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.
The Power of Imagination Theme Icon

Early in the story, the man is identified as not being a “thinker” and as “unimaginative.” He is aware of the world around him and of the terrible cold, but he does not imagine the possible outcomes of this cold. Because the man eventually dies due to his initial mistake of traveling on such a cold day, his failure to imagine possible outcomes of his choice is linked to his inability to survive. Imagination could have saved his life. This theme connects to the theme of Chance and Human Error, as several of the man’s errors seem linked to his inability to imagine the outcome, as when he builds a fire under a snowy tree, or strikes all the matches at once, with dreadful consequences. Had he been more imaginative, more open to the possibilities of what could result from his actions and from the terrible cold, he might have avoided these mistakes.

At the end of the story, in the moments of the man’s death, his imagination suddenly flourishes. He imagines the boys finding his body in the snow, and he contemplates the certainty of his own death. These imaginative acts are linked to his acceptance of his death. Before, when the man was focused on survival, he considered only the resources at his disposal and what they could achieve. Once he accepts his death, he begins to imagine and to imaginatively apply the wisdom of the old man at Sulphur Creek (that no one should hike alone in weather below 50 degrees) to his own situation.

The Power of Imagination ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in To Build a Fire related to the theme of The Power of Imagination.
To Build A Fire Quotes

The trouble with him was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances.

Related Characters: The man
Page Number: 177
Explanation and Analysis:

The main character in this story, a solitary hiker on the Yukon trail, is new to the area, yet unafraid of the cold day on which he hikes. This quote explains why the man isn’t afraid of the cold: he isn't able to imagine the potential consequences of the extreme cold. Many people might, when faced with an unusual situation, focus on the future by imagining the worst that could happen. To consider the worst that could happen requires imagination, which is the ability to speculate about the future or about seemingly unlikely events.

While the man doesn’t have much imagination, he has other abilities: rational thinking and strong practical knowledge about how to survive in the wilderness. These are the “things of life” mentioned in the quote. The man is realistic and trusts in his practical survival skills. It's implief that this self-confidence is one reason why the man doesn’t have an imagination—he focuses on immediate events, rather than imagining possibilities. The quote therefore suggests that the man’s awareness of the “things of life” isn’t everything there is to know about the world. The significance, or meaning, behind events and objects is also important. Skill and knowledge can get you far, but in extreme situations such skill and knowledge are not enough to guarantee survival.


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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.

It was his last panic. When he had recovered his breath and control, he sat up and entertained in his mind the conception of meeting death with dignity.

Related Characters: The man
Page Number: 191
Explanation and Analysis:

The man trips and falls for a final time and does not try to stand up again. This quote shows a turning point in the man’s thinking, as he moves beyond a struggle for survival to an emotional place where he can accept death. The panic that came over him ends and is replaced by self-control. The man exhibited self-control early in the story when he was guided by rational thinking, and now he is able to approach the idea of death as the rational problem of “meeting death with dignity”: if one must die, it follows that one should try to improve one’s remaining time and the death itself as much as possible. The man hopes to achieve this by refusing to panic and by meeting death calmly.

This passage shows the man at his most imaginative. He is able to consider a possible future and to analyze a complex concept: dying with dignity. He has regained his self-control, but he is growing increasingly able to imagine the future and consider new possibilities. It seems that his extreme circumstances allow him to think and reflect in ways he didn't do when he was just focused on the end of his journey, meeting the boys, and having a meal. London is describing a universal human experience here: humans think about their lives in new ways and ponder abstract ideas when they are confronted with their mortality.