“To Build a Fire” by Jack London: Hanging Humanity by a Thread

There is a peculiar characteristic about the ice-bound regions of the world that renders them absolutely fantastic, absolutely fascinating, and absolutely forbidding. Hoary mountains, glacial vistas, snowy deserts, solid waters, fluid fires of aurora-borealis, and air that is too cold to breathe all give the distinct impression that men ought not to keep company with such august presences. Yet, there will always be some mysterious, mad reason why the holy places of Coleridge’s pleasure-dome were savage caves of ice. It could be the reason why the Vikings imagined that the first man was fashioned out of a glacier instead of the earth. Such a reason might explain why the hostility of the polar elements is the very thing that makes them irresistible. Somehow their unmerciful aspect reflects majesty, the divine—and it is terrifying.

Appreciating these qualities requires an experience beyond the range of literature, but sometimes literature must suffice. Jack London’s mesmerizing masterpiece “To Build a Fire” is a work that captures something of why the icy parts of the earth are the natural expressions of the truth that fear leads to wisdom, and that only fools despise such instruction and such wisdom. And a truly fearful tale it is too; one that turns a reader’s face into what Robert Service called a “map of horror.”

Written in 1908, “To Build a Fire” is as cruel as an icepick, delivered with the straightforward severity of a death sentence that marches with a creeping, inevitable doom, relentless as frost. It follows a nameless man traveling by foot through the frozen tundra of the Yukon to a claim where his companions await him at camp. It was a cold, clear, sunless day that wore the gloom of a pall. The man had made perilous journeys before, but he was a newcomer on that northern tip of the globe and it was his first winter. Never had he been exposed to such temperatures—seventy-five degrees below zero. The man realized that it was very cold; colder than any cold he had endured. He had never known tobacco expectorations to snap to ice before they landed. It certainly was cold.

But such it was, and onwards he went; for the man, though a survivalist, was not a transcendentalist. “The trouble with him was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, not in the significances.” To him, cold weather was cold weather and nothing more. It would never have occurred to him, at that moment as he plunged down the snow-scape between the spruce trees, to consider the ferocious indifference of Nature pitted against his insect frailty. The man was not one of philosophic or symbolic bent, and he failed to recognize the jaws of snow and sky, of mortality and eternity, closing around him. Onwards he went, rubbing his cheeks and nose with his mitten automatically, without that spiritual appreciation that inspires healthy, holy, and human fear.

Fear, however, struck with a vengeance. After several miles, the man broke through a snow-covered skin of ice, landing knee-deep in a pool of frigid water. With this, Death turned the hourglass and the race to build a fire began. As the man toiled, fending off panic and battling against his numb and increasingly lifeless extremities, his fears progressed from the prospect of losing a few toes, to losing his hands and feet, to losing his very life. If only he could build a fire. Thus, a cosmic apocalypse dawned in the feeble flickering flames and the incidents and accidents that arose to snuff and strangle them: man is nothing if he cannot build a fire. As this brutal, unsympathetic conflict of opposing elements, frantic ingenuity, and inexorable forces unfolds, suspense mounts to a perfectly feverish pitch to create a perfectly chilling story of man against Nature.

From his own northern adventures in the Klondike gold rush of 1897, Jack London knew well the devices Nature employs to dangle man above the abyss in a sickening display of fatality and finiteness that is no falsehood. The “white silence” of the Yukon, in his opinion, bore the starkest ability to inspire the stupefying smallness of man in no uncertain terms. It is in these colorless, iron-clad regions that a wise fear is struck in the heart, a timidity that is a humility, and a trembling that shakes the soul awake to the awful truth that, though man is the lord of nature, he is subject to it at the same time. It is there in that silence that, to quote London,

…the mystery of all things strives for utterance. And the fear of death, of God, of the universe, comes over [man]—the hope of the Resurrection and the Life, the yearning for immortality, the vain striving of the imprisoned essence—it is then, if ever, man walks alone with God.

And so should man walk with God, for Nature, and especially the Northland, does not care if man live or die. The pitiless, frozen faces that glare from these misanthropic expanses declare with white and wise silence that the frailer members of creation have little to no business clinging in their crags. But the tenuous tenacity of the human race has always merited reward; and so they have been, and still are, endured by the powers that be—for the time being. Nevertheless, their snowy peaks somehow reveal human civilization as the flash in the pan that it is, and suggest that, despite the progress of the modern age, it may be the case, in the end, that man is as fitting a resident among the frigid kingdoms as he would be at the bottom of the sea. It is part of the mystery of man to desire to exist where he cannot easily live. Acknowledging this suicidal tendency that has fathered heroes, perhaps there are places on this man-inherited planet where men are not necessarily welcome and ought not to trespass.

This hell-bent, do-or-die, Shackletonian tendency is not as prevalent or popular as it once was, and that—perhaps, or in part—because there is less necessity for it now. Man no longer need risk his life in order to live, and therefore the appetite for adventure, now widely labeled inconvenience, has lessened. The trend now tends not toward he intrepid, but the insipid. The existence of the average person is hardly ever threatened, and thus the value of existence itself is threatened. If people are not aware of the tremendous tenuousness of their lives, it is difficult to cherish life. If people are disconnected from those powers that overhang and overshadow the paltry powers of man, people will be lost in an illusion of superiority and security. And so they are lost. Illusion reigns. The world has lost its imagination and the ability to separate things from their significance. “By the breath of God is ice given,” proclaims the Book of Job, echoing through eternity, “and the broad waters are frozen fast.” Stories like “To Build a Fire” are jarring and uncomfortable for the very reason that man is jaded and comfortable, and so should they be read. The cold can invigorate as well as it can kill.

Sean Fitzpatrick

By

Sean Fitzpatrick is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and the Headmaster of Gregory the Great Academy. He lives in Scranton, PA with his wife and family of four.

  • joebissonnette

    What an invigorating read. And of course the irony of that sentence only dawned on me after I wrote it. The crucible of invigoration can be seen in a great story but to truly possess it and be taken up into it, the adventure must be lived. But yet another irony is that the circumspect man of reflection is less inclined to the doing than the less reflective man of action. I guess the story teller needs the adventurer and vice versa.
    There are of course exceptions; great story tellers who live the adventure . But there’s something strained and inauthentic about the intellectual deliberately choosing to live a life of action. He remains aloof, having an “experience” as opposed to living; as an anthropologist among primitives. I grew up in the city and moved out to a farm, but truth be told I’ll never really fit in and good on the locals for not trusting me.
    Nice work Sean.

    • Howard

      Most of the really great adventures are not chosen, they are thrust upon someone. At the same time we have the lack of adventure and the disconnect from the reality of life and death that Fitzpatrick discusses, we have extreme sports — free-climbing the face of El Capitan, making crazy base jumps with wingsuits, sky diving from the edge of space, etc. It’s a sham substitute.

    • George H. Morgan

      When I read it, in my high school days, many years ago, what struck me most was the ending where the dog accompanying him, matter of factly, moved on, to join the humans who would have fire.

  • Howard

    Great post! You know, I think this could easily be adapted to science fiction, to the “red silence” of Mars, for example.

  • Morrie Chamberlain

    Can’t remember when or where I read “To build a Fire” but it did have an impact. Humility comes from knowledge of oneself and the sin of Pride takes many forms including taking foolish life risking chances. Thanks for the reminder of the work and expounding on its spiritual implications.

  • Don

    I really enjoyed reading this. I read “To Build a Fire” as a boy and it has never left me. On these dark, snowy, winter days, I like to walk through wooded country for the silence and power of nature. God feels close on these days. Mr. Fitzpatrick did a very fine job of touching on the power of nature.

  • al d

    London is one of our great writers, his book the Iron Heel needs to be read and re-read by everyone today regarding the injustices going on throughout the world.. He yearned for God-yet was subject to the flesh-he gave most of his wealth away and had founded a community to try to live and reflect a better place.. What does the Church do to establish this- NOTHING- therefore we need to look at the monsateries, amish, bruderhoff and orthodox jewe so as to learn how to live a life towards the kingdom of God.

  • Keith Cameron

    Oh, Service and London are my favorites,
    Kipling is too proud.
    and both their works do beg and cry.
    to be read aloud.

    So imagine you, this Winter day,
    my heart alight and gay
    to see my favorite writers
    mentioned in this way.

    • GaudeteMan

      “I tried to refine that neighbor of mine, honest to God, I did.
      I grieved for his fate, and early and late I watched over him like a kid.
      I gave him excuse, I bore his abuse in every way that I could;
      I swore to prevail; I camped on his trail; I plotted and planned for his good.
      By day and by night I strove in men’s sight to gather him into the fold,
      With precept and prayer, with hope and despair, in hunger and hardship and cold.
      I followed him into Gehennas of sin, I sat where the sirens sit;
      In the shade of the Pole, for the sake of his soul, I strove with the powers of the Pit.
      I shadowed him down to the scrofulous town; I dragged him from dissolute brawls;
      But I killed the galoot when he started to shoot electricity into my walls….”

      From The Ballad Of Pious Pete by Robert William Service
      http://www.famouspoetsandpoems.com/poets/robert_william_service/poems/13602

    • Kalpurrnia

      I’ll do what you say
      And read it today
      To my two homeschoolers outloud!

      • Keith Cameron

        I would recommend ‘The Cremation of Sam Magee’. A timeless classic.

        • Marie

          Have you heard Johnny Cash sing “The Cremation of Sam Magee”?
          Pretty fun. 😉

  • Steve

    Hey, listen, man “walks alone with God” all his thoughtful life. London is not a humanist which leaves him animalistic.

  • Rob B.

    The first few lines of this essay remind me that Dante’s locks the worst sinners and the Devil himself not in fire, but in ice.

  • materetmagistra

    I believe that’s “75 degree of frost”. Or 43 below zero Fahrenheit.

  • Hank

    When I first read the story it had been just under a 100 degrees (in the nonexistent shade) for several days. When I finished I was shivering from the cold.

  • michael susce

    Such an excellent and though provoking article. I was inspired to write this:

    The real intimacy of an inhospitable environment next door speaks
    volumes about the unbelievable contrast of a unique and impossible Eden in
    which we find ourselves; such an extraordinary gift of love. Who is man that God should create a heaven on earth of such infinite difference and yet man’s response is…… man becoming wolf to man.

    It is one thing to comprehend the desolate silent beauty of the universe, but another to sense creation’s pitilessness next to us in the ruthless beauty of the arctic. So real can we conceive of human non-existence. The impossible has become real without any participation of man. Who is man….How close we are to non-being should life had started just few miles north! When cold desolation is so close, here we are in paradise and complain of……boredom.

    Who is this blind man who does not recognize the unimaginable and impossible reality of existence, being and consciousness. Man made in the image of God, yet how inadequate
    is his realization of the joy and wonder of being. Aware of the whole universe that is not aware of itself. Man’s greatest battle is against not knowing what he really possesses given as a gift. So next door to such cold, silent, pitiless and ruthlessness floating on the surface of the arctic exists the stark infinite contrast of life, love, creation, existence, consciousness and wonder, and sheer joy of…….eternal life.
    Went over to Wikipedia and discovered that Jack London claimed to be an atheist. But who knows his heart and mind during the last moments of his life. Thanks

  • Rick

    Thanks for writing. Great story by Jack too.
    Might I suggest you change ‘Shackeltonian tendency’ to ‘Scottian tendancy.’ Shackelton didn’t have a hell-bent, do-or-die attitude. He never lost a man under him and turned back to save lives rather than push on a risk death. Scott was the Antarctic explorer who was hell-bent.

  • SnowCherryBlossoms

    What a vivid beautiful essay. I grew up reading London and many others who wrote like him. I really enjoyed this and could literally “feel” it. I live a very cold place and when the blizzards and – 25 degree days come in like a slap in the face, it’s amazing to watch it and feel it and think how fragile life can be. It always makes me think of the raw power of God who created nature. But still, I thank God for wood stoves and oak.

  • Lee Gilbert

    Oh Yes, I remember “To Build a Fire,” “The Most Dangerous Game” and many other such stories that were wished on us in Lit class in Catholic high school in the late fifties. They and many others of similar effect were straight from the pit- and very obviously so. The effect was the inculcation of despair in the adolescent mind, the demonization of the imagination. The message of that particular story was, nothing you do will work out right. But it was part of the literary canon, and we were chiefly in the business of fitting in. St. Paul speaks of those who give themselves up to sensuality out of despair, and we surely did. Woodstock anyone?. It may have played only a small part- perhaps not so small- in the corruption of a generation. I knocked myself out to get a Catholic education and came out of that school familiar with and deeply affected by “the canon,” yet knowing nothing of the Fathers of the Church, the contemplative tradition of the Church, the Psalms. Idiot pedagogues! What did you think would happen? From what I understand, most of my class has fallen away from the Church. Yes, we read Jack London, but not Trochu’s Cure d’Ars; Poe, but not Merton, St. Bernard of Clairvaux or Teresa of Avila. After caddying for four summers in a row to pay for tuition, and commuting sixteen miles twice a day for four years, I came out that school soaked in the secular canon and knowing precious little of my own faith tradition. In brief, “To Build a Fire,” “The Most Dangerous Game” etc. be damned.

  • Thomas Sharpe

    “My little horse must think it queer, to stop without a farmhouse near…”
    The cathedral of the snowy woods, icy cold, silent with snow. A reminder that we are dust…

    I’ve camped in the woods when the temperature has fallen below -14F. It’s an odd thing to think that the simple matter of being outdoors can kill, it’s an odd thing to hear the call of a pack of coyotes nearby at 1AM -the coldest part of the night.

  • Barry Penobscott

    Silly question. At 75 degrees below zero, wouldn’t the ice be too thick for London’s traveler to fall through?

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