To Build a Fire Study Guide (Choose to Continue)


To Build a Fire: Pages 11-12

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Summary (pages 11-12)
When he was gathering wood for the fire, he had pulled twigs from the tree and each time he did this he had disturbed the snow on the boughs. This has the effect of now bringing down the snow and it has fallen on him and the fire: ‘The man was shocked. It was as though he had just heard his own sentence of death.’ He thinks the old-timer might have been right as ‘a trail mate’ could have built another fire. As it is, he has to build another one and must not fail this time. If he succeeds, he could lose some toes anyway.
He gets on with it without thinking about it and works ‘methodically’. He forms a new foundation and gathers grasses and twigs for kindling by handfuls as he cannot bring his fingers together.
While he does this, the dog watches him with ‘a certain yearning wistfulness in its eyes’ as it looks at the man as ‘the fire provider’ and the fire is ‘slow in coming’. The man reaches for another piece of bark in his pocket, to help light the fire, but can only hear (rather than feel) as he fumbles for it because his fingers are so numb. He cannot clutch it and is also aware that his feet are freezing. This panics him, but quells the thought and pulls his mittens back on. He threshes his arms about and beats his hands against his sides. As he does so, the dog watches him and the man is envious of the dog ‘as he regarded the creature that was warm and secure in its natural covering’.
The feeling finally comes back to his fingers and although the ache is ‘excruciating’ he is pleased. He pulls off his mitten to retrieve the bark again and his fingers begin to turn numb almost immediately. As he reaches for the matches and tries to separate one, he drops them in the snow.
He tries to put the thought out of his mind that he is freezing and tries to force himself to pick up the matches by looking at them and guiding his hand. This does not work and has to scoop the matches up with the snow with his mittened hands. It takes time, but he manages to get the bunch ‘between the heels of his mittened hands’ and puts them to his mouth.
Analysis (pages 11-12)
When the snow falls on the fire and the man, this becomes a catastrophe for him and he realizes how this could be his death sentence. The power of the individual, and of individualism, is tested and he appreciates too late that the advice of the old-timer should have been heeded.
Because he is alone, he is now more vulnerable than if he had been with another and one may interpret this as an advocacy of socialism. Socialism adheres to the belief in the strength of the collective, of the group, whereas individualism is inimical to capitalism. Through this story it is possible to see metaphorically that the group working together is stronger than the individual working alone.


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