At dawn, the man turns aside from the main Yukon trail. He is a solitary hiker. There is no sun in the clear sky, as this northern part of Canada has not seen daylight in several days at this time of year. The whiteness of the land, covered in ice and snow, is broken only by the trail which leads 500 miles south and 1,500 north all the way to the Bering Sea. The landscape has no effect on the man, despite the fact that it is new to him. This is the man’s first winter in this area.
The setting of the story in the extreme cold of the largely uninhabited Yukon establishes the thematic role nature will play from the beginning. Nature is awe-inspiring—extremely cold and stark—and also terrible in its indifference to individual human life. The man’s fatal flaw, his unawareness of the power of nature, is established immediately.
The man’s lack of interest is due to his lack of imagination. The man is competent and resourceful, but practical, uninterested in the meanings behind things. A temperature of fifty degrees below zero does not encourage the man to imagine his own weakness, the possibilities of life after death, or the meaning of life. Cold simply means discomfort, to him.
The man’s limited imagination repeatedly causes him to underestimate the power of nature. He is also confident in his survival skills, which rely on man-made resources, and not natural abilities.
As the man walks, he spits, only to discover that the liquid from his mouth freezes in the air as it falls. He assumes from this that the temperature is colder 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, but the boys will already be there ready to greet him with a fire and a hot supper.
The boys represent civilization and protection from nature. The man is alone in nature, which is dangerous. His freezing spit should reinforce this danger, but the man, because of his limited imagination, overlooks the risks and consequences of such extreme cold.
The man carries his lunch inside his jacket against his skin, so that it won’t freeze. The side trail he travels on is not well-marked. He acknowledges as he walks that it is truly cold. His beard does not protect his nose or the upper part of his face sufficiently.
These details bring the situation to life. The man is a generic figure and many of the details in the story invite the reader to imagine him or herself in these conditions.
A large wolf dog accompanies the man. The dog is made anxious by the cold, knowing instinctively that in such weather it is safer to hide and wait out the cold. Although neither man nor dog is aware, the temperature of the day is seventy-five degrees below zero. The dog watches the man carefully, expecting him to go into camp or seek shelter and build a fire. The dog looks to the man as the source of fire, and it desires that protective warmth.
The dog is a key figure because it represents everything that the man is not: natural, instinctual, and aware of the power of the natural world. The dog is “in touch” with the weather conditions because of its similarities to its wild cousin, the wolf. The dog’s instinctual knowledge is more helpful than the man’s rationality, and its unmet expectations suggests the mistakes the man is making.
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 hanging from his mouth because the freezing material prevents from spitting effectively. The path follows Henderson Creek. The man is walking at four miles per hour and predicts his arrival at a place to eat lunch at half-past twelve.
The man and the dog, although different, are both impacted by the extreme conditions. The man’s focus remains on the rational aspects of his situation: calculating his rate of travel and planning his lunch. He is as disinterested in nature as it is in him.
The man and the dog walk along the frozen creek. The man is not a thinker and so he walks with few thoughts and reflections. He thinks only of his plan for lunch and of his arrival at the camp in the evening. Occasionally, he reflects on the cold, realizing that he has never experienced such extreme temperatures before. He rubs his face as he walks, but the skin instantly returns to its numb state once he stops. He wishes for a guard to more fully cover his nose and face from the cold. But, he reflects, a little frost is, at most, painful, never dangerous.
The man’s imagination is limited because all of his thinking is limited. The man is not intelligent, despite being practical and resourceful. His quickly freezing face shows that he is not prepared for these extreme conditions, and yet he overlooks this warning sign, yet again. This is an example of an error that the man makes which contributes to his demise.
The man observes the changes in the creek and the safest places to put his weight. Once, he startles away from a place as he feels the ice move. The creek is fully frozen, but streams of water run from the hillsides under the snow. These concealed streams never freeze, and the depth of these waters might be three inches or three feet. These unexpected places of moving water present a very serious danger because breaking through the snow and ice to one of these streams could cause the man to get very wet. Getting his feet and legs wet at the very least means a delay. He’d need to build a fire and dry his clothes.
The mention of these concealed streams is a clear example of foreshadowing. Once this threat is presented in the story, it is apparent that they will manifest in some way later on. The danger that this risk presents is established before the event occurs. This literary technique allows the reader to understand the dangers of the situation as it unfolds. It also introduces the idea of chance: the man is prepared for these risks, yet he is still impacted by them.
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 a sunken area, but not always. At once patch, he sends the dog across first. The dog falls through the ice, but quickly crawls out on the other side. The water on its feet and legs freezes immediately and the dog lays down in the snow to bite away the chunks of ice. The dog does this instinctively, not because it understands the consequences of frozen feet. The man helps the dog, but his fingers grow numb within a minute of removing his glove.
The man’s decision to send the dog across a dangerous patch of ice first reveals the lack of empathy or love between the dog and his master. The man would happily risk the dog’s life. But the dog is also better prepared to deal with the risks of extreme cold as his act of biting away the ice on his paws shows. The dog is protected by his instincts, which the man lacks.
The man arrives at the creek divide where he planned to eat lunch. He is pleased with his pace and settles down to eat. He strikes his numb, bare fingers against his leg to warm them. He tries to take a bite, only to find the ice around his mouth impenetrable. He laughs, realizing he should have immediately made a fire. The feeling in his toes when he first sat down has gone. He questions whether his toes are numb or warm. He leaps up and stamps his feet until the feeling returns.
The man’s initial failure to build a fire demonstrates how much he needs one. That the man is unable to eat without a fire despite keeping his lunch against his body again attests to the way his preparations are not enough to face this degree of cold. This first successful fire establishes fire as a source of life and protection, vitally important to the man’s survival in the story.
The man remembers an old man at Sulphur Creek who told him how cold it could get in this area this time of year. He remembers he laughed at the old man, but now he realizes the truth in the old man’s words. It is very cold. He gathers wood and lights a fire with a match. Once the fire is ready, he leans near to melt the ice from his ice. He eats his lunch. The dog lies near the fire. The man smokes his pipe, enjoying the brief break.
The old man at Sulphur Creek presents a different possibility for the relationship between humans and nature: one based on healthy fear and respect of the natural world. The old man understands the natural world because he does not underestimate it, as the man does. Meanwhile, the man is able to enjoy life even in such cold with the comfort of a fire.
As the man continues his walk, the dog does not want to leave the fire behind. The dog knows this type of cold, as its ancestors did. The dog and the man are not companions or friends. The dog is the man’s slave, and the dog does not care about the man’s well being. Therefore, it does not attempt to help the man or express its misgivings about leaving the fire behind other than for its own survival. But the dog must obey the man’s whistle to follow him.
The dog’s attachment to the fire shows that its instinctual knowledge is more effective in this situation than the man’s scientific knowledge. The lack of care between dog and man is further established: both are only focused on their own survival and well being. A human companion would be a different type of support for the man.
For the next half hour, the man does not observe any signs of water under the snow. Then, without warning, the ice breaks and the man falls through into a shallow pool. His pants and boots are wet to the knees. He curses aloud at the delay. He knows enough to understand that he must stop and build a fire. It is too dangerous to be wet at this temperature.
The man’s accident is a dramatic moment in the story, as both man and reader seem to fully realize the consequences: the stakes of building a fire are now much higher. The fire is literally the only chance he has at survival.
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 he will have one chance to successfully build a fire. With wet feet, his time in such a cold temperature is precious. If his feet were dry, he could run to keep his blood circulating, but even running could not keep wet feet from freezing. The man is aware of 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.
The man is cautious and careful in his fire building, and, yet, he overlooks the thing that will destroy him: the location of his fire under the pine trees. The man’s care shows his practicality and awareness of the relevance of the advice of the old man at Sulphur Creek. The man is not foolish. This is important because it shows that even a resourceful human may not survive a chance accident in nature.
The man removes his mittens to pile the sticks and light the fire and his fingers quickly grow numb. His quick hiking helped keep his blood flowing, but as soon as he stops walking to build a fire, his extremities grow cold quickly. Like the dog, his blood wants to hide away from the cold, sinking to the central parts of his body, away from the surface. His nose, face, feet and hands grow numb first.
In describing the man’s blood as “living” and comparing his blood and its reaction to the cold to the dog’s similar reaction to the cold, the story shows that the man is, physically, still part of nature. His blood works instinctively, even if he overpowers this instinctual knowledge with his confident mind.
The 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 degrees below zero. The man congratulates himself on proving the old man wrong. He’d had an accident and yet he’d saved himself without assistance. Any rational man, who is not old and womanish, should be able to do so, the man reflects.
The man’s success in building the fire seems a testament to his resourcefulness and the power of man in nature. Yet the man’s self-congratulation also lacks any respect for nature, and smacks of a kind of pride before a fall…
The man starts to remove his moccasins, but the strings are frozen. His fingers are numb. Then he reaches for his knife to cut the strings. But, at that instant, snow falls from the pine trees above onto the man and fire. This was the man’s mistake. He built his fire underneath the trees because it was easier to gather the wood. The tree above held a large amount of snow on its branches, and, as the man pulled sticks from the lower branches, he jostled the tree. Eventually, this movement created a landslide of snow from above.
… which then destroys his fire. The collapse of the snow from the trees is the best example of the broader theme of chance and human error. The collapse of the snow occurs both through the man’s failure to understand the consequences of the position of his fire, as well as by the chance of where the snow falls and when. But it also shows his failure of imagination, his failure to be interested in and see the broader possibilities and risks of the world around him.
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 advice of the old man at Sulphur Creek. A companion on the trail could make all the difference at that moment: he could have built the fire. The man knows he’s likely to lose some toes at this point, even if he builds a second fire. He moves quickly and calmly, preparing a new foundation for a fire out in the open. The dog watches his activities.
In the moment of his fire’s collapse, the man is humbled. He begins to admit that the old man was right and that the situation is extremely serious. However, he still refuses to consider the possibility of his own death and he still focuses on the practical steps toward survival. The watching dog again suggests the man’s lack of instinctual response to his situation (as opposed to his rational, practical response).
The man reaches into his pocket to get a piece of tree bark that will easily catch fire and help him start his fire. But his fingers are so numb that he cannot tell if he has grabbed onto the bark or where it is in his pocket. He fights his growing alarm that each second spent trying to grab the bark is another second in which his feet freeze more fully. He puts on his mittens and beats his hands. He looks at the dog, which is secure and safe because its natural body provides the protection it needs against the cold.
The detailed and painstaking description of the man’s struggle to complete simple tasks with frozen fingers demonstrates the realism of London’s writing. The man’s jealousy of the dog shows a shift in his thinking: he is no longer confident in his man-made resources, and recognizes that the dog is better prepared than he because of its natural abilities.
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, but his fingers are re-freezing and he drops the pack in the snow. He cannot pick up the pack. He tries to move deliberately; driving fear from his mind, he focuses entirely on picking up the matches, looking at his fingers closing because he cannot feel. He puts on his mitten and beat his hand against his knee again.
The man’s attempt to light the matches is painful to read and to imagine because of its nightmare-like experience of being unable to do the one thing that will make a difference in saving his life. At this point, the ending of the story starts to become inevitable. The terror of the man, the stark indifference of nature, and the man’s smallness within nature, are clear.
Eventually, the man gets the pack of matches between his mitten-clad hands and then into his mouth, breaking the ice as he wrenches his jaw open. He removes one match with his teeth, but drops it. He gets one match in his teeth and strikes it on his leg, but the smoke in his nose causes him 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.
The man is betrayed by his own body: his hands fail him and he cannot control his natural reaction to smoke which causes him to drop the lit match. The man is unable to overpower his body’s limitations with his mind. In this way, nature (the part of the man that is natural) continues to be stronger than human reason.
In sudden desperation, the man removes both gloves and strikes the whole pack of matches. There is no wind and so the man holds the pack to the tree bark. He cannot feel it, but he realizes his hand is burning from the smell of burning flesh. Then he feels pain, but still holds the matches. He drops them into the snow once the tree bark is lit. This small flame means life and he carefully adds grasses and wood pieces.
The man’s actions of lighting all the matches and of letting his flesh burn until the tree bark is lit show the extent of his desperation. The simple narration of the story avoids overstatement or descriptions of the inner-workings of the man’s mind. The reader sees and feels his fear through his actions.
The man’s body is shaking from the cold. He cannot successfully control his hands as he adds sticks to the fire. He tries to push a wet piece out of the flames, but he scatters the coals he has been cultivating. Each piece is smothered and dies. His fire has failed.
This lack of bodily control reinforces the idea that the man’s body has betrayed him. His lack of control of his hands is such that he accidentally puts out the fire he is trying to create. His practical, rational knowledge is worthless when he can’t control his own body. But he never perceived of this danger as he couldn’t imagine not having control of his body, and couldn’t imagine the consequences of the cold.
The dog is sitting across from the man and the sight of the dog inspires an idea. The man once heard a story about a man who survived a winter storm by killing an animal and crawling inside the corpse. The man thinks that he could kill the dog and put his hands inside the body to warm them. Then he could attempt to build another fire. He calls the dog, but his voice reveals his fear and his intentions. The dog shies away from whatever he senses in the man’s voice. The man tries to crawl toward the dog, but this is unusual, so the dog is scared.
The man’s decision to kill the dog represents both his desperation and the absence of emotional bond between human and animal. The man is thinking like an animal, putting survival above all other considerations. Neither man nor dog considers the life of the other. Both only see the other as a means to their own survival. The man is not sentimental about the dog.
The man puts on his mittens and stands. He cannot feel his feet and looks down to make sure he is truly standing. He calls the dog again. When the dog comes, the man tries to grab it and is surprised again to find that his hands cannot grasp. He is able, however, to wrap his arms around the dog and hold it. The dog barks and tries to break free. The man realizes that he physically cannot kill the dog. He cannot hold his knife. He cannot strangle the dog with his frozen hands. He lets go and the dog runs off only forty feet before stopping and continuing to watch him.
The man’s capture and then release of the dog is another mental and emotional turning point. The man is used to having a plan and is surprised when he cannot grasp the dog or kill it, especially because he starts to carry out his plan and then is forced to abandon the idea. This shows more fully the betrayal of his body, which cannot carry out the commands of his mind or use the man-made resources, like a knife, that he has relied on.
The man discovers that he needs to look down to see where his hands and arms are because he cannot feel anything. He beats his arms and hands for five minutes when he is suddenly overwhelmed by fear of his own death. The situation is no longer one in which he could lose fingers or toes, but his life. Panicking, he starts to run along the trail. He is blinded by fear greater than anything he has ever experienced.
The man is trying to be practical when he is overwhelmed for the first time by fear of his own death. His instinctual need to live overpowers his rational thought, and for the rest of the story, the man’s thinking fluctuates between desperate desire for survival and certainty of death. This introduces the theme of fighting versus accepting death.
Running helps the man stop shaking. He regains some hope of being able to run far enough to keep 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 the camp, and that he’ll die in the wilderness. He tries to smother this thought, to overpower it when it comes to the front of his mind. He feels he is flying over the surface of the earth because he cannot feel his feet.
The man regains false hope as he runs. At the same time, he realizes new despair. The two extremes of hope for life and certainty of death are both in his mind. For the first time, the man is imagining possible outcomes of his situation. He had no such thoughts before when he was neither thinking nor imagining, when he was focused on rational practicality.
The man runs and stumbles. Then he falls. He cannot get up and decides he must rest before he continues. He lacks endurance for long-distance running. As he sits, he feels warm, but he realizes that actually more and more of his body is freezing. He pictures his body completely frozen, and this sets off a new panic. He runs again. He walks. He runs again.
The man’s body is failing partly because he did not prepare fully for the conditions he would experience in Yukon. This is an example of human error combined with the chance need to run for survival. He is now driven not by practical considerations but the desperate hope of life.
Throughout the man’s running and falling, the dog keeps pace with him. The man looks at the dog’s warm coat that provides safety from the weather. He curses it aloud. He runs only one hundred feet before he falls. This time, he sits and feels calm. He thinks about dying with dignity after he realizes that he has been foolishly running around when his death is inevitable. He begins to grow sleepy. Freezing is not too bad, he thinks. Sleep is peaceful compared to other deaths.
The dog’s lack of understanding of the man’s situation, and its own continued normal behavior, represent the indifference of all nature to the man’s fate. Eventually, the man begins to accept death. The stages of his acceptance and exhaustion mirror real near-death accounts, demonstrating London’s realism.
The man imagines the boys finding his frozen body after searching for him the next day. He pictures them on the trail and himself with them. In this vision, the group finds his body lying in the snow and the man 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 traveling alone.
The man’s out-of-body experience is representative of many real near-death accounts. His vision of the boys finding him shows his desire for the unattainable: other humans and civilization. As he falls into his death-visions (talking to a man who isn’t there in a way that he never would have done when he was his earlier practical self) he displays a fuller understanding of nature. Of course, this knowledge came at the cost of his own death.
Finally, the man falls into a sleep that seems more restful than any other sleep he has experienced. The dog sits waiting. Evening arrives. The dog is surprised that the man sits in the snow and does not make a fire. The dog cries out, longing for a fire. It expects the man to curse, but there is only silence. Later, the dog moves near to the man, but it smells death. It waits longer, howling, while the stars shine in the sky. Eventually, the dog leaves, running along the trail to the camp, seeking the other people who can make fires and provide food.
The final passage of the story contrasts the man’s death with the stunningly beautiful natural world, which is also cold and indifferent. The dog’s eventual departure from the man’s body shows that humans are interchangeable in its mind, another example of the indifference of nature. The dog survives and the man does not, showing the triumph of instinct over rationality.