The significance of the words “dying and death” in Jack London’s 1910 novel, “To Build a Fire” continuously expresses the man’s dwindling warmth and bad luck in his journey along the Yukon trail to meet “the boys” at camp.
London associates dying with the man’s diminishing ability to stay warm in the frigid Alaskan climate. The main character’s predicament slowly worsens one level at a time finally resulting in death.
The narrator informs the reader that “the man” lacks personal experience traveling in the Yukon terrain. The old-timer warned the man about the harsh realities of the Klondike. The confident main character thinks of
the old-timer at Sulphur Creek as “womanish.” Along the trail, “the man” falls into a hidden spring and attempts to build a fire to dry his socks and warm himself. With his wet feet quickly growing numb, he realizes he has only one chance to successfully build a fire or face the harsh realities of the Yukon at one-hundred nine degrees below freezing.
Falling snow from a tree blots out the fire and the character realizes “he had just heard his own sentence of death.” Jack London introduces death to the reader in this scene.
The man realizes “a second fire must be built without fail.” The man’s mind begins to run wild with thoughts of insecurity and death when the second fire fails. He recollects the story of a man who kills a steer to stay warm and envisions himself killing his dog and crawling into the carcass to warm up so he can build a fire to save himself.
London writes, “a certain fear of death, dull and oppressive, came to him.”
As the man slowly freezes, he realizes he is in serious trouble and can no longer make excuses for himself. Acknowledging he “would never get to the camp and would soon be stiff and dead,” he tries to clear this morbid thought from his mind by running down the trail in a last-ditch effort to pump blood through his extremities.
The climax of the story describes “the man” picturing “his body completely frozen on the trail.” He falls into the snow thinking, “he is bound to freeze anyway and freezing was not as bad as people thought. There were a lot worse ways to die.” The man drowsed off into “the most comfortable and satisfying sleep he had ever known.” The dog looked on creeping closer, filling his nostrils with the “scent of death.”
London’s portrayal of the man does not initially give the reader the theme of dying, but slowly develops the theme as the story develops. The story doesn’t mention death until the last several pages. The main character changes from an enthusiastic pioneer to a sad and desperate man.
The conclusion of the story portrays the man accepting his fate and understands the old-timer at Sulphur Creek had been right; “no man must travel alone in the Klondike after fifty below.” Typically, short stories written in the early 1900s often conclude the story with a death or tragedy. London’s story is no exception. This story follows the pattern by illustrating events leading up to and including death.