October 28, 2022

#08-251: To Build a Fire

A dog in the Yukon, 1901

Note: Like thousands of others, Jack London joined the Klondike Gold Rush looking for gold. Instead, he found experiences that contributed to his Call of the Wild and White Fang, as well as this jewel of a story.

Get Ready: What is the coldest weather you have ever been in? What did it feel like?

Jack London's short story "To Build a Fire" takes place along the Yukon Trail, which connected what is now the U.S. state of Alaska and the Yukon Territory in far northwest Canada. It was the turn of the 19th century, when the "Klondike Gold Rush" brought an estimated 100,000 men to prospect for gold.

The unnamed protagonist was a chechaquo, a newcomer to the area. He knew it was cold, we're told, but lacked the experience or the imagination to realize the consequences of such temperatures: -59 °C (-75 °F). Even the warning of an old man back at his starting point, Sulfur Creek, did not deter him.

He was going to meet his partners, "the boys," and was accompanied by a local wolf-dog, the kind we call a husky. (This reminds us of London's more famous book, The Call of the Wild.) The dog's instinct made him reluctant to go.

The nine-hours hike should put his arrival around six p.m.--just in time for dinner. Around 12:30, under a sunless sky, he stopped to build a fire and warm the biscuits with bacon he was carrying against his skin, to keep it from freezing. This went well enough, and soon he was on his way again.

Then the first in a series of accidents occurred which led to his eventual death: he broke through some thin ice and his feet and lower legs got soaked. He tried to light another fire, under a tree, but a large amount of snow tumbled down from the tree's branches overhead and extinguished the fire. As he started to lose sensation in his extremities, he began to understand the old man's warnings.

In attempting to light a third fire, he used up all his matches one, by one, by one... a very suspenseful part of the story. He also burned his now-numb fingers. And once again, trying to arrange the sticks in the fire, he put this fire out, too.

He had no way to start another fire. He thought of killing the dog and using its body for warmth, but his hands were too stiff to either strangle it or cut its throat. At last, he tried running to restore his circulation but he stumbled and fell in the snow repeatedly.

After a final fall he fell asleep and died of hypothermia, imagining that he was standing with "the boys" when they found his body.

At first the dog stayed and attempted to get the man to build another fire. But at last, it "caught the scent of death" and backed away. It stayed a little longer, howling at the stars, then trotted up the trail to the camp where it knew it could count on warmth and food.


Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. circulation
  2. extinguished
  3. extremities
  4. hypothermia
  5. instinct
  6. numb
  7. protagonist
  8. reluctant
  9. sensation
  10. strangle

  1. put out
  2. not willing or barely willing
  3. freezing to death
  4. choke; squeeze around the throat
  5. without feeling
  6. feeling
  7. the movement of the blood through the body
  8. arms and legs
  9. natural response, without thinking
  10. the main character

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for October 28, 2022

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. g; 2. a; 3. h; 4. c; 5. i; 6. e; 7. j; 8. b; 9. f; 10. d