Literary Devices in To Build a Fire

Repetition: There are several notable instances of repetition throughout “To Build a Fire.” The man is constantly thawing and refreezing various parts of his body, showing the futility of his efforts to remain warm. Three times he attempts to build a fire, each attempt more desperate and less successful than the last, emphasizing the increasing mortal danger of his situation. The man’s tobacco chewing, which he prioritizes over more important matters, occurs several times when the man is underestimating the environment’s hazards. Finally, the man’s notion of “cold” is constantly being redefined—the longer he spends in the wilderness, the more frequently he has to reconsider his previous evaluation of the temperature.

Imagery: London’s portrayals of the Yukon landscape are beautiful and evocative, but often emphasize the man’s smallness in relation to the vast swaths of snow and ice surrounding him. Furthermore, other sensory descriptions—such as the visual and sound of the man’s spit cracking on the snow—are meant to show nature’s inhospitality.

Foreshadowing: Foreshadowing throughout the story contributes to the reader’s sense that the outcome—the man’s freezing to death—is inevitable. The man’s inexperience, shown through lines such as “Fifty degrees below zero was to him just precisely fifty degrees below zero,” hint to the reader that the man’s lack of concern will be problematic for him. The old-timer’s advice, which the man recalls several times, also foreshadows the man’s missteps. Despite the old-timer’s warnings, for example, the man takes off running with wet feet—the last in a series of poor choices that leads to his death.

Literary Devices Examples in To Build a Fire:

To Build a Fire 7

"where were the other food-providers and fire-providers...."   (To Build a Fire)

London’s use of language, describing the men at the camp in compound phrases such as “food-provider” and “fire-provider,” allows us to slip into the dog’s consciousness. Here, we find no spiritual connection between human and canine, but rather a relationship built on survival.

"he wondered if Mercury felt as he felt when skimming over the earth...."   (To Build a Fire)

London’s allusion to Mercury operates on several levels.Mercury’s winged feet allow the god to float over the earth much as the man, with his frozen feet, does. The reference to Mercury also calls to mind the planet of the same name, producing an image of Mercury and Earth in their separate orbits; this image underscores the man’s complete disconnect from his environment. Finally, in Roman mythology Mercury guides souls to the underworld. From this context, we can see the character’s desperate sprint as a dash towards death.

"fetched forth the birch bark...."   (To Build a Fire)

This alliterative phrase is exemplary of London’s prose style. His sentences are clean and simple, but punctuated with occasional poetic flourishes.

"Once in a while, the thought reiterated itself that it was very cold and that he had never experienced such cold...."   (To Build a Fire)

London carefully builds this statement so we understand the thought as separate from the man: it is not “his thought.” London’s decision to structure the narrative in such an objective way reflects how distant the protagonist is from the consequences of his situation. This produces dramatic irony. The reader understands the imminent danger the protagonist is in more clearly than he does.

"a dog, a big native husky,..."   (To Build a Fire)

London introduces the dog to act as a foil to the main character, that is, the dog has key differences that contrast sharply with the man, such as its physical features and its instinct. By showing how the dog reacts to events in the story, London further highlights the man’s inexperience and the seriousness of his situation.

"COLD and grey, exceedingly cold and grey..."   (To Build a Fire)

Note how London uses repetition throughout the story. By repeating certain words and actions, such as the cold and the numbness he later feels, London emphasizes not only the intense coldness of the setting but also the danger the man is in.

"the man..."   (To Build a Fire)

In the original version of “To Build A Fire,” published in 1902, the protagonist is called Tom Vincent. London later revised the story, deepening his descriptions of the setting and the character while removing his name. In this second version, published in 1908, the protagonist remains unnamed throughout the story.