To Build a Fire

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The Old Man at Sulphur Creek Symbol Analysis

The Old Man at Sulphur Creek Symbol Icon
Like the boys, the old man at Sulphur Creek is a character used repeatedly throughout the story as a symbol. The man thinks often about this old man who gave him the advice that no man should travel alone if it’s colder than 50 degrees below zero. The man first scoffs at this advice when he is able to make a fire and fend for himself. Later on, he admits the accuracy of the old man’s advice as his circumstances deteriorate and he acknowledges his own imminent death. The old man bridges the gap between humans and nature because he has a healthy respect for the threat that nature presents. He also seems to understand the natural world in more instinctual ways, as the dog does, and he does not believe mankind can rely on his resources for survival. The man, on the other hand, begins his journey with a false confidence in his rationality and human-made resources, unable to admit that there might be a situation—a day that’s too cold—which he could not conquer.

The Old Man at Sulphur Creek Quotes in To Build a Fire

The To Build a Fire quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Old Man at Sulphur Creek. 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

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.


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The Old Man at Sulphur Creek Symbol Timeline in To Build a Fire

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Old Man at Sulphur Creek 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
The man remembers an old man at Sulphur Creek who told him how cold it could get in this area this time of year.... (full context)
Chance and Human Error Theme Icon
Fight for Survival vs. Acceptance of Death Theme Icon
Indifferent Nature Theme Icon
...the importance of building a fire if he’s wet because of more advice from the old man at Sulphur Creek . He’s grateful for the advice. (full context)
Chance and Human Error Theme Icon
Indifferent Nature Theme Icon
...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 should travel alone if it was colder than fifty... (full context)
Fight for Survival vs. Acceptance of Death Theme Icon
...if he has heard his own death knell. He thinks of the advice of the old man at Sulphur Creek . A companion on the trail could make all the difference at that moment: he... (full context)
Instinctual Knowledge vs. Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Chance and Human Error Theme Icon
Indifferent Nature Theme Icon
...to spit out the burning match into the snow. In despair, he admits that the old man at Sulpur Creek was right: he should never have traveled alone. (full context)
Instinctual Knowledge vs. Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Fight for Survival vs. Acceptance of Death Theme Icon
The Power of Imagination Theme Icon
...feels that his is outside himself, looking at his body. He thinks again of the old man at Sulphur Creek . He murmurs aloud to the man that he was right in his advice about... (full context)