To Build a Fire

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The Boys Symbol Icon
“The boys” are how the man refers to his traveling companions who he’ll meet up with at the end of a day of solo travel. The boys, who never appear within the space of the story, but who repeatedly appear in the man’s thoughts, function as a symbol, rather than as characters. This generic group represents many things to the man: his destination, security, comfort, and companionship. His focus on the boys evolves over the course of the story as his circumstances change. He looks forward to reaching the boys. He is disappointed when he stumbles into the water because it will delay his arrival at the camp to meet the boys. He imagines the boys finding his dead body and feels, as he dies, that he no longer belongs in their group. The boys symbolize an unattainable goal of “civilization,” a space that is controlled by humans. The man is not with the boys because he is in nature, alone. Nature, the opposite of the boys, presents physical threats, isolation, and indifference.

The Boys Quotes in To Build a Fire

The To Build a Fire quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Boys. 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

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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The Boys Symbol Timeline in To Build a Fire

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Boys 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 Power of Imagination Theme Icon
...than fifty degrees below zero. The man is hiking alone toward Henderson Camp to meet the boys , his traveling companions. He plans to arrive by six o’clock, when it’ll be dark,... (full context)
Fight for Survival vs. Acceptance of Death Theme Icon
The Power of Imagination Theme Icon
...his feet from freezing, to reach the camp. If only he could get there, then the boys would take care of him. But he also starts to think that he’ll never reach... (full context)
Instinctual Knowledge vs. Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Fight for Survival vs. Acceptance of Death Theme Icon
The Power of Imagination Theme Icon
The man imagines the boys finding his frozen body after searching for him the next day. He pictures them on... (full context)