealed pools, soaking his leg up until his knee level. Once he managed to free himself from the water, he proceeded to construct a fire beneath a spruce tree using branches and tree limbs as kindling.

The man fails to consider the consequences of pulling tree limbs from the tree, causing a pile of snow to fall and extinguish his fire. This leaves him with the need to restart the fire, but his hands are too numb to feel anything, severely hindering his ability. Realizing he cannot start a fire, he begins running back towards camp. After running for a while, the man stumbles and eventually dies on the trail. Before dying, he admits that he should have followed the advice given by an old-timer.

Throughout his work, Jack London utilized two primary characters and additional minor characters. It is intriguing to ponder why the author opted not to assign his characters proper names or include a larger cast. One of the central figures, referred to as “the man,” exemplified a highly tenacious disposition.

Despite being a newcomer to the Yukon area and lacking experience in winter hiking, the man with a hairy face and long nose disregarded advice from old-timers. He considered them weak and did not take their warnings seriously. Even though he was warned that traveling alone in the Klondike when it reached fifty below zero was unsafe for any man, he believed true men could handle it. However, it is important to note that the temperature in the Klondike was actually seventy-five below zero. The reason behind the man’s decision to venture off the Yukon trail with only his dog raises questions among readers. Some speculate that others were reluctant due to the cold or because of his behavior. Clearly, the man’s excessive confidence led him to believe he could hike alone in extremely low temperatures despite the danger involved.

According to London (n.d., para. 6), the man on the trail is accompanied by a large native husky, which resembles a wild wolf in appearance and temperament. This dog does not have the typical relationship that most pet dogs have with their owners. Rather than risking his own safety, the man compels the dog to take the lead when encountering concealed pools of water along the snow-covered trail.

Despite having a close call, the man suspected danger and made the dog go ahead (London, n.d., para. 13). Although reluctant, the dog eventually moved forward when pushed by the man. However, when icicles formed between its toes due to wet paws, the man helped remove them. This raises inquiries about why he would assist the dog after subjecting it to potential hazards like hidden pools of water. Nevertheless, it is conceivable that despite treating it as worthless, the man still holds some concern for the dog.

Despite being unable to start a fire after stepping into a hidden pool of water, the man considers killing the dog and using its warm body to revive feeling in his hands and feet. This highlights the man’s self-centered nature as he is willing to endanger the dog for personal gain (London, n.d., para. 31). These examples further demonstrate the man’s lack of consideration for others.

In addition to the man and the dog, there are also boys present. It is unclear whether these boys are his sons or not. Given that the man’s purpose in Yukon is logging, it is possible that they are his co-workers since he has been referred to as “the man” by the author. This raises the question of why none of the boys would accompany him and the dog on their search for suitable logging areas. If they were indeed his sons, one would expect at least one of them to join him. Therefore, it is likely that these boys are his colleagues. Perhaps they chose not to hike with him due to his attitude.

The man believes that the old-timers are somewhat feminine. He gets advice from an old-timer before embarking on his journey along the Yukon trail, but he ignores it. The old-timer had strongly advised against traveling alone in the Klondike when the temperature drops below fifty degrees. As he is about to die on the trail, the man acknowledges that the old-timer was right. Therefore, he should have heeded the advice of the old-timer.

“To Build a Fire” takes place in Alaska during the winter before it became a state. The man faces extreme weather conditions, including temperatures as low as seventy-five below zero and a foot of fresh snow on the trail. This setting establishes the mood for the story by evoking bone-chilling cold that allows readers to empathize with the protagonist’s experience. Additionally, the absence of sunlight is emphasized when the narrator remarks, “There was no sun nor hint of sun, though there was not a cloud in the sky” (London, n.d., para. 1). The lack of sunlight further contributes to the overall sense of coldness and harshness depicted in this story.

The plot is a crucial element in “To Build a Fire” as it serves to unite the entire story. The chronological progression of events plays a vital role in comprehending the narrative, commencing with the man embarking on his hike during the morning and persisting throughout the day. As he continues hiking, his escalating coldness contributes to an overarching feeling of tension and peril.

The plot adds believability to the story and creates a sense of realism, as the reader can envision the events happening to someone in real life. The main character, known as the protagonist, does not directly confront the antagonist, represented by the dog. Instead, he faces conflict with the weather, particularly the extremely cold temperatures that prevent him from starting a fire with certain body parts. The climax occurs when the man desperately runs towards the camp where the boys await him. Finally, the story concludes with the man’s death on the trail. Thus, without a plot, the story would lack excitement and fail to engage the reader.

The role of imagery is crucial in “To Build a Fire.” Without it, the story would be incomprehensible. The author describes the setting: “The Yukon trail lay a mile wide and hidden under three feet of ice. On top of this ice were as many feet of snow. It was all pure white, rolling in gentle undulations where the ice jams of the freeze-up had formed” (London, n.d., para 2). This quote exemplifies the use of imagery, which enhances the story’s believability.

When you’re freezing in your jacket during the winter, think about the story you just read and try to experience the same emotions as the protagonist. The story “To Build a Fire” by Jack London is about a man hiking along the Yukon trail in the harsh Alaskan winter. London carefully selects his characters, sets the appropriate setting, develops a compelling plot, and creates vivid imagery to seamlessly integrate all elements of the story.

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A Literary Analysis of Jack London’s To Build a Fire. (2023, Feb 26). Retrieved from


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