To Build a Fire by Jack London: Summary, Setting & Quotes

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  • 0:05 ~'To Build a Fire~' by…
  • 0:23 ~'To Build a Fire~' Summary
  • 2:25 ~'To Build a Fire~' Setting
  • 4:49 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Dori Starnes

Dori has taught college and high school English courses, and has Masters degrees in both literature and education.

What limits can the human body reach? In the story ~'To Build a Fire,~' a young miner finds out just what his body can and can't take. When his fire fails, his only friend deserts him, and the cold sets in, the man is alone against the Yukon winter.

''To Build a Fire'' by Jack London

How cold is too cold? In the short story ''To Build a Fire'' by Jack London, a miner in the Canadian Yukon, finds out exactly how much cold and snow he can take before he dies. This lesson will focus on the summary, setting, and quotes of ''To Build a Fire.''

''To Build a Fire'': Summary

A miner and a dog trek through a frozen wasteland. They are heading to a mining camp in Northern Canada, in the Yukon, which is the smallest province in Canada far up in the northwest. The dog (which is actually part wolf) feels that they should be hunkered down out of the cold, but the man pushes on. He's not worried about traveling, even though he should be. He thinks back on advice he had from an older miner, who told him never to travel alone if the temperature was under 50 degrees below zero. Distracted, the man falls through some ice and gets his feet wet. He decides to stop and build a fire. (The alternative at this point is to freeze to death).

He manages to get a fire started, and pulls some twigs off a tree to feed it. But snow falls from the branches and puts out his fire. He tries to restart it, but his hands are too frozen, and he can't make his fingers work. ''And all the while the dog sat and watched him, a certain yearning wistfulness in its eyes, for it looked upon him as the fire provider, and the fire was slow in coming.'' This quote shows the true relationship between the man and the dog. While the dog may seem loyal, it is actually staying with the man out of self-interest. The dog knows that the man represents food and warmth.

The man begins to panic and decides to kill the dog to warm his hands. He plans to strangle the dog and cut its belly open. He calls the dog over and tries to crush it, but he can't do that either, so he decides to make a run for it. He dashes toward the mining camp, which is still miles away, and quickly collapses. He thinks about the other miners finding his body, especially the old man who told him not to travel alone. The freezing man imagines telling the elder that he was wrong, and falls into a deep sleep.

The man dies, and the dog waits a moment for him to get up. Then the dog begins to howl and finally trots away from the frozen miner. The dog heads toward the camp, where it imagines it will find fire and food.

''To Build a Fire'': Setting

This story takes place in Canada, in the Yukon Territory. Thousands of miners, mostly young men, headed to the Yukon when gold was discovered. Most of them failed to get rich, and many died in the harsh conditions.

It's cold here. Really, really cold. Ice and snow cover the land, and we know the temperature is more than 50 degrees below zero. The wind is blowing. The miner is worn down and done in by the cold. London tells us that his face and beard are covered with ice, and each breath the man takes freezes it further. Even the tobacco he is chewing is freezing, making the ice on his face even worse.

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