To Build a Fire by Jack London
About the author .. Jack London was an outdoor man. Many of us would recall reading ‘The Call of the Wilde’ in our early school days. The brush with the beauty, and the boorishness of Nature that outline this story is portrayed with different hues and intensities in most of his other novels. To Build a Fire is no exception.
Jack London’s early life was ravaged by parental neglect, poverty, and lack of formal education. He opted out of school at the age of fourteen, and decided to explore America – its seas, vast swathes of snow-covered land, its wrenching wilderness, and above all, its perplexing beauty. He wandered around like a tramp, living it out in the rough, and enduring the suffering and destitution with remarkable sense of adventure. Later, he studied on his own, in public libraries, and used his skill to write novels and short stories for commercial considerations. He wrote science fiction too. All his stories exude adventure, fortitude and a desire to stand up to the unpredictable hazards of Nature.
To Build a Fire, written in 1908, is the story of a vagrant and foolhardy man who traverses a lonely track in extremely cold condition with no companion, but a dog. Towards the end, he perishes as the biting cold saps his energy and he slumps on the snow breathing his last.
The story …
First para …Alaska is normally a very cold place due to its proxmity to the North Pole. In winter the region becomes infernally cold. On one such morning, the naive young man sets out on a trek some where in the Yukon valley area to meet his friends. Before he started, he had been cautioned by a veteran of the area about the perils of the walk. He had told the man that the snow-covered terrain becomes too dangerous to wade through in winter. One ought to have a friend by the side as a support when unforeseen dangers appear en route. On this occasion, the man chose to ignore the advice and began his journey accompanied by not-so-loyal a dog. The landscape looked gloomy and dark. The Sun had not quite unravelled itself. A few more days had to go before the Sun’s mild rays would appear.
Second para .. Along the way, he encountered piles and piles of snow sitting on solid ice. The Yokun was almost a kilometer wide. It was a vast expanse of snow-filled white that looked forebodding. A narrow black trail snaked through the land. This was the trail the boy had to follow. The trail ran for hundreds of miles to the north and to the south connecting St. Micheal in the Bring Sea, and the Chilkoot Pass and Dyea.
Third para … Everything that day seemed so frightening. The mercury had reached minus fifty, darkness pervaded the area, and the narrow trail seemed to reach nowhere. Confronting all these odds was humanly impossible, but the lone traveller was not over-awed. He decided to trudge on. He had never undertaken such an adventure. Although no short of energy, he lacked common sene and canniness. He couldn’t comprehend that minus fifty temperature brought extreme frost hazards. One needs all sorts of protective cothing to ward off the cold.
Fourth para ….. The man had to go and meet his good old friends in the left fork of the Henderson Creek. He yearned to be in their midst. To gauge how cold it was, he spat. It froze with a crackle in the air, well before falling on the ground. The sound startled him. He concluded that it could be much colder than minus fifty. He hoped to reach the camp by 6 o’clock. Then he could sit by the fire huddled with his friends and enjoy a hot night meal with them. He had brought some food items to eat along the way. These were tucked in his pockets. The food consisted of high energy biscuits sopped with bacon grease, and a few slices of bacon.
Fifth para…. He walked through a thicket f spruce trees. The trail was barely visible. The last sledge had gone along the trail long ago. Snow had nearly obliterated the trail. He felt good because he had no luggage to carry other than his biscuits. The cold was beginning to bite gnawing at the un-covered parts of his face. It was painful.
Sixth para … The accompanying dog was a local species, more like a wolf than a dog. It was a robust beast, as defiant as his master. However, it, too, felt the cold to be too harsh. The mercury had possbly reached minus seventy. At this temperature, frost reaches a measure of one hundred and seven. The dog’s instinct told him that danger stalked them at every step. The ghoulish cold could be vry dangerous. In its own way, the dog was prodding its master to stop and light a fire. It desparately wanted some warmth.
Seventh para .. There was snow all over the dog’s face. It was becoming lumpy in places. In dsperation, it licked its masters toes to make him stop and light a fire. The same thing was happening to the man. He was chewing tobacco, but coldn’t spit as the snow had clipped his two lips shut. His face was looking so weird. Despite all these ominous signs, the man appeared nonplussed. He had earlier battled with cold in his earlier wanderings. So, he refused to be cowed down.
Eighth para .. The man, undeterred by the hostile conditions, continued to walk. He crossed a few patches of forest, till he came across a stream nearly frozen. The place was Henderson Creek. His destination lay ten miles ahead. It was 10am. He calcuated that he was walking at four miles an hour. At this rate, he could reach the forks by half past twelve. Somewhat reassured, he sat down for lunch.
Nineth para …. The dog was thoroughly underwhelmed. Tired and sore, it licked the man’s foot as if to say that it was at the end of its teether. The snow on the furrow showed that almost for a month, no sledge had moved on it. The man was not of the very contemplative kind. He didn’t think much. He imagined that by 6o’clock, he would reach the camp to be in the midst of his friends. He continued to eat his bread and chew the tobacco.
Tenth para …. He was beginning to realize that the cold was unusual and conditions were really grim. But he continued to walk rubbing his face with the leather hand gloves he wore. But the cold was taking its toll. His cheek and nose became numb. He wished he had brought someting to cover his cheek and nose, but he continued to walk defiantly.
Eleventh para … The man kept observing his sorroundings. He could sense that there was a hot spring spewing out hot liquid incessantly. The liquid didn’t freeze even in very low temperatures. But the warmth of the hot spring could spell danger as, at times, pools of the supper-hot fluid remained trapped under snow. Stepping on these could be both fun and dangerous.
12th para … The man knew stepping on the puddles of water hidden under thin layers of ice could spell trouble. His shoes, and feet could get wet. To dry them, he might need to light a fire. All these were bothersome as he couldn’t affrd to waste further time. Ascertaining that the stream flew from the right, he decided to proceed along the left. With maximum caution, he moved forward measuring each step.
13th para .. There were traps aplenty along the way. He sensed the presence of a treacherous hidden puddle and pushed the dog forward to walk on it. The dog sulked for a while, but went forward when pushed again. It fell into the puddle, made itself wet, but bounced back to safety. However, the water on its legs froze instantly. He knew ice sticking to the dog’s feet could cause him much trouble later. He removed the leather gloves from his hand and removed the ice from the dog’s feet with his bare hands. Within seconds, he felt numbness of his fingers. Hurriedly, he put on the gloves.
14th para … It was 12o’clock, when the Sun had to be at its brightest, yet, on that day, it was dim and muted. In another half an hour, he reached the forks of the creek. He was happy at the way he was nearing his destination. He could be with his friends by six. This thought buoyed him up. He took out his lunch packet from within his jacket. The few seconds of exposure made his fingers numb. He struggled to take a bite as his hand and fingers couldn’t stand the extreme cold temperature. His toes also became increasingly numb. He realized that he should have lighted a fire to warm himself first. Unmistakably, his body was gradually losing sensation in different parts.
15th para .. He was beginning to feel nervous. He remembered the warnings the elderly man from Sulphur Creek had sounded about the dangers the extreme cold could pose for the traveller. He tried to work up some warmth by vigorously moving his limbs. Deciding to start a fire, he collected some twigs. The fire was lit, and in a few moments it burned brightly. This helped him to shrugg off the ice flakes, and warm his food. With relish, he began to eat his biscuits. The dog, too, sat by the fire and warmed itself. It got its much-awaited respite.
16th para … The man decided to have a smoke to pep himself up. He then covered his head, face, and hands nicely and resumed his walk. The dog sulked at the prospect of walking again. It was unwilling to leave the fire place. For the daredevil man, it was an once-in-a-lifetime experience. None of his ancestors had ever been exposed to such bone-chilling cold. The dog was wiser, though. It knew the harshness of winter. It kew that it was prudent to wait out the cold, hybernating in a hole. This was the dog’s instinct, but he had no option, no say. He had to walk along the man. There was no real rapport between the two. The man never had petted the dog. It was a master-slave relationship, not a pet dog and owner bond. Becase of this lack of mutual affection, the dog walked on indifferently, not bothering to warn the man of the dangers ahead.
17th para …. The man walked on as snowflakes piled up all over his face. The road was relatively safer with lesser number of the hidden puddles. Sadly for him, he stepped on a hole and tripped. But, he sprang back to his feet with a jerk.
18th para .. The fall made him very angry with himself. It would delay his reaching his distination by at least an hour. He had to dry his wet clothes, shoes and stockings. For doing these, he had to light a ire. That meant delay. Cursing his luck, he started to collect twigs and mulch for the fire. He found some of these nearby. He made a pyramid of the twigs. Larger ones were piled at the bottom, and smaller ones towards the top. The idea was to ensure that the fire didn’t sink in when the snow melted. Very carefully, he lighted the fire and kept it burning.
19th para … Quite meticulously, he fed the twigs to the flame to increase the fire. He knew how important it was to keep the fire going. His feet were wet. He vainly hoped that he could heat them up by running the last half a mile, but at minus 75, this tactic does not work. He remembered how the veteran from Sulfur Creek had briefed him about this.
20th para .. To arrange the twigs and feed them to the fire, he had to uncover his hand, but that proved to be painful as the bitter cold numbed his hand in no time. As he was seated, his heart struggled to pump blood. His feet froze, followed by his fingers. He sensed danger.
21st para … Luckily for him, the fire burned vigorously. He planned to dry his shoes and warm his feet and hands. From time to time, he remembered the sagely advice of the veteran. But, arrogance and stupidity overtook him. He felt he was made up of sterner stuff, and could pull it through without much worry. Surprisingly for him, the fire couldn’t keep his cheeks and fingers from becoming numb again. The cold was winning the war against the fire he had lighted.
22nd para … The intense cold was ravaging him. The leather shoes were covered with snow, the German socks had become stiff, andhis thumbs had nearly become numb and lifeless. He wanted to cut the strings of his leather footwear. He took out his knife.
23rd para .. His cup of woes was filling up. He had lit the fire under a tree. The heat of the fire melted the burden of ice that had clung to the branches overhead. After a while, the huge mass of ice fell down on his fire putting it out in an instant. Gradually, the entire load of ice fell off the branches on his fire place. It spelled disaster for him.
24th para .. For the man, it was a disaster beyond comprehension. He became numb with shock, and remembered the advice of the veteran of the Sulphur Creek. ‘A fellow by his side would have been of great help’, he reckoned. The veteran had firmly told him to take a friend along, but he had disregarded him. The only way left was to start a fire afresh. Even if he could start a fire, the minus 75 temperature would have chewed his toes by then. It was a really hopeless situation.
25th para …Desperation and determination gripped his mind alternately. He pulled himself up, and began to gather fuel for his fire. His fingers didn’t work, so he used his palm to collect the twigs, dry grass etc. It was a desperate attempt to beat the cold. Hoping that the fire would be lit, he gathered some thicker twigs for use when the fire got going. The dog sat nearby looking on nonchalantly.
26th para .. With the fuel gathered, he dipped his hand into his pocket to take out a piece of birch-bark. He struggled hard to grab a piece with his stiffened fingers and bring it out. He knew every passing second was precious. The feet were beginning to lose sensation. He worked his arms a few times to break free. His mood was depressed and gloomy. The dog sat nearby with its tail curled around its legs to keep warm. The man was fighting with his back to the wall. The dog’s equanimity made him envious.
27th para .. The numbness in the fingers became worse. It began to pain. He bore the worsening pain with fortitude. He managed to take out the sulphur matches from his pocket. The fingers couldn’t hold on to the matches. The matches fell on the snow. He was devastated, but not broken. Summoning all his will power and strength, he scooped the matches from the snow-covered ground. It was some accomplishment, but he continued to feel miserable.
28th para … He had squatted on the ground. Using his jaws, he separated a single piece of match stick from the bunch, but the stick again fell down on his lap. There was no way he could use his hands to pick it up. He bent down, used his jaws to grab it, and rub it on his knee. After nearly twenty attempts, the sparks appeared. He had managed to lit it. While taking the flame to ignite the birch-bark, the smoke from the brimstone choked his lungs. As he gasped for breath, the fire fell on the snow and got extinguished. Disaster struck again.
The end game starts..
29th para .. In desperation, he recollected the wise counsel of the veteran in the Sulphur Creek. He ought to have come with a partner. With a rare burst of energy, he uncovered his hands, and grabbed the match stick with the heels of his palms. He could rub the stick and the fire began to burn violently with all the seventy sticks aflame simulteneously. He moved sideways to escape the raging fire, and tried hard to ignite the fuel. In the process, the flesh of his hands were being roasted by the flame. He sensed the excruciating pain, but ignored it. Despite such dogged effort, the twigs and the grass didn’t catch fire easily.
30th para .. In great pain and utter despair, he jerked his hands apart, only to drop the burnng match sticks on the snow. Fortunately for him, the twigs caught fire and began to burn. He began to tend the flame with great care. He struggled to put the dry grass and tiny twigs on the fire. His fingers, palm, and limbs had been virtually immobilized by the savage cold. Bad luck befell him as he dropped a piece of wet moss on the center of the fire. The tiny flame flickered miserably. The man’s attempts to resucitate the dying flame flame. In no time, the flame vanished taking with it the man’s last hope to pull it through. There were no matches left, so lighting a fresh fire was impossible. Thhe man sat there with dark thoughts engulfing his mind. The dog sensed the ominous signs of disaster and made some awkward signs to vent its unease.
31st para ..Instinctively, as if to break free of the approaching danger, the man stood up, albeit clumsily. Trepidation and an unknown fear hd gripped his mind. His feet had become numb, so he had glance around to assure himself that he was indeed standing. He blurted out something incoherently. For the dog, the man’s movement was a sign of hope. It came near him. He wanted to grab the dog, but couldn’t. His limbs had frozen. They had stopped working. The dog tried to slip away. With nothing else to combat the cold, the man slumped on the snow, and clumsily held on to the dog. It was his companion — his last hope.
32nd para .. Driven by a queer impulse, he wanted to kill the dog with his knife, but muscular strength had long gone. The dog perhaps sensed some danger, and broke free and escaped to a distance. The man looked sideways to ensure his lifeless hands were in tact. With a sudden spurt of energy, he began to fling his arms wildly to instill some life into them. But, it was of no avail. The hands just hung there refusing to react to any stimulous.
33rd para … The man realized that he was losing his battle to stave off death. The end was menacingly near. Panic gripped him. In a feat of frenzy and wild instinct, he began to run up the creek’s edge. It was a dash to escape the creeping claws of death. The dog followed him in the sprint. In a short while, he could see timber stacks, the aspens bereft of their leaves etc. Momentarily, he felt a bit better. Optimism seemed to return. He felt he could make it to the camp by continuing his run. But, the worry that he could never reach the camp also came to him alternately. He imagined that once in the camp, his friends would nurse him back to health, although he might lose some of his frost-bitten fingers. Thus, despair and hope taunted him in turns.
34th para … He knew his feet had become lifeless, yet he could run. This appeared somewhat strange to him. He guessed he was skimming on the snow like Mercury. Him mind was getting disoriented.
35th para .. The man was clearly at the end of his tether. He had run out of energy and strength to complete his run to the camp. He tripped, got back to his feet, and struggled to continue his run. Exhausted and drained, he decided to pause for a while. He sat down. Some strange feeling came to him. He felt a bit better,and warm. Life seemed to be returning to his body. But, running seemed to be an uphill task. His nose, thumb, fingers were all numb with no sensation. The limds felt as if they were giving away. He tried to drive away such depressing thoughts from his mind. He began to run again, but after a short while, began to falter. The numness of the limbs seemed to creep up to paralyze his entire body. Qute defiantly, he began to run again. The dog followed him faithfully.
36th para … Drained of all energy, and stricken by the sub-zero cold, the man stumbled and fell.down. The last flicker of optimism was receding fast. The dog sat down near him to gues what had gone awry with the man. Apart from some signs of confusion, the dog appeared to have taken the cold in his stride. It looked not very unruffled. The man looked at the dog and felt zealous. The monster of cold seemed to be closing in from all sides. The man ly there completely helpless. The man sat up. A curious sense of equanimity seemed to have dawned upon him.He knew the end was near, but he refused to capitulate. He was determined to stare death in its eyes. The excruciating pain seemed to fade away ceding ground to an intriguing sense of peace. It was all illusory.
37th para … He imagined that his friends had found his body the next day. He felt that he had retraced his path to find his body lying on the snow. It was a sort of hallucination. His soul stood away from his body, detached and free. He thought he would go back to his home and narrate his adventure to his friends. Lost in such riverie, he saw the veteran from the Sulphur Creek standing beside him. He was warm, enjoying a smoke.
38th para .. The man thought he told the veteran how wise he was in his advice.
Last para .. The end had arrived bringing with it the deliverance for the daredevil lone traveller. The dog maintained a vigil over him. The day was receding and the twilight had descended. The dog was restless, seeking a response from the man. But, nothing came. It came near the man to smell it. It concluded that there was no life in the body. With darkness approaching fast, it made a dash towards the camp hoping to find some food and respite from the cold.
—————————————————————To be contd with questions and answers————————————————–
Analysis of To Build a Fire ….
Building a fire is a job women do in the underdeveloped impoverished parts of the world. It needs a little patience, some skill, and of course, the firewood and some little fuel and a match box. However, for the adventurer-boy, the lone protagonist of the story ‘To Build a Fire’, it proved to be a futile exercise that led to his painful death in the ghoulish chill of Alaska. In hindsight, we can say the boy was foolhardy and stupid. However, he deserves some consideration. He was cast off by his family that made him a vagrant. He was forced to rough it out in the vast old landscape. That day, he was keen to join his friends for some good time, as it’s common for lads of his age. The only mistake that he did was to ignore the advice of the local wise man, and not take a companion.
Can we fault him for this indiscretion? In hindsight, yes. He should have heeded the wise man’s caution. But, had he made it, there was no hurrah waiting for him.
The story has been painstakingly built by Jack London, who himself had run away from his home. Perhaps, the trials and tribulations of a vagabond’s life that he had endured, made him write the story with such liveliness. The boy’s trauma, and his capacity to clutch to last rays of hope and continue to prod on makes the story so gripping. It’s a sad account of a young boy’s fatal struggle with Alaska’s cold. However, in order not to lessen the sorrow in the minds of his readers, he makes the beleaguered boy feel that he has finally made it and is playing with his friends. It is difficult to accept that the boy battling the excruciating hypothermia could have slipped into a pleasant reverie, but given his hardy nature, he could still have laughed his way to death. On the whole, it is a very absorbing story.