To Build a Fire

The man Character Analysis

The protagonist is a lone hiker on a side trail in the Yukon Territories. His age and other physical details included are not provided. He seems to be a young adult to middle-aged. He has a beard and is in good physical condition. Despite his self-confidence in his hiking abilities, he does not seem to be a very experienced hiker, as he ignores the advice of the old man at Sulphur Creek about traveling on such a cold day. While he is practical and resourceful and both competent and rational, he is not a “thinker” and passes his time walking without any deep thoughts or particular appreciation of the landscape he passes through. He is also not imaginative, and because of that seems not to have much of a sense of the possibilities or consequences that can arise either from his actions or by chance. He reacts with initial calm and confidence when he falls in the water and then loses his fire, but as the situation unravels he first panics and then falls into resignation. His generic personality and characters traits (with the exceptions of his lack of his imagination and his over-confidence) and his lack of a name seem to allow him to be a stand in for many different types of people. The reader, therefore, might imagine him or herself in the protagonist’s situation.

The man Quotes in To Build a Fire

The To Build a Fire quotes below are all either spoken by The man or refer to The man. 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

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:

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The animal was depressed by the tremendous cold. It knew that it was no time for travelling. Its instinct told it a truer tale than was told to the man by the man's judgment.

Related Characters: The man, The dog
Page Number: 178
Explanation and Analysis:

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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:

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On the other hand, there was no keen intimacy between the dog and the man. The one was the toil-slave of the other, and the only caresses it had ever received were the caresses of the whip-lash and of harsh and menacing throat-sounds that threatened the whip-lash. So the dog made no effort to communicate its apprehension to the man. It was not concerned in the welfare of the man; it was for its own sake that it yearned back toward the fire.

Related Characters: The man, The dog
Related Symbols: Fire
Page Number: 182
Explanation and Analysis:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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And the man, as he beat and threshed with his arms and hands, felt a great surge of envy as he regarded the creature that was warm and secure in its natural covering.

Related Characters: The man, The dog
Page Number: 186
Explanation and Analysis:

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He cherished the flame carefully and awkwardly. It meant life, and it must not perish.

Related Characters: The man
Related Symbols: Fire
Page Number: 188
Explanation and Analysis:

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The sight of the dog put a wild idea into his head. He remembered the tale of the man, caught in a blizzard, who killed a steer and crawled inside the carcass, and so was saved. He would kill the dog and bury his hands in the warm body until the numbness went out of them. Then he could build another fire.

Related Characters: The man, The dog
Page Number: 188
Explanation and Analysis:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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The man Character Timeline in To Build a Fire

The timeline below shows where the character The man appears in To Build a Fire. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
To Build A Fire
Indifferent Nature Theme Icon
At dawn, the man turns aside from the main Yukon trail. He is a solitary hiker. There is no... (full context)
Instinctual Knowledge vs. Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
The Power of Imagination Theme Icon
The man ’s lack of interest is due to his lack of imagination. The man is competent... (full context)
Instinctual Knowledge vs. Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
The Power of Imagination Theme Icon
As the man walks, he spits, only to discover that the liquid from his mouth freezes in the... (full context)
The Power of Imagination Theme Icon
The man carries his lunch inside his jacket against his skin, so that it won’t freeze. The... (full context)
Instinctual Knowledge vs. Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
A large wolf dog accompanies the man . The dog is made anxious by the cold, knowing instinctively that in such weather... (full context)
Indifferent Nature Theme Icon
Both the fur of the dog and the facial hair of the man are frosted from their warm breath freezing. The man’s chewing tobacco freezes in an icicle... (full context)
Chance and Human Error Theme Icon
The Power of Imagination Theme Icon
The man and the dog walk along the frozen creek. The man is not a thinker and... (full context)
Chance and Human Error Theme Icon
The man observes the changes in the creek and the safest places to put his weight. Once,... (full context)
Instinctual Knowledge vs. Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
During his two hours of walking before lunch, the man happens upon several dangerous places in the ice. Usually the hidden water is indicated by... (full context)
Instinctual Knowledge vs. Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Fight for Survival vs. Acceptance of Death Theme Icon
The man arrives at the creek divide where he planned to eat lunch. He is pleased with... (full context)
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... (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... (full context)
Chance and Human Error Theme Icon
Fight for Survival vs. Acceptance of Death Theme Icon
Indifferent Nature Theme Icon
For the next half hour, the man does not observe any signs of water under the snow. Then, without warning, the ice... (full context)
Chance and Human Error Theme Icon
Fight for Survival vs. Acceptance of Death Theme Icon
Indifferent Nature Theme Icon
Under some pine trees at the top of the bank, the man discovers some dry wood and grasses. He builds his fire carefully because he understands that... (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... (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... (full context)
Chance and Human Error Theme Icon
The Power of Imagination Theme Icon
Indifferent Nature Theme Icon
The man starts to remove his moccasins, but the strings are frozen. His fingers are numb. Then... (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 heard his own death knell. He thinks of the... (full context)
Instinctual Knowledge vs. Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Indifferent Nature Theme Icon
The man reaches into his pocket to get a piece of tree bark that will easily catch... (full context)
Fight for Survival vs. Acceptance of Death Theme Icon
Indifferent Nature Theme Icon
Some feeling returns painfully to his fingers and the man manages to remove the tree bark from his pocket. He retrieves his pack of matches,... (full context)
Instinctual Knowledge vs. Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Chance and Human Error Theme Icon
Indifferent Nature Theme Icon
Eventually, the man gets the pack of matches between his mitten-clad hands and then into his mouth, breaking... (full context)
Fight for Survival vs. Acceptance of Death Theme Icon
The Power of Imagination Theme Icon
In sudden desperation, the man removes both gloves and strikes the whole pack of matches. There is no wind and... (full context)
Chance and Human Error Theme Icon
Indifferent Nature Theme Icon
The man ’s body is shaking from the cold. He cannot successfully control his hands as he... (full context)
Fight for Survival vs. Acceptance of Death Theme Icon
Indifferent Nature Theme Icon
The dog is sitting across from the man and the sight of the dog inspires an idea. The man once heard a story... (full context)
Instinctual Knowledge vs. Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Fight for Survival vs. Acceptance of Death Theme Icon
The man puts on his mittens and stands. He cannot feel his feet and looks down to... (full context)
Fight for Survival vs. Acceptance of Death Theme Icon
The man discovers that he needs to look down to see where his hands and arms are... (full context)
Fight for Survival vs. Acceptance of Death Theme Icon
The Power of Imagination Theme Icon
Running helps the man stop shaking. He regains some hope of being able to run far enough to keep... (full context)
Chance and Human Error Theme Icon
Fight for Survival vs. Acceptance of Death Theme Icon
The man runs and stumbles. Then he falls. He cannot get up and decides he must rest... (full context)
Fight for Survival vs. Acceptance of Death Theme Icon
Indifferent Nature Theme Icon
Throughout the man ’s running and falling, the dog keeps pace with him. The man looks at the... (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... (full context)
Instinctual Knowledge vs. Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Indifferent Nature Theme Icon
Finally, the man falls into a sleep that seems more restful than any other sleep he has experienced.... (full context)