Subject:  Imagination – “To Build a Fire”

Event:  Birthday of American author Jack London, 1876

It seems appropriate that the American author Jack London (1876-1916) was born in the middle of winter  — January 12, 1876, to be precise.  His best-known works take place in winter settings, specifically in the Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush.  His best-known novel The Call of the Wild (1903) recounts the adventures of a sled dog named Buck.  London’s short story “To Build a Fire,” one of the most anthologized stories ever written, is also set during a typically ice-cold Yukon winter.  

The only human character in the story is an unnamed man who is making a trek on foot to a mining camp, accompanied only by a husky dog.  Like thousands of others who migrated to the Yukon territory in hopes of striking it rich, the man in the story is a newcomer to the region, inexperienced in surviving in such a harsh landscape.  While the dog’s instincts make it aware of the dangers of the extreme cold, the man is not fully conscious of the potential peril of traveling alone in such extremely low temperatures. 

The man prepared for his trek by dressing in warm clothing and by packing some food and matches.  But as London explains early in the story, the man lacked one vital thing necessary for survival:

The trouble with him was 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.  Fifty degrees below zero meant eighty odd 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 as a creature of temperature, and upon man’s frailty in general, able only to live within certain narrow limits 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.  Fifty degrees below zero stood for a bite of frost that hurt and that must be guarded against by the use of mittens, ear-flaps, warm moccasins, and thick socks.  Fifty degrees below zero was to him just precisely fifty degrees below zero. That there should be anything more to it than that was a thought that never entered his head.

This paragraph foreshadows the man’s downfall.  He knows how to build a fire, but he fails to fully imagine what might happen if he builds his fire in the wrong location.  (Spoiler Alert) The man dies from the cold in the end, but it was a lack of imagination that was the true culprit, not the cold (1).

Imagination is the human species’ superpower:  the ability to create pictures of future possibilities and to explore ideas in the mind that are not currently present.  London’s story reminds us that failures of imagination aren’t just dangerous, they are sometimes fatal.

In a case of fact being worse than fiction, in October 2019, a 47-year old man decided to live-stream his climb up Japan’s Mount Fuji.   Even though he titled his video “Let’s Go to Snowy Mt. Fuji,” this man lacked the imagination to prepare for the climb and to anticipate what might go wrong.  Wearing only street clothes and no gloves, he struggled to climb as the trail became more and more slippery.  His tragic, but predictable, final words were, “Wait, I think, I am slipping!” After online viewers contacted authorities, searchers began looking for the man.  He had almost reached the 12,389-foot summit of Mt. Fuji; however, his fatal fall took him down to the 9,800-foot altitude (2).

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  How can a failure of imagination be fatal?

Challenge – Demise of the Witless:  The Darwin Awards are a catalog of real-life failures of imagination.  The failed attempt to summit Mt. Fuji won the 2020 award.  The Darwin Awards website entitled it “Pinnacle Of Stupidity.”  Research another Darwin Award candidate or “winner,” and explain what happened and how it showed a failure of imagination.


1-London, Jack.  “To Build a Fire.” 1908.

2-2020 Darwin Awards.  “Pinnacle Of Stupidity.”

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