To Build a Fire

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Fire Symbol Icon
Fire means the difference between life and death in a setting as cold and bleak as the one presented in London’s story. The title of the story also keys the reader into the important role of fire in the story. The goal of the protagonist is to build a fire, and as he fails in this later in the story, the man attempts desperate measures to achieve this goal: like lighting all his matches at once, or attempting to kill the dog. Fire is repeatedly associated with life and protection through the word choice of the story. The man’s first successful fire, which he builds when he eats his lunch, helps to establish its importance early on. Even when nothing has gone wrong, the man needs a fire to survive. His body, unlike the dog’s body, does not have the natural resources necessary to survive intense cold without a fire. Building a fire is an act of technical skill and technology, and fire in literature has also often been used as a symbol of knowledge. The building of a fire thus symbolizes life in the story, but also life through human knowledge, skill, and technology. And the failure of the man to build a fire is the failure of these things, as expressed in the man, and in the brutal cold of nature.

Fire Quotes in To Build a Fire

The To Build a Fire quotes below all refer to the symbol of Fire. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Instinctual Knowledge vs. Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
). 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

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.

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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.

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.

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.

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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Fire Symbol Timeline in To Build a Fire

The timeline below shows where the symbol Fire appears in To Build a Fire. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
To Build A Fire
Instinctual Knowledge vs. Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
...the man carefully, expecting him to go into camp or seek shelter and build a fire. The dog looks to the man as the source of fire, and it desires that... (full context)
Chance and Human Error Theme Icon
...and legs wet at the very least means a delay. He’d need to build a fire and dry his clothes. (full context)
Instinctual Knowledge vs. Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Fight for Survival vs. Acceptance of Death Theme Icon
...the ice around his mouth impenetrable. He laughs, realizing he should have immediately made a fire. The feeling in his toes when he first sat down has gone. He questions whether... (full context)
Instinctual Knowledge vs. Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
The Power of Imagination Theme Icon
...in the old man’s words. It is very cold. He gathers wood and lights a fire with a match. Once the fire is ready, he leans near to melt the ice... (full context)
Instinctual Knowledge vs. Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Indifferent Nature Theme Icon
As the man continues his walk, the dog does not want to leave the fire behind. The dog knows this type of cold, as its ancestors did. The dog and... (full context)
Chance and Human Error Theme Icon
Fight for Survival vs. Acceptance of Death Theme Icon
Indifferent Nature Theme Icon
...at the delay. He knows enough to understand that he must stop and build a fire. It is too dangerous to be wet at this temperature. (full context)
Chance and Human Error Theme Icon
Fight for Survival vs. Acceptance of Death Theme Icon
Indifferent Nature Theme Icon
...top of the bank, the man discovers some dry wood and grasses. He builds his fire carefully because he understands that he will have one chance to successfully build a fire.... (full context)
Instinctual Knowledge vs. Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
The man removes his mittens to pile the sticks and light the fire and his fingers quickly grow numb. His quick hiking helped keep his blood flowing, but... (full context)
Chance and Human Error Theme Icon
Indifferent Nature Theme Icon
The freezing does not matter, the man tells himself, as the fire roars to life. The old man at Sulpur Creek had told him that no man... (full context)
Chance and Human Error Theme Icon
The Power of Imagination Theme Icon
Indifferent Nature Theme Icon
...But, at that instant, snow falls from the pine trees above onto the man and fire. This was the man’s mistake. He built his fire underneath the trees because it was... (full context)
Fight for Survival vs. Acceptance of Death Theme Icon
The fire is smothered under a pile of snow. The man is shocked, as if he has... (full context)
Instinctual Knowledge vs. Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Indifferent Nature Theme Icon
...reaches into his pocket to get a piece of tree bark that will easily catch fire and help him start his fire. But his fingers are so numb that he cannot... (full context)
Chance and Human Error Theme Icon
Indifferent Nature Theme Icon
...from the cold. He cannot successfully control his hands as he adds sticks to the fire. He tries to push a wet piece out of the flames, but he scatters the... (full context)
Fight for Survival vs. Acceptance of Death Theme Icon
Indifferent Nature Theme Icon
...his hands inside the body to warm them. Then he could attempt to build another fire. He calls the dog, but his voice reveals his fear and his intentions. The dog... (full context)
Instinctual Knowledge vs. Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Indifferent Nature Theme Icon
...dog is surprised that the man sits in the snow and does not make a fire. The dog cries out, longing for a fire. It expects the man to curse, but... (full context)