To Build a Fire

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Themes and Colors
Instinctual Knowledge vs. Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Chance and Human Error Theme Icon
Fight for Survival vs. Acceptance of Death Theme Icon
The Power of Imagination Theme Icon
Indifferent Nature Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in To Build a Fire, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Chance and Human Error Theme Icon

The man’s initial mistake of traveling alone in weather that is far too cold for independent hiking does not ensure his fate of freezing to death. The gradual deterioration of the man’s conditions involves both chance and human error. The man is careful and prepared for the streams of water under the snow that will soak him and threaten his survival. Yet, he stumbles into an unexpected stream that was essentially invisible before he fell into it. This shows that even a prepared and observant person may fall prey to chance. When the man builds a fire, it is extinguished by snow falling from a pine tree, an devastating accident that is both human error and chance: the man could have been more cautious, but the snow might not have accumulated in that area, and might not have fallen in such a way as to put out the fire entirely. The interaction of chance and human error creates the chain of events leading to the man’s death. This theme demonstrates that London’s Naturalism does not prescribe “fault” to either nature or humans, only acknowledging the error in underestimating the power of chance to provide unaccounted for circumstances.

Chance and Human Error ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Chance and Human Error appears in each chapter of To Build a Fire. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Chance and Human Error Quotes in To Build a Fire

Below you will find the important quotes in To Build a Fire related to the theme of Chance and Human Error.
To Build A Fire Quotes

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.


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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.

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.

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 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.