To Build a Fire – Summary

To Build a Fire by Jack London, is a short story bout an unnamed protagonist who ventures out in the sub-zero tundra of the Yukon Territory accompanied by his dog, to visit his friends. Though, he was warned about the dangers of hiking alone, he ignored the old Man‘s warning and eventually led to his own fatal end.


The story opens with the unnamed protagonist and his wolf-dog on the Yukon Trail on an extremely cold winter day. Despite being warned of the dangers of travelling alone in extreme weather conditions by an old man from sulfur creek with nine hours more of hiking, the man was expecting to meet ‘the boys’ at a camp in the Henderson Creek by that evening. As a company, the man’s wolfdog was there with him, though its instincts told it that the weather was too cold for travelling. However, the weather does not deter the man, a relative new-comer to the Yukon even though the vapor in his exhaled breaths and the saliva from the tobacco he was chewing had frozen his mouth shut.

As the protagonist hiked along the creek, he took care to avoid pockets of unfrozen water hidden beneath the thin layers of ice. He stopped and built a fire to thaw out so he could have lunch soon after he continued hiking. Though soon after, he broke through the ice and soaked his feet into icy water, deep till the knees. More of anguished over the accident than concerned for his safety, the man built a fire under a tree to dry his clothes as sensation began to fade from his extremities. He pulled down the twigs from the nearly under bush to feed the fire, but the resulting movement of the bushes caused the snow on the tree’s loaded bough to tumble which eventually extinguished the flames. For the very first time, the man felt frightened of the circumstances around him.

Once again he gathered the material for putting up new fire. He lit the fire with great difficulty for he burnt himself many-a- times with the match while lighting up the fire. Though luck again let him loose. While trying to remove a piece of moss, he inadvertently disturbed and extinguished the flame. Out of furry; he seized the dog with the intention to kill it in order to use the fresh carcass for warmth. However, he failed in the attempt as he could neither draw the knife nor strangle the animal with his frozen hands. He realized that the death was near and, hence began running, just as the old man had warned him not to do. The man hoped that he had a chance to run to the camp, but knew that it was highly impossible for he lacked the strength.

The man cursed the dog for it was warm and alive. The dog ran on but the man crumpled after running a few yards. He eventually decided to accept death peacefully and admitted to himself that the old man at the Sulphur Creek had been right. He succumbed to hypothermia and slept this way into death, imaging himself being with ‘the boys’ as they found his body the next day. Initially, the dog failed to understand the situation and stayed with the man. But when it smelt death, it ran off in the direction of the camp where reliable food and fire providers could be found.

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