Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” is a story about knowing your surroundings, and listening to your instincts, just as the dog in this story did. London’s human character, who is nameless in the story, is more like a foil; with the main character being the harsh landscape of the Yukon, where the story takes place amid -75 below temperatures. The man shows how arrogant and inexperienced he is when he travels to the Yukon Territory without proper clothing, the use of a sled, or companions. He has no camping gear, insufficient food supplies, and his surroundings appear insignificant to him.
These vital mistakes not only cost the man anger, but eventually a slow, agonizing death due to stubbornness, and a lack of knowledge in the harsh realities of the Yukon. With a dog as his traveling companion, the man sets out on his own in the Yukon to meet with companions at a camp site. He has no experience of the territory he is traveling, despite being told how dangerous it is to travel alone, after the temperatures reach 50 below, by a local old timer from Sulphur Creek. The man scoffed at the advice with arrogance; thinking the locals as womanly, without the realization of the reasoning behind the advice.
He does not worry that the artic temperature is colder than he’s ever felt as he moves at a rapid pace, with just a jacket. The man arrived atop the earth-bank and saw “there was no sun nor hint of sun, though there was not a cloud in the sky. It was a clear day, and yet there seemed an intangible pall over the face of things. A subtle gloom that made the day dark”, and that was due to the absence of the sun. (583). The man lacked knowledge and insight to realize this was not a good sign. An intangible pall came over the face of the atmosphere in the Yukon.
This is a representation of London’s use of Pathos. The landscape is coming to life before the man’s eyes, but he is not alarmed. The animal was depressed by the tremendous cold (585). The dog’s inherited traits tell it that the weather is too brutal to be out, because it is in sync with nature. The man notices the change in the temperature when he spits, and it freezes. He is amused but not alarmed as a traveler with experience would be. The frozen spit and drop in temperature is cause for concern, but the man was not experienced.
His thoughts were on the biscuits he packed for lunch. The man sat to eat, removed his gloves, and only then did he realize he forgot to start a fire when his hands went numb. That man from Sulphur Creek had spoken the truth when telling how cold it sometimes got in the country. And, he laughed at him at the time! (587) The man is aware of hidden pools of water under the snow, and forces the dog to take the lead, which causes him to get its’ feet wet. With what seems to be a cruel twist of fate by nature; the man falls through the ice, to his knees.
Wet and angry from the fall, the extreme cold, the frozen spit, and the advice from the “old timer” suddenly becomes significant. The man makes a fire under a snow laden spruce tree to dry his clothes. His moccasins were coated with ice; the thick German socks were like sheaths of iron halfway to the knees; and the moccasins were like rods of steel all twisted and knotted as if by some conflagration (589). This is another example of London’s good use of Pathos in describing the frozen conditions of the man’s wet items caused by extreme cold.
Unfortunately for the man, the tree branches surrender to the weight of the heavy snow, and snuffed out the man’s fire before he had an opportunity to dry himself. “It was as if he had just heard his own sentence for death” (589). The man frantically gathers branches, but is rapidly succumbing to the frost bite taking over his extremities. His attempts at restarting the fire are futile, and the man begins to panic. His limbs are frozen and he cannot feel his hands as he tries to light the birth bark, instead lighting a fire in his face.
The man tries to run to his camp, but exhaustion and lack of feeling in his legs would not permit. Arrogance is replaced by the sorrow he has for not taking his surroundings seriously, and traveling without a companion who certainly could have saved him. The man has paid a dreadful price for his lack of knowledge. “You were right, old hoss; you were right” the man mumbled to the old timer of Sulphur Creek” (593). Falling face down into the snow is the man’s final act of his inexperience as he surrenders to the harsh realities of the Yukon.