Reading with the Arena: To Build a Fire

To Build a Fire” by Jack London, is a short story with one of my favorite antagonists ever. This may seem like an odd statement, because the story is about nothing more than a man going for a walk in the Arctic with his dog. Not much room for an epic villain there.

But it becomes apparent early on that the cold itself is the antagonist, an ever-present third character which has more impact on the story than anything else. The cold exists in every thought, every action, and every plan the man makes. It is always being measured and contemplated, and its slow, patient attack on life in this story is one of the best battles ever put down on the page.Fire

London starts off with some excellent use of specific knowledge, we note the various levels of snow and ice, the general notions of extreme cold, and these are all dropped in smoothly and without much regard.

A perfect example of this is how London describes the strangeness of the arctic day, in which it is always light and yet the sun is never above the horizon. This fact made me reread the first few paragraphs a few times because I thought I had misread something. It sinks in easily enough that this story is taking place above the arctic circle, but the narrator places this detail so gently into the tale that it’s possible to think we’re on a different planet.

This brings us to the man. He is given no other name. Right away, we are allowed some strange glimpses into his personality. He is utterly calm about this crazy weather and permanent daylight. He doesn’t mind that the spit from his tobacco is making an icy muzzle around his jaws. He even expects his spit to freeze in the snow with a crackling noise when he expectorates. It is so cold that something like spitting has taken on bizarre new traits, but we are made to understand that the bizarre is normal for him.

This immediately gives him status over us. It is difficult not to view him as an expert on wilderness survival, because this strange landscape does not phase him.

And yet when his spit freezes in mid-air even he is taken by surprise. It turns out that this is vital information, but to the man that just means that the air is colder than he expected.

Just as we start to believe the man knows it all, we are given reason to doubt him. London does not give the man, who is observant and intelligent, the ability to think. He observes all and observes well, but he never goes beyond that to put what he observes into use, and he certainly never explores the relationship between the weather, his journey, and his mortality.

blizzardMeanwhile, acting at all times in opposition to this man, is the cold. It is always there, it is always discussed, and like many a great antagonist, it is unrelenting.  It infiltrates every action the man decides to take. Even eating the biscuits he brought for lunch turns into an arduous task as the man has to beat his hand against his legs to get his fingers to work well enough to hold his lunch. In fact, as the story continues, our view of this man as being in command of this landscape as we first saw him, as knowing how to survive in this strange world, begins to dissolve and our doubt about him begins to grow. We start questioning his intelligence for putting himself into such a landscape. To him, it is cold. He is walking. He is alive. But none of those things interrelate. He never makes any connections, meanwhile the cold is revealed to be far more cunning, working every possible angle to its advantage. The cold influences the air, the animals, the trees, the way kindling branches lie on the ground, the way rivers freeze, the way snow covers holes, and, finally, the cold exerts its influence the man’s attempts to build a fire.

And while this villain, this cold, is one of my favorites, this protagonist, the man, is one of my least. I never know what to make of him. Jack London is often cited as being a voice of nature, of portraying a savage wilderness with contempt, if not indifference, for mankind. But what is London putting forth in this story? Is he chiding the man for not thinking, for not putting his brain to use and outwitting nature? Is this is a simple tale of a simple man who could not see his own mortality in the cold? Or is London condemning the reader, hinting that at heart, we are all like the man; that none of us possess the courage to look into the truth of our mortality for too long?


photo credit: Fire via photopin (license)

photo credit: Snowstorm Video – Four Mile Run via photopin (license)

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  1. I have always felt that this story was a companion piece to The Call of the Wild (which I could go on for a while about but I won’t) and London’s message in both is that we are not above Nature. As much as we would like to believe that we can conquer and beat anything we come across, we are not immune to the simple dangers of the natural world.

    The character you left out in your post, and a character I think London uses as a kind of mirror for the man, is the dog. The dog does not want to make the trip on this day but does so at the bidding of the man. Everything the dog feels tells him to seek shelter; “Its instinct told it a truer tale than was told to the man by the man’s judgment.” Man in his arrogance thinks he can overcome the extreme cold by sheer will. We are told over and over that the dog wants fire, wants to head back to camp, refuses to go in front of the man over the meltwater ridden snow while the man never considers abandoning his trip even when he knows he is in immediate mortal danger. We are even told that the man was advised not to go and chose to disregard those warnings. The man even goes as far as to mock those warnings and the old-timers who gave them as he sits trying to save his own life. It was only at the end that the man understands and acknowledges his mistake.

    The dog fares much better through the same obstacles and danger as the man because he is in tune with nature. He follows his instincts because he knows he is vulnerable and mortal. Man has lost this ability and pays the price for it. This is what London wants us to realize; if we stopped trying to master Nature and instead took our place within and acted in concert with the world around us we would all be better off.

    • I debated this angle, but then I got to thinking about all of the humans who *aren’t* out in this weather. The old timers and the boys back at camp. They know not to go out in the cold. They know that spit freezing in the air is wrong. It’s The Man who decides he can make it, and it’s The Man’s odd inability to actually use his knowledge that dooms him. At least on my current read through. I found myself more wanting this guy to put the pieces together, add one and one to make two. But he doesn’t. He has this odd regard that cold is cold and certain things happen at 30 below and certain things happen at 60 below and that’s all there is to it. He honestly never fits all the pieces together…I’ve never been struck with the weirdness of that in prior readings.

  2. Great analysis of a great short story!
    I think one of your best points is how our confidence in the protagonist fades as his interpretation of his situation falters.
    Here’s my two cents:
    In my mind, Jack London is very similar to Stephen Crane (The Red Badge of Courage). He also saw nature as a brutal antagonist.
    Here’s a very short poem by Stephen Crane:

    “A man said to the universe:
    ‘Sir I exist!’
    ‘However,’ replied the universe,
    ‘The fact has not created in me
    A sense of obligation.’”

    This view of nature having a brutal lack of obligation seems relevant to the cold in London’s story.
    Crane’s short story “The Open Boat” deals with four men in a lifeboat. In this case, it is the ocean that plays the antagonist. One of the main themes in this story is that nature has no real animosity toward you. It is completely neutral about your survival.
    This perspective alone makes the cold in “To Build a Fire” a memorable antagonist (as you say).
    Some in fact argue that the opposite of love is not hate—it is apathy. If that is the truth, then “To Build a Fire” has one of the most resonating antagonists for that very reason. In a sense, it’s so disturbing because the cold is so—cold.

  3. Let’s throw another name in there: Lovecraft. The human idea that because we are alive and conscious that makes us somehow worthwhile, and this fact is a matter of supreme indifference to the other things that share the universe with us, is the core of his writing. We’re not as smart as we think we are, the world does not have to work hard to kill us and we’re not, based on the evidence, getting any smarter.

    You could say that London is doing what the Romantics did when they investigated the Sublime. Edmund Burke connects the Sublime to feelings of awe and terror. The Romantics suggested that nature was the best and most complete generator of these feelings, and they sought out the power and majesty of nature which often resulted in man seeming inconsequential in comparison.

    In a prosaic way, that’s what London is doing. The Man doesn’t connect with the cold because he doesn’t think he has to. He believes he’s got nature understood, and beaten.

    By not giving him a name, London allows him to be any man, and therefore every Man. He’s representing the species out there, acting on the general consensus that man understands nature and can modify it or defy it at will. Rather like the folks who are busy not making connections between thermodynamics and climate change, or who seem set on allowing geoengineering to solve our problems later, the Man may not believe he’s in any immediate trouble.

  4. Sad to say that I don’t know the story in question, but I did want to add that I sincerely hope that “Arena Reading” will become a regular “bye” week feature — a discussion of a story that one of our Arena gladiators finds inspiring…

    Good stuff!

    • I agree that this should become a regular feature, and remain focused on short stores. It would be interesting to see which stories the authors look up to and why.

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