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Reading Between the Lines - To Build A Fire

Jack London's To Build A Fire has been mentioned at least several times before in my english classes, but I've never actually read it... I'm glad I was finally forced to, it was a good exercise in critical analysis, and a striking story besides.

Again, I have given first a general response to the story, and then gone into a little more depth, pulling out quotes to point out my discoveries and explain my thoughts.

[General Response]

At first, the plot seemed rather dull (I mean, a man walking through the wilderness, from point A to point B, seemed kind of boring), but as the man in the story finally gets into a battle with nature for survival, it gets much more interesting. I thought that the fact that the man is never actually named (or at least, I don't think he is) is significant... I would guess that London did this to keep the reader somewhat detached from him, in order to weaken the blow caused by his death, and make it easier to dislike him as a character. For some reason, I felt that the wolf was introduced into the story too late... Or perhaps without enough 'flow'. I think that it's appearance could have used better transitions, as it seemed to me that the man was walking along for a good while and then, suddenly, a wolf pops up at his heels out of nowhere.

The whole 'slave' bit between the man and the dog is pretty obvious and even mentioned in passing by London himself, probably because London wanted the 'deeper meaning' of this story to be more accessible... Because the story itself has, as I said before, not much action or suspense to keep the reader interested, especially near the beginning. I think it would seem kind of hollow if London hadn't pointed out the status of their relationship explicitly.


There was no sun nor hind of sun, though there was not a cloud in the sky. It was a clear day, and yet there seemed an intangible pall over the face of things, a subtle gloom that made the day dark, and that was due to the absence of sun. This fact did not worry the man. He was used to the lack of sun.

This little passage near the beginning immediately made me think of the man as some sort of vampire. It stresses the absence of the sun and the presence of darkness, as well as the "pall over the face of things" (like a pallid, vampire-ish skin tone). It even mentions that the man is "used to the lack of sun."

But all this---the mysterious, far-reaching hairline trail, the absence of sun from the sky, the tremendous cold, and the strangeness and weirdness of it all--made no impression on the man. It was not because he was long used to it. He was a newcomer in the land, a "chechaquo", and this was his first winter. 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.

This passage further strengthened my equation between the man and a vampire... It repeats the bit about the sun, and adds to it, mentioning the "tremendous cold" (like the chill of death) and how "the strangeness and weirdness of it all--made no impression on the man" (it would take a lot to weird out a vampire, methinks). It goes on to talk about this being "his first winter," which made me view him as a fairly 'fresh' bloodsucker. His lack of imagination made him seem soulless to me... And finally, the fact that he is "quick and alert in the things of life, [but] ... not in the significances" gave me the impression that he is a predatory-type (much like a vampire), being physically agile but emotionally and perhaps even mentally handicapped.

... the conjectural field of immortality and man's place in the universe.

Here, London mentions immortality and "man's place in the universe" as things that the man does not bother to ponder, which seems to contradict my view of the man as a vampire.

At the man's heels trotted a dog, a big native husky, the proper wolf dog, gray-coated and without any visible or temperamental difference from its brother, the wild wolf.

Here is where the wolf makes its first appearance, and immediately I picked up on some references to it being similar to a black slave. It is deemed "the proper wolf dog ... without any visible or temperamental difference from its brother, the wild wolf"... I would venture to say that this wolf is being equated with slaves themselves, while the 'wild wolves' would be blacks still living in Africa.

He held on through the level stretch of woods for several miles, crossed a wide flat of nigger heads ...

I'm not sure, but I think that what London deems "nigger heads" are actually like moguls, those things that skiiers swerve through. This is kind of interesting... Maybe London is arguing that slavers went through the minds of slaves, sorta oppressing them in a mental way as well as a physical way (which, by the way, is a pretty valid point in my opinion).

Usually the snow above the hidden pools had a sunken, candied appearance that advertised the danger. Once again, however, he had a close call; and once, suspecting danger, he compelled the dog to go on in front. The dog did not want to go. It hung back until the man shoved it forward, and then it went quickly across the white, unbroken surface. Suddenly it broke through, floundered to one side, and got away to firmer footing. It had wet its forefeet and legs, and almost immediately the water that clung to it turned to ice. It made quick efforts to lick the ice off its legs, then dropped down in the snow and began to bite out the ice that had formed between the toes. This was a matter of instinct. To permit the ice to remain would mean sore feet. It did not know this. It merely obeyed the mysterious prompting that arose from the deep crypts of its being. But the man knew, having achieved a judgement on the subject, and he removed the mitten from his right hand and helped tear out the ice particles.

I think this passage might actually describe the history of slavery. The man shoves the wolf onto the "white, unbroken surface" of the ice (like white, unbroken skin), which soon shatters, leaving the wolf wet with water that soon freezes to its fur as ice ... I compared this to the way in which blacks from Africa were suddenly put knee-deep into the world of white men, parts of which stuck to them (like ice) as they approached their time of freedom... The man, "having achieved a judgement on the subject," decides to help the wolf remove these "ice particles" (similar to the way in which white men eventually judge slavery as immoral and, still having dislike towards blacks, segregate/separate whites/ice from the blacks/wolves by force, "tear[ing]" them out of white society). Even if this story was not written late enough in history to technically include all of this as fact, perhaps London felt that it would occur, or should occur, and wanted his readers to recognize that.

The bulge of the earth intervened between it and Henderson Creek, where the man walked under a clear sky at noon and cast no shadow.

I connected this back to the vampire idea: "the man walked under a clear sky at noon and cast no shadow," implying that the sun is still not present.

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. But the man whistled, and spoke to it with the sound of whip lashes, and the dog swung in at the man's heels and followed after.

This passage is almost self-explanatory, one of the few places where London makes explicit reference to the wolf and the man as a 'slave and master' pair.

The cold of space smote the unprotected tip of the planet, and he, being on that unprotected tip, received the full force of the blow. the blood of his body recoiled before it. The blood was alive, like the dog, and like the dog it wanted to hide away and cover itself up from the fearful cold.

I connected this to the history of slavery: the blood of the man recoils from the cold (perhaps the cold is representative of slavery, or the tyrannical morality behind it) because he knows it is wrong, just as the wolf does. It's almost like London was trying to prove to his readers that even white 'slaver' men, during the time of slavery, knew that what they were doing just didn't feel right.

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.

I couldn't help but include this bit, because it made me laugh... It reminded me of the way that men never want to ask for directions or accept the assistance of others when traveling, and women seem to be the wiser (at least in London's mind, it seems), doing just the opposite (women being equated with the old-timers in London's story).

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.

Going along with the idea of slavery, it's as if the man (representing whites) is jealous of the fact that the wolf (representing blacks) is perfectly content in its "natural covering" (Africa). He even considers stealing this covering by force (similar to the way in which whites coveted Africa and its rich resources).

He glanced down at first in order to assure himself that he was really standing up, for the absence of sensation in his feet left him unrelated to the earth. His erect position in itself started to drive the webs of suspicion from the dog's mind; and when he spoke peremptorily, with the sound of whip lashes in his voice, the dog rendered its customary allegiance and came to him.

The wolf is suspicious of the man when he approaches it by crawling, on its own level (like a slave), and does not trust him... Yet when the man stands (taking a position of dominance), it immediately takes its place as a faithful servant again. This is perhaps London's way of once again pointing out that slavery affected slaves' mentally as well as physically, sorta brainwashing them into feeling stuck in their status.

He seemed to himself to skim along above the surface, and to have no connection with the earth. Somewhere he had once seen a winged Mercury, and he wondered if Mercury felt as he felt when skimming over the earth.

The man feels as if he has "no connection with the earth" while he is trying to run away from death and the cold, perhaps an argument that whites lost their roots, unlike the wolves, or blacks.


While I did not pull out everything that I noted throughout the story, I feel these selections summarize my thoughts and guesses pretty well. But I'm still confused on a few of my own points, and how they link together... If you have any ideas, comments, or suggestions of your own, please post them here.


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wow, I really liked the story, i had to read for my final term examination test on Literature at UNAN's university of Nicaragua...it was kinda hard for me for my mother tongue is Spanish...I enjoyed it...

TO build a fire, what an amazing way to show us (Man and Women) to be more likely to rely not only our own expectations or hability, knowledge, age, gender, but also on the mere sircumstances we have to face, as the coldness the man had to face. He felt he could finish the trip all by himself, even the dog knew it wasn't a good idea, he was silly trying to prove something out of nothing...humility...that's the main topic.

The idea of the man being a vampire and the dog a slave is very amusing and might I add convincing in parts, but what is your point?! I do not see why London would have put this in as it does not back up any of the themes.

I enjoyed your connections between the man and a vampire. They were entertaining. however, I do not believe that London was attempting to make a social commentary on slavery with this story. Though your points are valid. Some believe that he himself was racist.

Niggerheads refer to the tufts of moss on the tundra. The moss sticks up from the rest of the ground and the texture is similar to an African's hair. A common term if you live in Alaska and other parts of the north. Jack London did not necessarily use that term because he is racist.

Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” is the classic story of man against the elements. However, unlike many stories which tell of man’s triumph over nature, London takes an entirely different approach. He decides to take a naturalist approach to literature. He first creates a character known simply as “the man.” This emphasizes the idea that he is nothing more than a man; any man against nature. His own distinct name and personality do not matter, only his survival. He then creates a story in which the man is alone in the world. All he has for companionship is his dog. As the man struggles in vain to survive the bitter cold and harshness off the elements he makes several key mistakes. First, the protagonist ignored the advice of the “old-timer” at Sulphur Creek and the instincts of his dog. He instead relied on his own rationale and bravado thinking it would get him through. This is evidenced by his thought that “any man who is a man could travel alone.” Even after he realizes many mistakes made he still clings to his belief that he can make it and thinks “those old-timers are womanish.” Eventually the man’s own determination is not enough to save him and he dies. This is London’s way of saying that the man was lacking in what he needed to survive. Nature was not vindictive, but rather indifferent. Man’s own determination didn’t make a difference against the elements. London’s implicit theme seems to be that the way to survive is to realize that nature is uncontrollable and accept his “place in the universe.” Had the man accepted his place, had he not been a newcomer to the land (a “chechaquo”) had he realized that natural instincts are sometimes more important than man’s intellect for survival, he may have survived. Thus, it would seem that London is trying to teach us humility through the futility of our knowledge.

The story To Build a Fire is about mans vulnerability to, and more importantly inability to control nature.
-The man who is his "quick and alert in things... (but) not in the significances" looks at his situation in terms of degrees below zero and miles to go, and not frozen extremities and dangerous walking conditions. The old man at sulphur creek is ignored because (the)man thinks himself an exception "All a man had to do was keep his head...and any man who is a man could travel alone."
-The dog: "at the mans heel, trotted a dog, a big native husky, the proper wolf dog, grey coated without any...difference from its brother, the wild wolf" london uses words like native and proper to suggest that the dog, unlike man is where he belongs, even his color is that of the sunless sky. The dog posseses no differences from its brother because nature is indefferent and traits that would set him apart are unneccessary in his world. bla bla

So because the man dies,and the dog lives
is london saying that nature is vendictive towards man and that the man was lacking in someway what was needed to win the battle for his own life.
No, london is saying that there never was a battle, nature is indiffent and uncontrollable and the way to survive is to recognize "mans place in the universe" and then live within these limitations.
The slaves, and vamps were a creative stretch.

Hey, I was re-reading To Build a Fire for a close reading assignment and found my self to be ignorant of what the term "niggerheads" meant so I started casting about on the internet for it. I found that "'Niggerheads' are principally granite or feldspar within the matrix of alluvial (glacial) till. " So I suspect that you could be right when you say that they might be like moguls, but I would question if London is actually trying to make a commentary on slavery at this point. It's not his term and is also used in another of his dog stories, I forget if it's white fang or call of the wild, which makes me suspect that he could perhaps just be using the term which would have been used at the time/place. But hey, if you can make a case for it, go with it. Maybe I'm simple minded but I like to think that the dog represents a dog.

Will do.

Chris, ignore the ambiguous troll from Onetopkat.

Either Onetopkat thinks you are an English teacher (actually, I'm the instrutor of the Seton Hill University course that required students to read "To Build a Fire" and post a brief reflection), or it's Onetopkat who is confessing to be an English teacher who is less literate than his students. If the latter is the case, then I agree -- that's very sad indeed.

It is obvious that the "critical review" of this essay did nothing more than to read the essay and offer a "from the hip" analysis. If this was his fifteen minutes of fame, then I consider the time spent to be right up there with Shakespear---Tragic!
This from someone classifying themselves as an english teacher! One who admits to not being as literate as his pupils...Sad man, real sad!

It is obvious that the "critical review" of this essay did nothing more than to read the essay and offer a "from the hip" analysis. If this was his fifteen minutes of fame, then I consider the time spent to be right up there with Shakespear---Tragic!
This from someone classifying themselves as an english teacher! One who admits to not being as literate as his pupils...Sad man, real sad!

Ah, you noticed the dog was introduced a little late too! Although I knew (from prior reading) that there is a dog in the story, I was surprised to see how late it was introduced. You are right, the man is walking along then boom! dog. I think before the dog was introduced the man was described as walking alone. Even though the dog wasn't a human companion, the man certainly wasn't "alone".

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