What is an example of cause and effect in the story “To Build a Fire”?

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What is an example of cause and effect in the story “To Build a Fire”?

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| Certified Educator

I love this question because a reader can answer it in through a big picture lens or a small, narrower view. Let’s start with the ultimate effect. The man dies. I could make the argument that this final effect is caused by the man’s falling into the water. This forces him to make a fire under the tree that ultimately extinguishes the fire. Perhaps had he not gotten wet, he would have been able to maintain enough logical thought processing to put the fire in a smarter location.

It was his own fault, or instead, his mistake. He should not have built the fire under the pine tree. He should have built it in an open space. But it had been easier to pull the sticks from the bushes and drop them directly on the fire.

Prior to this sequence of events, the man was doing okay. The weather is bitterly cold, and he realizes that maybe the old man might have been right, but the man successfully lights his first fire and warms himself. He’s in a solid enough situation where he even smokes his pipe, and the dog is content to stay put and wait for improved weather.

The dog took comfort in the fire, lying at full length close enough for warmth and far enough away to escape being burned. When the man had finished eating, he filled his pipe with tobacco and had a comfortable time with a smoke. Then he pulled on his mittens, settled his cap firmly about his ears, and started along the creek trail toward the left.

The man then chooses to leave, and this ultimately causes his death. He should have stayed put and waited for the weather to improve. I also think that it could be argued that the initial cause is the man ignoring the advice of the old man. Had he listened to the knowledge of an older and more experienced cold weather expert, the man would have likely lived longer.

If you are looking for a smaller cause and effect example, then I would go with the man pulling branches from the tree. This causes the tree to shake and drop the snow onto the fire. The effect is the extinguished fire.

Each time he pulled a stick he shook the tree slightly. There had been just enough movement to cause the awful thing to happen. High up in the tree one branch dropped its load of snow. This fell on the branches beneath. This process continued, spreading through the whole tree. The snow fell without warning upon the man and the fire, and the fire was dead.

| Certified Educator

One very good example of cause-and-effect in “To Build a Fire” is the protagonist’s lack of preparation. He receives explicit advice from an experienced man who has traveled the Yukon for years:

That man from Sulphur Creek had spoken the truth when telling how cold it sometimes got in the country. And he had laughed at him at the time!
[…]The old-timer had been very serious in laying down the law that no man must travel alone in the Klondike after fifty below.
(London, “To Build a Fire,” eNotes eText)

His laugh at the admonition to travel with a companion and prepare for bitter cold shows his ego, and his belief that he is able to conquer nature with little more than his personal willpower. However, he is quickly damaged by the cold, falling into a spring which wets his clothing — this is practically a death-sentence in the Yukon. As he tries to light a fire, his freezing hands refuse to work; with a companion, he could have survived. Ignoring the advice of a wiser man directly leads to his death.

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Further Reading

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/To_Build_a_Fire

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