Review: “To Build a Fire” by Jack London

To Build a Fire

In the short story, “To Build a Fire,” Jack London creates a character that is very easy to identify with because of his flaws. We never learn the name of the man, but we see almost immediately something about the way the man has so much confidence that it spills over into arrogance and stupidity. He knows it’s tremendously cold, but this fact “made no impression on the man.” Fifty degrees below zero means little more to him than having to wear mittens and earflaps. London shows us the man’s ignorance with the line, “That there should be anything more to it than that was a thought that never entered his head.” This hint of the man’s lack of skill and experience is a bit of foreshadowing of the disasters to come.

Read the story, “To Build a Fire,” here. Because it is a short story, in order to fully discuss, spoilers are ahead!

The man suspects that the temperature is much colder than fifty degrees below zero, yet, to him, “the temperature did not matter.” In contrast, the dog, who uses his primitive animal instincts rather than an advanced human brain, knows it is too cold to travel, but is forced to go on with the man. Even as the man realizes it is colder than he originally believed, his thoughts on the matter are no more severe than, “What were frosted cheeks? A bit painful, that was all; they were never serious.” The man is determined to make it to his friends at any cost, ignoring the advice of the “old-timer” who he considers to be “womanish” for suggesting no one should travel alone in temperatures colder than fifty below.

The man stops for lunch and his ease in building a fire gives further proof to his idea that the “old timer” was being wimpy. Then, in a series of small failures, the man’s flaws come to a head and he meets his demise. His dying thoughts are that the old man was right all along.

Chances are, in at least one point in each person’s life, we allow arrogance to get in the way of intelligence, and it brings disaster. The character in this story allows us to identify with him immediately, but also to hopefully learn from him—that it is better to admit to being wrong than to end up dead, hoping to be right. Though London’s character is fatally flawed, looking at the way his arrogance is shown throughout the story can teach a writer how to take the reader on a journey of human nature and create ways to connect with the character and feel his pain in a more intimate way.

My rating: 3 out of 5 = liked it

Available in this collection of short stories.

1 thought on “Review: “To Build a Fire” by Jack London

  1. I love this short story and, despite the fact that I read it years ago, I still remember what he does that ends in his demise. Thanks for not including a spoiler for those who haven’t read it! :) You know, the protagonist’s comment about how he should have listened to the old man all along reminds me of Hemingway’s A Clean, Well-lighted Place, and the conversation at the cafe between the two waiter: one who is younger and just itching for the final paton to get up and leave so he can head out into the night, and the older (clearly wiser) waiter who understands the patron’s need to be in a “clean, well-lighted place” and not wanting to leave. Those writers from the early 20th century…they are a breed apart. It’s why I studied the modernists at graduate school. Just can’t get enough of them. Thanks for the review! Joe

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