“To Build a Fire” Summary — Jack London

The sto­ry begins with the name­less main char­ac­ter, referred to sim­ply as “the man”, on the Yukon Trail. He finds him­self in the mid­dle of a cold and iso­lat­ed envi­ron­ment. The ground is cov­ered in snow, and it is ‑75 degrees F. The man is a Yukon new­com­er who is trav­el­ling alone with his dog. They are going to a camp where the man will join his com­pan­ions. The man thinks hap­pi­ly of his lunch and looks for­ward to find­ing his friends at night. He does­n’t mind the cold, even if the ice has frozen his lips together.

On the oth­er hand, the dog sens­es the dan­ger posed by the extreme cold. He expects the man to find shel­ter or make a fire. The omni­scient nar­ra­tor also com­ments on the threat in the man’s lim­it­ed vision and lack of understanding.

The man walks along a frozen stream and notices water run­ning into the ice, which forms pud­dles where he could get very wet if he falls through. The man knows that wet feet will cause prob­lems and delay his jour­ney, but he does not ful­ly con­sid­er the dan­ger of wet feet. Nev­er­the­less, he is care­ful as he walks across the ice. At one point, he forces his dog to walk across the dan­ger­ous ice, and it breaks in. The dog climbs out, and the water freezes on his legs and paws. The dog bites off the ice, and the man helps him free his paws.

By mid­day, the man is sat­is­fied with his progress. He sits down and tries to eat his lunch but is shocked to real­ize that his hands have gone numb and his lips are too frozen. He admits that he should build a fire. The man remem­bers how “a man from Sul­phur Creek” had warned him about the cold, but he had ignored the dan­ger. Slow­ly, he builds a fire and eats lunch. After smok­ing a pipe, he sets off again. The dog enjoys the warm fire and is reluc­tant to leave it. The dog’s instinct tells him they should­n’t be out in the cold but must find shelter.

The man and the dog con­tin­ue up the stream until the man falls into a pool and is soaked up to his knees. He is angry but not scared. He needs to make a fire to dry his socks and moc­casins. Slow­ly, he builds a fire with grass, bark, and larg­er sticks. The nar­ra­tor explains that a man needs to warm up quick­ly when his feet are wet at this low tem­per­a­ture. The man also knows this because the old Sul­phur Creek man told him so. He also has no feel­ing in his feet and numb hands. Now that he is no longer walk­ing, he can feel the cold. He is sur­prised at how quick­ly his hands go numb, and his face freezes, but the man is con­fi­dent about his grow­ing fire. He plans to warm his moc­casins and feet there. He thinks back to the old­er man at Sul­phur Creek and laughs at his warn­ing that one should not trav­el alone in this cold. He is con­fi­dent that he has saved himself.

"To Build a Fire" Summary - Jack London
Sum­ma­ry of To Build a Fire

But dis­as­ter takes its course. The man has built his fire under a tree whose branch­es are cov­ered in snow. When he pulls the sticks loose, he dis­lodges some of the snow. The snow falls from all the branch­es onto his fire in a cas­cade effect. It extin­guish­es the fire. The man final­ly begins to real­ize that he is in dan­ger. He won­ders if he should have brought a com­pan­ion on the jour­ney who could have built a sec­ond fire, but he must try to build anoth­er fire him­self. He makes a pile of dry grass, sticks and branch­es in an open area. The dog anx­ious­ly looks on as he depends on the man build­ing a fire. The man tries to find his piece of tree bark but can’t. He real­izes his feet are freez­ing and flaps his hands until he feels enough to see his bark. He is jeal­ous of the dog’s warm fur as he strug­gles to light a match. But his hands are too numb, and he drops them all in the snow. He even tries to light one with his teeth, but he coughs and drops it in the snow.

The man becomes more and more des­per­ate. He burns all sev­en­ty match­es at once. He tries to light the tree bark and burns his hands in the process. Final­ly, he lights the bark and tries to start the fire with his teeth and hands. But he acci­den­tal­ly scat­ters the fire, and it goes out. The man sees that the dog is look­ing at him uneasi­ly. He decides to kill the dog and use its warm body to thaw his hands. He calls the dog, but the dog hears a strange, fright­ened tone in his voice and won’t obey. He crawls towards the dog, but it backs away. The man forces him­self to stand up, which calms the dog so much that the man can grab him with his arms because his hands are too frozen. He real­izes that his hands are too frozen to kill the dog any­way. Even beat­ing his hands for five min­utes does not bring back the feeling.

The man now knows that his life is in dan­ger. Full of fear, he runs up the stream bed, the dog fol­low­ing him. He wavers between hop­ing to run to the camp and know­ing he is too frozen to make it. He can’t even feel his feet as he runs. He falls and feels warm and com­fort­able, although he has no feel­ing in his face either. He is fright­ened by this and con­tin­ues run­ning but falls a sec­ond time. He is annoyed by the dog’s appar­ent warmth, shouts at him and starts run­ning again. This time, he only makes it about a hun­dred meters before falling. At this point, the man accepts his impend­ing death. He imag­ines him­self as one of the “boys” com­ing down the trail and find­ing his body in the snow. In his mind, the man tells the old­er man in Sul­phur Creek that he is right. He falls into a peace­ful sleep as he freezes to death. The dog is con­fused for a while, and he does not under­stand why the man did not make a fire. Even­tu­al­ly, it real­izes that the man is dead and goes in search of oth­er peo­ple to give it food and warmth.


As an avid book lover, I've channeled my passion for literature into creating QuiddityHub.com, where I craft and share concise summaries of my favorite reads. My mission is to distill the essence of each book, making the world's wisdom accessible to fellow enthusiasts and curious minds alike. Join me on this journey of discovery and insight, one summary at a time.

Rate author
( No ratings yet )
Book Summaries at QuiddityHub.com