What Is the Symbolism in “To Build a Fire” by Jack London?

“To Build a Fire” by Jack London is a short story about man versus nature, and for its protagonist, fire represents survival. Because of the extreme cold, the man struggles to light a fire, and the condition of his frozen hands symbolizes the difference between life and death.

In order to survive the frozen wilderness of the Yukon, the story’s protagonist must get dry and stay warm, and his attempts to do so form the main narrative of the story. Because of the extreme temperatures, the man cannot afford to make a mistake.

As his predicament worsens, his need to build a fire becomes more urgent. The man’s frozen hands are particularly relevant as his fate rests on his ability to manipulate his fingers. The man’s efforts to light a fire is a battle for survival, and fire and the man’s hands become symbols of life and death, respectively.

Fire also represents safety and comfort. At the beginning of the story, the man decides to leave camp, despite the worsening weather, in order to push on with his journey. His dog’s reluctance to leave the warmth of the campfire and the security that it brings suggests the man is making the wrong decision.