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.
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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)