“To Build a Fire” Write Up by Anaya Bonds

A man and his dog, a wolf-dog, are travelling through the Yukon, making their way towards a camp he will meet his friends at. His dog is aware of the danger of travelling in the conditions, and longs for the man to stop a build a fire instead of continuing on. The man flinches back from a frozen creek as he hears it crunch under his weight, knowing it would be dangerous to get wet in this temperature. He carefully crosses it, and continues this for several other possible traps. At one crossing, he shoved his dog onto the ice to check to see if it was stable. The dog fell through the ice and its legs became wet, the water immediately froze onto its legs. The dog began to chew at the ice to get it off and the man took off his mittens to help remove the ice, but stopped and pulled his mitten back on as his hand began to numb quickly. When they arrive at the forks of Henderson Creek, the man sits down to eat his lunch. He starts a fire and eats his lunch and smokes his pipe. The man gets up and prepares to set off again, but the dog doesn’t want to, once again not happy with travelling in the cold, but complies out of fear. The man misjudges a patch of snow in front of him, and falls through, becoming wet down halfway to his knees. He pulls himself out and starts to make a fire. He manages to get the fire going, and begins to take off his wet footgear. He had made his fire under a tree, against his better judgement, and snow falls on top of him and his fire. He moves to a clearing where there are no trees to drop snow on him, and begins to make a fire again, though at this point he is freezing and struggling to control his fingers. He attempts to grab a piece of birch bark out of his pocket, and his hands are so numb he can’t grab it. He begins to beat his hand against himself until some feeling returns to his hand, and he grabs the bark. He began to struggle with the matches then managed to press the pack of matches between his two hands and struck them against his leg, lighting the entire pack at once. He held the matches to the bark and kept doing so despite knowingly burning his hands. He manages to start a small flame, but ends up poking the center of the flame, causing it to fizzle out. He looks to his dog and thinks of cutting it open and warming his hands inside of the dog so he could use them again and make another fire. He manages to grab the dog but then realizes he isn’t physically able to hold his knife and cut the dog open so he lets it go. He begins running, hoping to manage to run to the camp his friends should already be at, and then begins to feel better from the movement. He grew tired and had to stop, unable to continue running for the moment. He realized running would not unthaw his nose, cheeks, hands or feet, but continues anyways and starts to run. He falls down again shortly after starting, and looks to his dog, once again envying its warmth. He feels himself beginning to slip off to sleep, and thinks about how his friends will find his body in the morning. He drifts into a comfortable sleep, his dog waiting by him for the rest of the day. The dog wonders why the man had sat down and not made a fire, and approached the man, the scent of death scaring the dog back a bit. The dog howled for a few moments, and then headed off in the direction of the camp.

Throughout his trip in the Yukon, the man only seems to be thinking about reaching the boys’ camp. Even as he’s dying, he doesn’t seem to be able to think about anything else. “He pictured the boys finding his body next day. Suddenly he found himself with them, coming along the trail and looking for himself. And, still with them, he came around a turn in the trail and found himself lying in the snow. He did not belong with himself any more, for even then he was out of himself, standing with the boys and looking at himself in the snow. It certainly was cold, was his thought.” When he isn’t thinking about reaching the camp, he’s thinking about how cold it is, or about the lunch he has tucked in his shirt. The man is almost developed to be this disconnected from an actual life and feelings just so when he is killed in the end, the reader isn’t too attached. The narrator in the beginning even mentions how unimaginative he is. “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. Fifty degrees below zero meant eighty odd degrees of frost. Such fact impressed him as being cold and uncomfortable, and that was all. It did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man’s frailty in general, able only to live within certain narrow limits of heat and cold; and from there on it did not lead him to the conjectural field of immortality and man’s place in the universe. Fifty degrees below zero stood for a bite of frost that hurt and that must be guarded against by the use of mittens, ear-flaps, warm moccasins, and thick socks. Fifty degrees below zero was to him just precisely fifty degrees below zero.” Adding to his lack of imagination, he tends to be very ignorant of his surroundings. He brings up an experienced man from Sulphur Creek and how he said never to travel alone when it’s fifty below, and then he goes on to think of the advice as false. “He remembered the advice of the old-timer on Sulphur Creek, and smiled. The old-timer had been very serious in laying down the law that no man must travel alone in the Klondike after fifty below. Well, here he was; he had had the accident; he was alone; and he had saved himself. 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.” The man also seems quite ignorant of the temperature he is travelling in. “In reality, it was not merely colder than fifty below zero; it was colder than sixty below, than seventy below. It was seventy-five below zero.” Even his dog seems to know better than him in this case. “The animal was depressed by the tremendous cold. It knew that it was no time for travelling. Its instinct told it a truer tale than was told to the man by the man’s judgment.” It really seems like London is trying to make the man seem very careless and foreshadows his death.

Many times throughout the short story, we hear from the dog’s point of view how much the dog wants the man to make a fire and stop travelling, yet the dog continues to follow he man anyways. Even after the man attempts to cut the dog open to warm his hands inside of the dog, the dog follows the man as he runs in a blind panic. “On the other hand, there was 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.”

The way London managed to make you disconnected enough from the character to not be devastated or upset with his death, but invested enough to keep reading. It also made me realize I am really too nice to my characters and I could definitely //abuse// them more.

Discussion questions:

Why do you think London chose to make the man’s companion a wolf-dog?

Does the man admitting the “old-timer of Sulphur Creek” represent a change of character?

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