To Build a Fire

Fire Symbol Icon
Fire means the difference between life and death in a setting as cold and bleak as the one presented in London’s story. The title of the story also keys the reader into the important role of fire in the story. The goal of the protagonist is to build a fire, and as he fails in this later in the story, the man attempts desperate measures to achieve this goal: like lighting all his matches at once, or attempting to kill the dog. Fire is repeatedly associated with life and protection through the word choice of the story. The man’s first successful fire, which he builds when he eats his lunch, helps to establish its importance early on. Even when nothing has gone wrong, the man needs a fire to survive. His body, unlike the dog’s body, does not have the natural resources necessary to survive intense cold without a fire. Building a fire is an act of technical skill and technology, and fire in literature has also often been used as a symbol of knowledge. The building of a fire thus symbolizes life in the story, but also life through human knowledge, skill, and technology. And the failure of the man to build a fire is the failure of these things, as expressed in the man, and in the brutal cold of nature.

Fire Quotes in To Build a Fire

The To Build a Fire quotes below all refer to the symbol of Fire. 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 numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Bantam Classics edition of To Build a Fire published in 1986.
To Build A Fire Quotes

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:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident

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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:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

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:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehender

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:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint

Later, the dog whined loudly. And still later it crept close to the man and caught the scent of death. This made the animal bristle and back away. A little longer it delayed, howling under the stars that leaped and danced and shone brightly in the cold sky. Then it turned and trotted up the trail in the direction of the camp it knew, where were the other food-providers and fire-providers.

Related Characters: The dog
Related Symbols: The Boys, Fire
Page Number: 192
Explanation and Analysis:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

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Fire Symbol Timeline in To Build a Fire

The timeline below shows where the symbol Fire 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 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... (full context)
Chance and Human Error Theme Icon
...and legs wet at the very least means a delay. He’d need to build a fire and dry his clothes. (full context)
Instinctual Knowledge vs. Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Fight for Survival vs. Acceptance of Death Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Instinctual Knowledge vs. Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
The Power of Imagination Theme Icon
...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... (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 knows this type of cold, as its ancestors did. The dog and... (full context)
Chance and Human Error Theme Icon
Fight for Survival vs. Acceptance of Death Theme Icon
Indifferent Nature Theme Icon
...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. (full context)
Chance and Human Error Theme Icon
Fight for Survival vs. Acceptance of Death Theme Icon
Indifferent Nature Theme Icon
...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.... (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 grow numb. His quick hiking helped keep his blood flowing, but... (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 told him that no man... (full context)
Chance and Human Error Theme Icon
The Power of Imagination Theme Icon
Indifferent Nature Theme Icon
...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... (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... (full context)
Instinctual Knowledge vs. Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Indifferent Nature Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Chance and Human Error Theme Icon
Indifferent Nature Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Fight for Survival vs. Acceptance of Death Theme Icon
Indifferent Nature Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Instinctual Knowledge vs. Scientific Knowledge Theme Icon
Indifferent Nature Theme Icon
...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... (full context)