Heir of Prometheus – Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” Analysis

Greek legend has it that when it was time for men to be created, it was delegated by the gods to Prometheus, the Titan who had sided with Zeus in the war with the Titans. Prometheus whose name means forethought was very wise, wiser even than the gods. Prometheus took over the task of creation and thought out a way to make mankind superior. He fashioned them in a nobler shape than the animals, upright like the gods. He then went up to heaven, to the sun, where he lit a torch and brought down fire. Fire became a protection to men, for better than anything else, whether fur or feathers, strength or swiftness. “And now, though feeble and short-lived, mankind has flaming fire and there from learns many crafts” (Hamilton 69)

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The story is about the man. His name is not given, although his experience may as well be the experience of a number of men who get caught in the Yukon under similar circumstances.

The man was bound for the old claim on the left fork of Henderson Creek, where the boys (his companions) were already. They had come over across the divide from the Indian Creek country while he had come the roundabout way to take a look at the possibilities of getting out logs in the spring from the islands in the Yukon.

An ominous description of the setting follows: “The Yukon lay a mile wide and hidden under three feet of ice. On top of this ice were as many feet of snow. It was all pure white, rolling in gentle undulations where the ice jams of the freeze-up had formed… this dark hairline was the trail the main trail that led south five hundred miles to the Chilcoot Pass, Dyea, and salt water; and that led north a thousand miles to Nulato, and finally to St. Micahel on Bering Sea, a thousand miles and half a thousand more” (London 1). This paying attention to detail in the writers’ description of the Yukon as the man set out on his journey as well as his great distance from civilization can be termed no less than awesome.

He was a newcomer to the place and this was his first winter. It is strange that the mysterious hairline trail, the sun’s absence from the sky, the almost unendurable cold and the weirdness of everything failed to make an impression on him, despite his being long used to it. The problem with him is that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances.

As he turned to resume his trek, he spat and it produced a sharp explosive crackle. And when he spat again, before it reached the snow, the spittle cracked. He knew that at fifty below, the spittle cracked in the air making him conclude that it was colder than fifty below. This proves that the man was a reasonable creature who could come to sensible evaluation of things.

When he became hungry, he was glad to know that he had provided himself with biscuits that enclosed generous slices of fried bacon. Despite the impending danger of cold, at least he remembered to provide himself with sustenance. Later, he realized the intensity of the cold as he rubbed his numb nose and cheek bones with his mittened hand. It is at this point in the narrative that man may be considered inferior in judgment compared to lower animals.

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At the man’s heels trolled a dog and the animal was depressed by the cold. It knew that it was no time for traveling. Its instinct told a truer tale than was told to the man by the man’s judgment. In reality, it was seventy-five below zero. Freezing point is thirty-two above zero.

“The brute had its instinct. It experienced a vague but menacing apprehension that subdued it and made it slink along at the man’s heels, and that made it question eagerly every unwanted movement of the man as if expecting him to go into camp or to seek shelter somewhere and build a fire. The dog had learned fire and it wanted fire” (2).

The man held on through the level stretch of woods for several miles and dropped down to the frozen bed of a small stream – Henderson’s Creek, ten miles from the forks. He decided to celebrate nearing his goal by eating his lunch, and yet he postponed the meal. Once in a while, the thought entered his mind that he had never experienced such cold before. As he rubbed his cheekbones and nose with his mittened hand, his cheeks and nose went numb. He regretted that he had not devised a nose trap others wore in cold snaps. This goes to show that he was not one to provide for emergencies.

Empty as the man’s mind was of thoughts, he was keenly observant, and he noticed the changes in the creek, the curves and bends, and always noted where he placed his feet. Once coming around a bend, he shied away abruptly like a startled horse curved away from where he was walking, and retreated several paces along the trail. He had felt the give under his feet. To get his feet wet meant that he would be forced to stop and build a fire.

The man’s keen observation enabled him to react promptly to a dangerous situation. Once, suspecting danger, he compelled the dog to go on in front. The dog refused and hung back until the man shoved it forward, and then it went quietly across the white unbroken surface. “Suddenly it broke through, floundered to one side and got away to firmer footing. It had wet its forefeet and legs, and almost immediately, the water that clung to it turned to ice. It made quick efforts to lick the ice off its legs to permit the ice to remain would mean sore feet” (4). The man knew this, having achieved a judgment on the subject did not fail to show compassion towards his brute traveling companion. He removed the mitten from his right hand and helped the dog tear out the ice particles.

When the man finally decided to eat his lunch, he drew it forth with his bare hands, yet in that brief moment, numbness laid hold of his exposed fingers. He had no chance to take a bite of biscuit. He tried to take a mouthful but the ice muzzle prevented it. He had forgotten to build a fire and thaw out. “Then he got out matches and proceeded to make a fire. From the undergrowth, where high water of the previous spring had lodged a supply of seasoned things he got his firewood. Working carefully from a small beginning, he soon had a roaring fire, over which he thawed the ice from his face and in the protection of which he ate his biscuits. For the moment the cold of space was outwitted.”(5)

Then, at a place where there were no signs, where the soft unbroken snow seemed to advertise solidity below, the man broke through this time he would have to build a fire again to dry out his foot gear. He gathered dry firewood, sticks and twigs and threw down several large pieces on the snow. The flame he got by touching a match to small shred of birch bark. Placing it on the foundation, he fed the young flame with wisps of dry grass. He worked slowly and carefully, keenly aware that there must be no failure since it was 75 degrees below zero. “If his feet are dry and he fails, he can run along the trail for half a mile and restore his circulation. But the circulation of wet and freezing feet cannot be restored by running when its 75 degrees below. No matter how fast he runs, nose and cheeks were already freezing, while the skin of all his body, chilled as it lost its blood.” (6)

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The fire was a success and he was safe. Toes and nose and cheeks would only be touched by the frost for the fire was beginning to burn with strength. He could remove his wet foot gear and while it dried, he could keep his naked feet warm by the fire. And then disaster happened. He should not have built the fire under the spruce tree. This tree carried a weight of snow on its boughs. All this snow, dislodged by melting fell without warning on the man and the fire was blotted out.

He had to build a fire anew. Even if he succeeded, he would most likely lose some toes. He worked methodically using the same procedure. After a time, he was aware of faint signals of sensation in his fingers. He lost the matches in the snow but found them again. His fingers being frozen, he could hardly strike a match, but miraculously, he was able to light the birch bark only to be putout again. When he stood up, he felt that his fingers were frozen. Even when he thrashed his arms back and forth, he stopped shivering but no sensation was aroused in his hands.

What follows is the deterioration in his mode of thinking. First, the certain fear of death. Then perhaps if he ran far enough, he would reach camp and the boys. At the same time, the thought crossed his mind that he would never get to the camp which was many miles away. The problem was that he lacked the endurance. Several times, he stumbled when he decided he was bound to die a freezing death, he might as well take it decently. Then the man drowsed off into the most comfortable and satisfying sleep he had ever known.” (11)

“Fifty degrees below zero (at the start of the story) meant eighty degrees of frost. Such fact impressed him as being cold and uncomfortable, and that was all. It did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty in general, able only to live within certain narrow lines of heat and cold; and from there on it did not lead him to the conjectural field of immortality and man’s place in the universe.” (2)

Works Cited

Hamilton, E. (ed), Mythology. USA: Edith Hamilton, 1940.

London, J. “To Build a Fire”, Web.

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