What and he can’t make his fingers work.

What limits can the human body reach? In the story ‘To Build a Fire,’ a young miner finds out just what his body can and can not take. When his fire fails, his only friend deserts him, and the cold sets in, the man is alone against the Yukon winter.

Cold, Dark, and Hungry

How cold is too cold? In the short story ‘To Build a Fire,’ by Jack London, a miner in the Canadian Yukon finds out exactly how much cold and snow he can take before he dies. This lesson will focus on the summary, setting, and quotes of ‘To Build a Fire’.

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A miner and a dog trek through a frozen wasteland. They are in Canada, in the Yukon, heading toward a mining camp. The dog (which is actually part wolf) feels that they should be hunkered down out of the cold, but the man pushes on. He’s not worried about traveling, even though he should be. He thinks back on advice he had from an older miner, who told him never to travel alone if the temperature was under 50 degrees below zero. Distracted, the man falls through some ice and gets his feet wet.

He decides to stop and build a fire. (The alternative at this point is to freeze to death).He manages to get a fire started, and pulls some twigs off a tree to feed it.

But snow falls from the branches and puts out his fire. He tries to restart it, but his hands are too frozen, and he can’t make his fingers work. ‘And all the while the dog sat and watched him, a certain yearning wistfulness in its eyes, for it looked upon him as the fire provider, and the fire was slow in coming.

‘ This quote shows the true relationship between the man and the dog. While the dog may seem loyal, it is actually staying with the man out of self-interest. The dog knows that the man represents food and warmth.

The man begins to panic and decides to kill the dog to warm his hands. He plans to strangle the dog and cut its belly open. He calls the dog over and tries to crush it, but he can’t do that either, so decides to make a run for it. He dashes toward the mining camp, which is still miles away, and quickly collapses. He thinks about the other miners finding his body, especially the old man who told him not to travel alone.

The freezing man imagines telling the elder that he was wrong, and falls into a deep sleep.The man dies, and the dog waits a moment for him to get up. Then the dog begins to howl and finally trots away from the frozen miner. The dog heads toward the camp, where it imagines it will find fire and food.

The dog was not loyal to the man, only to the thought of food and fire
Thousands of young miners flocked to the Yukon, hoping to get rich quickly
Thousands of young miners flocked to the Yukon, hoping to get rich quickly

It’s cold here. Really, really cold. Ice and snow cover the land, and we know the temperature is more than 50 degrees below zero. The wind is blowing.

The miner is worn down and done in by the cold. London tells us that his face and beard are covered with ice, and each breath the man takes freezes it further. Even the tobacco he is chewing is freezing, making the ice on his face even worse.

It’s also dark. This close to the arctic circle, the sun barely makes an appearance at all in the winter. The man hasn’t seen the sun in days.

‘It had been days since he had seen the sun, and he knew that a few more days must pass before that cheerful orb, due south, would just peep above the sky-line and dip immediately from view.’ This quote serves to highlight the setting of the story. The man and the dog travel an inhospitable world. The sun, even if it does appear, will only show for a few minutes. The use of the word ‘cheerful’ in this passage shows how only through sun (and fire), the man is able to think beyond the misery of the setting.

Warmth represents happiness and safety to the man.

In winter, the sun barely cleared the horizon
In winter, the sun barely cleared the horizon

The land is not a place conducive to life.

But there is a lesson here, as London urges all his readers to pay attention to what is around them. Humans aren’t really supposed to live here, and any man who is going to survive needs not only intelligence but imagination. ‘The trouble with him was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only the things, and not in the significance.’ The man is actually pretty decent at survival. He is heading toward a camp, and he should have no problem making it. Even after falling into the creek, the man manages to make a fire.

. . twice. But when that fails, he is unable to think of another reasonable way to get his hands warmed up. (Truthfully, slicing open the dog is not a reasonable way to survive, as the man could not have even held a knife at that point.) It is that lack of imagination is what eventually does the man in.

Lesson Summary

In Jack London‘s ‘To Build a Fire,’ a miner is traveling through the frozen wasteland of Canada’s Yukon Territory. His only companion, a wolf-dog hybrid, is with him not out of any loyalty but out of self-interest. The dog wants a fire and food, and his instincts tell him not to travel in this weather.The man has also had advice that he shouldn’t be traveling, but he doesn’t take it.

Instead, he presses on, falling into some frozen water and getting his feet wet. He is forced to stop and make a fire or he will freeze to death. But the man’s fire fizzles out, and he can’t manage to get warm. So the man dies, a victim of his own lack of imagination and unwillingness to listen to advice. And the dog heads on, more worried about his own next meal than his dead companion.


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