To Build a Fire

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Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Bantam Classics edition of To Build a Fire published in 1986.
To Build A Fire Quotes

The trouble with him was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances.

Related Characters: The man
Page Number: 177
Explanation and Analysis:

The main character in this story, a solitary hiker on the Yukon trail, is new to the area, yet unafraid of the cold day on which he hikes. This quote explains why the man isn’t afraid of the cold: he isn't able to imagine the potential consequences of the extreme cold. Many people might, when faced with an unusual situation, focus on the future by imagining the worst that could happen. To consider the worst that could happen requires imagination, which is the ability to speculate about the future or about seemingly unlikely events.

While the man doesn’t have much imagination, he has other abilities: rational thinking and strong practical knowledge about how to survive in the wilderness. These are the “things of life” mentioned in the quote. The man is realistic and trusts in his practical survival skills. It's implief that this self-confidence is one reason why the man doesn’t have an imagination—he focuses on immediate events, rather than imagining possibilities. The quote therefore suggests that the man’s awareness of the “things of life” isn’t everything there is to know about the world. The significance, or meaning, behind events and objects is also important. Skill and knowledge can get you far, but in extreme situations such skill and knowledge are not enough to guarantee survival.

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The animal was depressed by the tremendous cold. It knew that it was no time for travelling. Its instinct told it a truer tale than was told to the man by the man's judgment.

Related Characters: The man, The dog
Page Number: 178
Explanation and Analysis:

The man’s traveling companion is a large native dog. As the pair walks, the dog waits for the man to stop and build a fire. The dog has learned from the past behavior of humans that they will build fires to survive in the severe cold, and the dog relies on human's fire-making ability as well. However, the dog has an ability that the man doesn’t possess, which is a natural instinct for survival. This quote introduces the differences between the man and the dog, which will be key throughout the story. The man continues to travel, while the dog wishes to stop and wait out the terrible cold. This quote presents the dog’s instinct as a type of valuable knowledge by stating that the dog “knows” this isn’t a good day to travel, and that this is a “truer tale” than what the man thinks.

The man’s judgment is based on capable survival skills, but little imagination. He believes in his ability to survive because he has in the past survived in very cold weather, and so he doesn’t consider the consequences of this even more extreme cold. In contrast, the dog doesn’t think about possibilities or survival skills. It simply “knows” because of its instinct that the cold is unsafe. These two types of knowledge and judgment appear in contrast throughout the story. This quote shows the value that the story as a whole places on the dog’s instinctual knowledge. The dog is presented as more aware and knowledgeable than the man, because it is more closely connected to nature.

The creek he knew was frozen clear to the bottom,—no creek could contain water in that arctic winter,—but he knew also that there were springs that bubbled out from the hillsides and ran along under the snow and on top the ice of the creek. He knew that the coldest snaps never froze these springs, and he knew likewise their danger.

Related Characters: The man
Page Number: 180
Explanation and Analysis:

The man and the dog are following the frozen creek, and even through the creek is frozen solid, the man proceeds cautiously. This quote introduces the reason for the man’s wariness: springs bubbling up on both sides of the river may not be frozen even in the coldest weather. These present risky areas where the man could fall through and get wet. Although the man lacks imagination, he possesses strong survival skills and is aware that getting wet will rapidly lead to frostbite and possible death. London introduces the possibility of such creeks early in the story, foreshadowing the threat that will appear later.

The way the springs are described can also be taken as a metaphor for the human condition more generally. First, the creek is described as frozen solid, and it seems impossible that any water could be flowing in this weather. But the springs which well up around the stable and frozen ice and flow under the snow are concealed, and could surprise a traveler suddenly. While the man is aware of the possibility of this danger, and seems to believe that because he knows that the springs could surprise him that he will be able to avoid them, it turns out that his knowledge is of little use to him later in the story. Similarly, surprises often occur in human lives, and some things are outside of human control. Diligence, carefulness, and skill are all important, but the story makes it clear that the world is bigger and more random than any person can comprehend, and so no person should consider himself fully in control of his situation.

It made quick efforts to lick the ice off its legs, then dropped down in the snow and began to bite out the ice that had formed between the toes. This was a matter of instinct. To permit the ice to remain would mean sore feet. It did not know this. It merely obeyed the mysterious prompting that arose from the deep crypts of its being.

Related Characters: The dog
Page Number: 181
Explanation and Analysis:

The dog falls through the surface of the snow and into one of the concealed streams that aren’t frozen solid. It then stops to clean off the chunks of ice that form instantly on its legs and paws. This quote describes the dog’s motivation for these actions, which aren’t completed rationally or consciously, but instinctively. The dog doesn’t consider the outcome of having wet feet, as the man does later in the story, but the dog is aware that having wet feet should be immediately addressed. The dog’s way of knowing how to behave and the man’s way of knowing how to behave are placed in contrast with each other throughout the story.

London describes instinct in a variety of different ways. In this quote, it is stated that the dog “did not know” the outcome of leaving ice on its feet. Instead, the language describing the dog’s actions includes words like “mysterious” and “crypts” (hidden underground chambers), both of which emphasize that this type of instinctual knowledge seems foreign to the man and to the human author. Humans lack this powerful kind of instinct, or are unable to access and obey it, in the space of this short story. Therefore, the man is at a disadvantage compared to the dog.

On the other hand, there was no keen intimacy between the dog and the man. The one was the toil-slave of the other, and the only caresses it had ever received were the caresses of the whip-lash and of harsh and menacing throat-sounds that threatened the whip-lash. So the dog made no effort to communicate its apprehension to the man. It was not concerned in the welfare of the man; it was for its own sake that it yearned back toward the fire.

Related Characters: The man, The dog
Related Symbols: Fire
Page Number: 182
Explanation and Analysis:

When the man and the dog leave their fire after lunch, the dog senses that it is unsafe to continue walking on such a cold day. The dog whines and is reluctant to leave the fire, and while this behavior may seem to be an attempt to protect the man from the dangers of the cold, London explains here that the dog acts with only consideration for itself. The dog does not try to protect the man because there is no “keen intimacy,” or close connection, between the man and the dog. This may be partially because men and dogs are so different from each other, but this particular man/dog relationship is one with even less empathy or connection than most. The man does not treat the dog with kindness. He does not “caress” or pet the dog, and has used a whip-lash to hurt the dog in the past. The dog is described as the man’s “toil-slave,” which means he considers the dog a working animal, and not a companion or pet.

The difference between men and dogs more generally is shown in the man’s willingness to leave the fire and the dog’s unwillingness to leave. The two understand the world differently: one through rational thought and the other through instinct, respectively. The resolution of this story shows that the dog’s instincts were correct and that it was unsafe to travel in this weather.

He knew there must be no failure. When it is seventy-five below zero, a man must not fail in his first attempt to build a fire—that is, if his feet are wet. If his feet are dry, and he fails, he can run along the trail for half a mile and restore his circulation. But the circulation of wet and freezing feet cannot be restored by running when it is seventy-five below. No matter how fast he runs, the wet feet will freeze the harder.

Related Characters: The man
Related Symbols: Fire
Page Number: 184
Explanation and Analysis:

After the man falls through a running stream and gets his feet wet, he immediately begins to build a fire. He knows that he is in a risky situation because he must successfully build a fire on his first attempt. This quote also foreshadows the man’s later failure to build a fire, and his failure to warm his body up by running. When the man fails to build a fire and when he tries to run, later in the story, we understands the consequences of these actions as they unfold because of the information revealed here.

The man knows the consequences of failing to build a fire and he thinks about these consequences as he works. The man (who, we remember, is "unimaginative") primarily considers mistakes he could make, and not chance events that could hurt him. He doesn’t accept failure because he is confident in his own survival skills. Because of his confidence, he doesn’t think about aspects of his dangerous situation that might be beyond his control, despite the fact that falling through the snow into the running stream was a chance event that occurred even though he was prepared for this possibility.

The blood was alive, like the dog, and like the dog it wanted to hide away and cover itself up from the fearful cold. So long as he walked four miles an hour, he pumped that blood, willy-nilly, to the surface; but now it ebbed away and sank down into the recesses of his body.

Related Characters: The man
Page Number: 184
Explanation and Analysis:

Once the man has stopped moving, his blood is no longer circulating and keeping his body warm. This quote shows one risk of the man’s situation: now that he is wet he has no choice but to build a fire, but to stop moving puts him at even greater risk. Although the man doesn’t react with immediate fear to the accident, the language of the story shows that this situation is very serious. The man thinks that he can survive in the wilderness with his own skills, but there are things that are beyond his control, like the circulation of his blood and other natural behaviors of the body.

This is a key quote because of the simile that compares the behavior of the man’s blood to the behavior of the dog. The blood is presented as independent from the man’s will and actions, with a “life” of its own. Referring to the blood as “alive” highlights the blood’s natural characteristics. Throughout the story, the dog stands in contrast to the man because of its instinct for survival. By comparing the blood and the dog, this quote shows that the blood is also “instinctual.” The body behaves in a natural way, despite the man’s rational thinking that contradicts the signals from his body to hide away from the cold. The language choices of “ebbing away” and “sinking down” are ominous, as if the man is losing the blood that keeps him alive.

He remembered the advice of the old-timer on Sulphur Creek, and smiled. The old-timer had been very serious in laying down the law that no man must travel alone in the Klondike after fifty below. Well, here he was; he had had the accident; he was alone; and he had saved himself. Those old-timers were rather womanish, some of them, he thought. All a man had to do was to keep his head, and he was all right. Any man who was a man could travel alone.

Related Characters: The man
Related Symbols: The Old Man at Sulphur Creek
Page Number: 184
Explanation and Analysis:

After the man has successfully built a fire, he congratulations himself on his survival skills. His extensive self-praise in this quote is a familiar literary idea of "hubris," or “pride that comes before a fall.” Because he is so certain of his success in this moment, it hints to the reader that a failure will follow. The man is proud of his survival skills because he feels they have triumphed over the old-fashioned advice he received from the man at Sulphur Creek.

In this passage, the man at Sulphur Creek is belittled in a variety of ways. He is referred to as an “old-timer,” which the man believes means his advice and thinking is outdated. The man also describes him as “womanish,” and describes his own survival skills as true manliness. The man obviously considers it an insult to other men to compare them to women, and to be “womanish” in this passage is to be unnecessarily fearful or timid.

The man also demonstrates his lack of imagination yet again because he doesn’t consider that his fire might still fail. The following events show that the man was too quick to praise himself because he did not consider the risks that were still present. Another person might not relax until reaching the base camp, but the man does not imagine the risks that are still present in his situation.


High up in the tree one bough capsized its load of snow. This fell on the boughs beneath, capsizing them. This process continued, spreading out and involving the whole tree. It grew like an avalanche, and it descended without warning upon the man and the fire, and the fire was blotted out! Where it had burned was a mantle of fresh and disordered snow.
The man was shocked. It was as though he had just heard his own sentence of death.

Related Characters: The man
Related Symbols: Fire
Page Number: 185
Explanation and Analysis:

The man has succeeded in building a fire, but the rising heat causes the snow in the above branches to shift and coming tumbling down. This quote describes the acceleration and accumulation of the snow that starts with one small shift and ends with a load of snow that smothers the man’s life-saving fire. This is a critical turning point in the story, in which the man’s emotions crash from a place of self-confidence to near certainty of death. The statement that he felt as if he “just heard his own sentence of death” is the first time that death seems a likely outcome. Up until this point, the man has trusted in his survival skills and has not imagined the possibility of death. 

This turn of events occurs partly through a mistake the man makes and partly through chance. The man makes the choice to build his fire under the trees without imagining the consequences of this decision. On the other hand, the collapse of the snow begins with a tiny chance shift in the tree branches that escalates, and the snow happens to fall directly onto the fire. Many events are the result of both chance and human choices.

The language of this quote emphasizes how the snow gathers momentum, “capsizing,” “spreading out,” and growing “like an avalanche.” This progression mirrors how the man’s situation in the story escalates from a small initial mistake to a tense life-or-death scenario.

And the man, as he beat and threshed with his arms and hands, felt a great surge of envy as he regarded the creature that was warm and secure in its natural covering.

Related Characters: The man, The dog
Page Number: 186
Explanation and Analysis:

The man tries to build a new fire after his first fire is smothered under falling snow. He claps his hands and tries to warm up his arms in order to be able hold the tools he needs for making his fire. He is quickly losing feeling in his limbs, a complication that prevents him from succeeding in doing the one thing that can help him recover. This quote describes the man’s emotional reaction as his body fails him: he is envious of the dog because its body is better prepared for the cold. This passage is significant because it shows that the man is beginning to see that his survival skills may not be sufficient in these conditions. Instead he considers, for the first time, the advantages the dog has in its natural state.

This quote describes the man’s realization of his own physical insufficiency as a “great surge of envy” directed at the dog. This character has already been established as an unimaginative man, and in this moment he can only think in terms of survival—his or the dog's.

He cherished the flame carefully and awkwardly. It meant life, and it must not perish.

Related Characters: The man
Related Symbols: Fire
Page Number: 188
Explanation and Analysis:

The man is unable to hold an individual match, but in a desperate moment he ignites the whole bundle of matches in order to start a fire. Earlier in the story, fire was described as key to warming up the man’s numb fingers or preventing his feet from freezing. In this quote, the language shows the the much higher stakes of the man’s situation. The fire now means life, and the alternative means death. The narrator also says the fire “must not perish,” which brings the language of death into the passage. If the fire perishes, the man will likewise perish. Furthermore, this personification of fire gives the fire a life of its own, as an earlier passage gave the man’s blood independent life. This literary technique shows that the man is not in total control of the situation. His blood will cower from the cold against his will, and the fire could perish against his will.

The care the man takes in this passage as he “cherishes” the fire shows his increasingly desperate struggle for survival. Early in the story, the man does not appreciate the risks he’s taking. As he begins to realize the danger, he fights valiantly to survive. Eventually, he moves beyond struggling to an emotional place in which he accepts death.

The sight of the dog put a wild idea into his head. He remembered the tale of the man, caught in a blizzard, who killed a steer and crawled inside the carcass, and so was saved. He would kill the dog and bury his hands in the warm body until the numbness went out of them. Then he could build another fire.

Related Characters: The man, The dog
Page Number: 188
Explanation and Analysis:

The man’s hands have grown too numb to build a fire, but another idea occurs to him: killing the dog and using its body as a source of heat. This gruesome passage shows the man’s imaginative powers activating finally in the face of death—but too late. Whereas once he ignored the advice of the old man at Sulphur Creek, now he is willing to latch onto another overheard story as an idea for his survival. He sees the dog as his last hope, and this quote shows that he is more than willing to sacrifice the dog’s life for his own. The man is still in an emotional and mental place where he is fighting against death. This idea is described as “wild,” which emphasizes that the man is reaching for every possible way to survive, unwilling to give up.

The straight-forward descriptions and the tone of this passage presents a situation that is both gruesome and realistic. Author Jack London does not linger over this idea or play up its graphic nature. The style of the language is as practical as the man’s thinking. The man does not have any sentimental feelings about the dog, and likewise the passage states that he will “kill the dog” without dramatizing, judging, or sugar-coating this idea.

He realized that he could not kill the dog. There was no way to do it. With his helpess hands he could neither draw nor hold his sheath-knife nor throttle the animal.

Related Characters: The man, The dog
Page Number: 189
Explanation and Analysis:

The man tries to kill the dog, but is unable to hold a knife or to strangle the animal with his frozen hands and arms. This realization accompanies a new level of helplessness for the man. He has a plan for survival, but he cannot execute it. His body, and not his survival knowledge, has failed him at this point. Notably, his survival skills depended on human-made tools—a piece of flint and a knife—but he did not imagine situations in which he would be unable to use these tools. This quote highlights the difference between the man, who relies on tools to compensate for the failings of his body, and the dog, who is protected by its natural covering of fur. The outcome of this story is partially the fault of the man, who lacked the imagination to predict and prepare for it, and partially the result of factors outside the man’s control, such as his furless hands and arms.

This passage begins with the man realizing he cannot kill the dog, and then clarifies that this is because he physically cannot kill the dog. The man is not prevented from killing the dog because he cares about it or because he doesn't want to harm another creature. The structure of this passage lets the reader fully understand the man’s character and the seriousness of his situation. He is entirely consumed with his own survival at any cost, and he has just realized the likelihood of his death.

A certain fear of death, dull and oppressive, came to him. This fear quickly became poignant as he realized that it was no longer a mere matter of freezing his fingers and toes, or of losing his hands and feet, but that it was a matter of life and death with the chances against him. This threw him into a panic, and he turned and ran up the creek-bed along the old, dim trail.

Related Characters: The man
Page Number: 190
Explanation and Analysis:

After the man tries and fails to kill the dog, he fully comprehends his situation for the first time. Although the dog and the old man from Sulphur Creek were aware of the risks of severe cold from the beginning of the story, only at this point does the man accept that he is likely to die. This quote captures the man’s realization and subsequent panic. The language used to describes the man’s fear of death—“dull,” “oppressive,” and “poignant"—are all words that convey metaphorical weight. The man has been burdened by the weight of his realization, but he still rebels against it. His panic causes him to try to run to warm up. He is unwilling to lie down and die, despite the seeming inevitability of death.

In this struggle for survival, the man is no longer a carefully measured and thoughtful survivor. He runs despite knowing, as the reader does, that he will not be able to warm up his freezing body without a fire. He has lost his rationality in the face of this panic. While the man is guided by is reason throughout the story, when he is confronted with death he behaves instinctively, as the dog did all along. The man is guided more and more by his emotions and instincts as the story progresses.

It was his last panic. When he had recovered his breath and control, he sat up and entertained in his mind the conception of meeting death with dignity.

Related Characters: The man
Page Number: 191
Explanation and Analysis:

The man trips and falls for a final time and does not try to stand up again. This quote shows a turning point in the man’s thinking, as he moves beyond a struggle for survival to an emotional place where he can accept death. The panic that came over him ends and is replaced by self-control. The man exhibited self-control early in the story when he was guided by rational thinking, and now he is able to approach the idea of death as the rational problem of “meeting death with dignity”: if one must die, it follows that one should try to improve one’s remaining time and the death itself as much as possible. The man hopes to achieve this by refusing to panic and by meeting death calmly.

This passage shows the man at his most imaginative. He is able to consider a possible future and to analyze a complex concept: dying with dignity. He has regained his self-control, but he is growing increasingly able to imagine the future and consider new possibilities. It seems that his extreme circumstances allow him to think and reflect in ways he didn't do when he was just focused on the end of his journey, meeting the boys, and having a meal. London is describing a universal human experience here: humans think about their lives in new ways and ponder abstract ideas when they are confronted with their mortality.

Later, the dog whined loudly. And still later it crept close to the man and caught the scent of death. This made the animal bristle and back away. A little longer it delayed, howling under the stars that leaped and danced and shone brightly in the cold sky. Then it turned and trotted up the trail in the direction of the camp it knew, where were the other food-providers and fire-providers.

Related Characters: The dog
Related Symbols: The Boys, Fire
Page Number: 192
Explanation and Analysis:

The story ends with the dog realizing that the man is dead and continuing on the trail to find the camp. This shift in focus from the man to the dog happens once the man has died and the silence from the man demonstrates his absence from the world and from the story. The dog’s understanding of death is different than a human’s would be. It catches the “scent of death” from the man and it “bristles” and “backs away.” This reaction seems to be an instinctual one to something the dog senses is negative and dangerous without understanding it. The dog waits for a while, but eventually continues on its way. This shows that the man is not unique in the dog’s mind, but equally valuable to any other human that is a source of food and fire. 

The dog’s indifference to the man’s death is echoed in the silent indifference of the natural world. Only in this final passage does London employ poetic language as he describes the stars that “leaped and danced and shone brightly in the cold sky.” In a story that uses description sparsely and practically, this metaphor about the stars stands out. The beauty of the natural world seems to mock the man who was killed by this extreme environment. The natural world is described as “cold,” both literally and metaphorically, for it is indifferent to the man’s struggle for survival and to his eventual fate.

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