Thursday, April 8, 2010

To Build a Fire- Jack London

Author: Jack London
Date: 1908 (earlier version for youth published 1902)
Setting: The Yukon in the late 1800s
Availability: Read To Build a Fire on line, free

Story: A lone man and a dog are traveling on foot through the Yukon winter to reach another camp. The story takes place all on one day. He stops for lunch and builds a fire to warm himself as he eats. As he continues on he must avoid stepping through soft spots on the Yukon Trail under which springs still bubble with running water. The man is not as knowledgeable as he should be about the effects of sub-zero weather. He attempts to be careful, but his inexperience becomes a problem. The dog, although a companion, has been tamed by force not kindness, and sees the man only as a source of food and warmth, not as someone to whom he would be faithful.

This is a classic tale of the brutality of the northland, and man's attempt to conquer that environment.

I chose to review this well-known story first, because it is one of my all-time favorites. While most people probably interact with this story as though it were a foreign environment, one to which they have trouble relating, this story really grabbed me. As a person who was always more at home outdoors, easily building fires, and scoffing at the elements, "To Build a Fire" jolted me to my core when I first read it in 9th grade. Here was a grown man, dressed appropriately for the weather, being somewhat careful, and yet making fateful mistakes. Perhaps I wasn't quite as invincible as I thought I was, and I vowed to become an even better outdoorswoman.

London was an acknowledged master at tales of the far north, and his understanding of dogs. His best known novels are Call of the Wild and White Fang. He brought home to readers, seated near their warm fires, compelling tales of prospectors and hunters from the Yukon. With an economy of words he painted pictures of landscapes, weather, and the place of humans and animals within that framework. Many authors become forever linked to certain settings which are foreign to their readers. For the Yukon, those authors are surely Jack London, and Robert Service (poet).

Unusual Words:
chechaquo- a tenderfoot- one who had not yet spent a winter in the Yukon
niggerhead- a tussock of grass that becomes more humped up each year until it becomes like a small island which shows above the snow

Spoiler: click more to read commentary that may spoil your enjoyment of reading the story.

I remember being shocked at the unforgiving nature of the Arctic environment. How could spit crack as soon as it hit the air? Then I was shocked at the stupidity of the man to build his fire beneath a tree loaded with snow. I was not yet knowledgeable about the effects of hypothermia on one's mental acuity.

The brutal ending, in which the man accepts his defeat, and is forsaken even by the dog, is a symbol of how ineffectual human efforts are against the forces of such a climate. It also demonstrates how alone each of us is in death.

Language skills 9
Depth of meaning 8



  1. I haven't heard of To Build A Fire even though I'm going through a Jack London phase at the moment. Currently I've just started reading The Iron Heel and I'm planning to move onto The Scarlet Plague.

  2. Hi John- I haven't heard of those. I'll have to look for them.

  3. I read "To build a fire" in school many years ago and it has stayed with me as a cautionary tale, not only when I am out in snowy weather, but even in life in general to not underestimate others.
    Just discovered your blog!
    Sara Cat


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