The Fight of Survival in “To Build a Fire”

The short story “To Build A Fire” by Jack London is an adventure story about survival and is written in a narrative format rather then from the view point of the main character. The man plans to travel 10 miles across the Yukon Valley in temperatures dropping to seventy-five degrees below zero to go meet his friends who are waiting at camp for him. It is written with focus on setting, conflict, and mood.

This a story of survival instinct over brains. The reader is dropped into the Tundra, more specifically to the wilderness of Yukon Valley of Alaska. Jack London uses this setting to impose a dark and lonely mood. The reader is made aware that the main character is understanding to the cold, dark and treacherous terrain he has chosen to concur. “The man flung a look back along the way he had come… as far as his eye could see, it was unbroken white.” (“To Build a Fire, Jack London). The reader feels the main character is not prepared and lacks experience with traveling through the Yukon Valley. From this description, the reader gets the impression that the man is about to face some very horrifying realities. The main charter’s start of his journey implies a decline in his ability to survive the harsh environment he has chosen to throw himself into.

London paints the main character as an unintelligent man, as he describes him as a man “without imagination.” London states that “the strangeness and weirdness of it all made no impression on the man.” and that “it was not because he was long used to it.” He was a new -comer in the land.” (To Build a Fire”, Jack London). London again hints that something terrible is about to happen to the man if he continues his journey because London states directly that this is the “trouble” with him. He is heading out into weather that is fifty degrees below zero at ten o’clock in the morning. The reader is made to believe that the man is foolish and should turn back, because London hammers in the fact that the man is completely unaware of how fragile living human beings are to such low temperatures. The reader now believes that the man may be stubborn, because he is driven by the prospect of claim. The man was headed to stake his claim on the left fork of Henderson Creek. The urge to stake his part of a claim overrules his smarts, because it is very clear to the reader these weather conditions are not meant to be challenged by man. This conclusion is supported by the following from London: “He knew that at fifty below spittle cracked on the snow, but spittle had crackled in the air. Undoubtedly it was colder than fifty below – how much colder he did not know. But the temperature did not matter. He was bound for the old claim.. where the boys were already.” (“To Build a Fire”, Jack London).

The main character is accompanied by a dog, but not just any dog. He was accompanied by a gray coated husky. This wolf dog was saddened by the cold weather but followed at the heels of the man. The husky followed the man for hours waiting and hoping they would soon seek shelter. The husky breed has good instincts, the dog knew they needed to find shelter and build a fire for warmth. “The dog had learned fire, and it wanted, or else to burrow under the snow and cuddle its warmth away from the air.” (“To Build a Fire”, Jack London).

The man and the husky did not have a strong bond of love between the them, but instead their relationship is more like an owner to worker, a bit distant. This fact makes the setting of the story a little less lonely, however still makes the story dark because of the lack of friendship between them. “On the other hand, there was the toil-slave of the other.” The dog is more intelligent than the man because even the dog a native husky seemed more aware of the gloomy situation, they were in. “The animal was depressed by the tremendous cold. It knew that it was no time for travelling. Its instinct told a truer tale than was to the man by the man’s judgement.” (“To Build a Fire”, Jack London).

London just keeps pushing hard how dumb the man is being, yet observant the man seems to be observant as well, as he marches on his journey. “Empty as the man’s mind was thoughts, he was keenly observant. And he noticed the changes in the creek, the curves and bends and timber-jams, an always he sharply noted where he placed his feet.” (“To Build a Fire”, Jack London). These descriptions seem contrary, and they are, but he needed to be very aware of his surroundings without being impeded by outside intrusive thoughts. Here under these circumstances, the man had to be completely focused on reaching his destination alive. His plan was to be at the camp by six o’clock to meet his friends. There he knew they would have a fire going and dinner ready for him to eat after his long journey. As the man continued his journey, he continued walking among the big spruce trees. He was traveling light, only taking with him his wrapped lunch. The mas was already starting to feel the effects of the cold cold temperatures as his cheeks and nose were already numb. His red beard and moustache was not going to protect his face. Even though the man knew the creeks had to be frozen clear through he was very careful to avoid walking on the creek in certain areas of the ice because he knew that there were bubbling springs from the hillsides that ran under the snow and on top of the ice. Here again the readers are given details as to the weather conditions and the man’s surroundings. The readers are shown here that instinct beats smarts.

As the story unfolds, London seems to speed up the pace of the action. With each step the man takes, the danger grows and grows, and the elements of nature seem to attack him with huge force. The cold frigid temperatures were dropping by the minute. The seemed to think he was making good time. He was making four miles an hour, with this thought in mind he decided to stop and eat his lunch in celebration. However, the reader understands that London is presenting the idea of a combined conflict of man verses self and man verses nature, hence the Fight of Survival. London uses the husky to emphasize this. We will soon learn that he husky is smarter than the man.

As the man continues his travels, he is very careful and tries to watch exactly where he is walking. The man knows that if he were to get his feet wet this mean a huge delay, as he would need to build a fire, take his moccasins and socks off to dry them. This would mean his feet would no longer be protected from the cold. The man paused to study the creeks and banks, He again began to walk very softly and slowly testing his footing with every step. The man seemed confident in his path, so he begins to pick up his pace and takes another pinch of chew tobacco continuing his journey for another two hours again continuing to find himself having to pause and reevaluate his surroundings and steps. At one point he ordered the husky to walk in front. The husky did not want to as he hesitated, the man finally shoved the dog in front of him making walk in front of him.

The first horrible event soon takes place when the man, believing he had past all the bubbling springs under the ice, takes another step and breaks through the ice into the water. Now being wet and freezing the man knew he had no time to waste in starting a fire. The man began to panic. “He was angry and crushed his luck aloud. He had hoped to get into camp with the boys by six o’clock, and this would delay him an hour, for he would have to build a fire and dry out his foot-gear.” (“To Build a Fire”, Jack London). This six o’clock time frame he had given himself that he once thought was realistic was now not going to happen, six o’clock did not seem so realistic any longer. Now the man had to build a fire and build it fast especially because the chilling temperatures were dropping again. He decided to build the fire under a spruce tree where he stood, which was not so smart as he would soon find out. The flames would soon touch the branches that were covered in snow and ice beginning to melt the snow and ice off the branches. The branches had not moved in weeks as there had not been any wind. The tree branches were completely full of fresh white powdery snow. Here London writes, “High up in the tree one bough capsized its load of snow… This process continued, spreading out and involving the whole tree. It grew like an avalanche, and it descended without waring upon the man and the fire, and the fire was bottled out! Where it had burned was a mantle of fresh and disordered snow.” “The man was shocked. It was as though he had just heard his own sentence of death.” (“To Build a Fire”, Jack London).

It was now up to the man to try and rebuild the fire once again, and this time he needed to build the fire without failure. His life was depending on it, he was now in a life or death situation. The man knew he was now forced to remove his mittens and try and use his hands to build another fire. Soon after he removed his mittens his fingers went numb. The man knew that the four miles he had been keeping up with would soon come to an end. The pace he had kept up throughout his journey was keeping his blood flowing to all of his body parts. His wet feet froze, and fingertips went numb. After many attempts the man finally got the fire slightly started again. “He cherished the flame carefully and awkwardly. It meant life, and it must not perish. The withdrawal of blood from the surface of his body now made him begin to shiver, and he grew more awkward.: (“To Build a Fire”, Jack London). As the man tried to get the fire to burn stronger a piece moss fell onto the fire. Poking the fire to much by the man and his frozen hands put the fire out again. Another mistake made by the man causing the fire to fail yet again. As the man’s emotions and frame of mind ran wild, he caught a glimpse of his companion, the husky. The husky laid across from the man looking warm and comfortable.

The man’s instinct to survive grew so strong that sadly he began thinking about killing the dog and using his dog’s coat to help protect him from the subzero weather conditions he is now facing. He thought he would kill the dog and then use its coat to warm his fingers and body so that he could attempt another fire. After calling to the dog and trying to get the dog to come to him the man realizes he cannot kill the dog as his hands were frost bitten and he had no strength to hold and kill the dog. “helpless… he could neither draw nor hold his sheath-knife nor throttle the animal.” (“To Build a Fire”, Jack London).

The readers know at this point in the story that the man’s death is unavoidable. The man will lose to nature and his own, foolish greed and stubbornness. How much more could this man endure? He had tried several times to rebuild a fire, he had no supplies left, He could not feel or use most of his body parts. What else could happen to the man other than death? After hours of trying to build another fire, hours of trying to push on, and hours of trying to warm his body, panic began to set in once again for the man. The man once again decides to try and run and push on. He ran and ran, stumbling, tires to walk and tries to catch his breath. The husky followed him every which way he ran, walking, and stumbling. The man even sat and rested for a bit in hopes of regaining some energy to continue on. However, reality was beginning to set in for the man. The man began to yell “You were right, old hoss: you were right,” the man mumbled to the old-timer of Sulphur Creek.” (“To Build a Fire”, Jack London).

In the conclusion of the story, the man finally gave in to his certain death. Giving in, the man sat up where he fell and began to think in his mind the concept of meeting death with dignity. As he sat the dog sat facing him and waiting. Jack London continues “Then the man drowsed off into what seemed to him the most comfortable and satisfying sleep he had ever known.” The dog sat and waited, no fire was burning, no food to be eaten, and no movement was made. The long day ended. The dog moved closer to the man whining softly. The dog leaned in to smell the man, he smelled death. A smell the animal had never smelled before but knew what it was. The dog backed away in fear startled. Soon after the dog began howling. The dog knew the man’s Fight of Survival had ended.

To Build a Fire: An Environmentalist Interpretation

Mankind has been evolving to better withstand Mother Nature since they first migrated out of Africa. Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” will show the deadly consequences when man does not come prepared for harsh weather. The main character represented in the story has a presumptuous attitude and lacks the fortitude to take on Mother Nature. This overconfidence would unironically lead to his ultimate downfall.

His overconfidence in his hiking ability is made aware towards the beginning of the story. The man was only carrying his “lunch wrapped in his handkerchief” (London 66). Him showing up with nothing more than lunch, really shows how unexperienced he was going into the trip to meet up with his friends. An old man at Sulphur Creek would warn him and told him “no man should travel alone in that country after 50 below zero” (London 72). Instead of heeding the old man’s advice, he laughed at it and continued traveling.

Jack London continues to portray his overconfidence when he tries to first eat his sandwich. His lips are freezing from the constant exposure to the freezing weather that he couldn’t eat the sandwich. His lack of awareness leads to him forgetting to build a fire and getting warm again. So after successfully getting the fire going, he remembers back to what the old man had said from earlier and refers to it as “womanish advice” (Hatton 22). So now he can try to cool off those legs that had been taken a dip in the water earlier, if not for his own blunder.

He had built this fire under a spruce-wood tree and “dumps snow on it and extinguishes it” (Hatton 22). Now he was starting to wonder whether that old man was on to something.

The Man vs Nature conflict continues with Man accepting that the old man was right and that no person should travel alone in this weather. His hands were completely numb from the frost, so he had to improvise. He mustered the pack of matches in his “arm muscles that were not frozen” (London 75) and was able to grasp the pack. All 70 of the matches went up in flames at once and he immediately dropped it. “He held the flame of the matches to the bark that would not light readily because his own burning hands were taking most of the flame.” (London 75) This could have easily been avoided if he had brought a partner along with him and not been so ignorant or he had been prepared with enough gear. He still has to stuffer through the wrath of Mother Nature as result of his own faults.

This was now a shivering man with no way to stay warm. He stared at the dog and the readers knew that he was thinking of something disturbing. “He would kill the dog and bury his hands in the warm body in it until feeling returned.” (London 76) The man’s call did not work on the dog at first because the dog had something the man did not throughout the story. “He, with simply his animal instinct is aware of the dangers of the cold.” (Ramirez). He eventually got the dog to come to him, but lost control. “He discovered his hands could not grasp.” (London) “His hands are frostbitten.” (Ramirez) He still managed to grasp the dog, but that’s all he could do. The man could not bring himself to kill the dog. The dog then scampers away about 40 feet and watched him but did not know what was quite happening to him.

Death was not staring the man straight in the face and he knew it. He didn’t just have to worry about losing limbs to frostbite anymore, he had the real possibility of dying. It’s interesting that behind his overconfidence had been hiding his fear throughout the story and Jack London didn’t directly reveal it until towards the end. The man was could not control himself anymore. “The fear made him lose control of himself and he turned and he ran along the creek bed along the old trail.” (London 77) The slight sensation of warmth would not last long. He still thought he could make it to his friends with only a few lost fingers. The though of death kept coming up in his head. “He tried to keep this thought down” (Enviormentalist)” He just simply didn’t have the endurance to make it to the camp and fell into the ground. He tried to get up and fell back into the ground. He had to rest and get some energy.

He started walking this time and told him self he felt better. The man throughout the entirety of the story is delusional with himself with the idea the idea that he will make it up until the very end. It wasn’t until during this final trek, when he touched his nose and realized there was no feeling that nothing was bringing life back to his body. That fear made think that the rest of body most be slowly freezing. “He tried to keep this out of his mind and to forget it.” (London 78) The fear that he had been avoiding trying to keep away could no longer be pushed away, because in his mind, he kept thinking about. This pushed him over the limit and he sprinted in a frenzy that was no longer than 100 feet. He fell into the snow and could continue no more. “It was his last moment of fear” (London 78) He pretty much accepted that he was going to freeze in his current state and sleeping wasn’t the worst way to go. He pictured his friends leaving the camp and finding his body the next day. The man would see himself and the guys the next day.

He was no longer apart of himself. The dog howled and smelled the scent of death on him, and then ran of to be at the cabin with the guys and get some food.

Overconfidence can be terrible the person who is knowingly doing it, like Jack London showed in the book. The man was battered and beaten by Mother Nature because of his refusal to take advice from the old man and a combination of inexperience and arrogance. He was never worried about it until the very end and it was to late by then. “Thoughts did not worry the man” and “Experiences made no impression.” (Keep His Head 89) are both great examples of the lack of distinct instincts the dog had and the man did not. He never once worried about freezing out in the cold because if he had, he would have brought extra clothes and food. His overconfidence just ended up being a cover up for his fear and lack of realization that he wasn’t fit for that journey.

Works Cited

Haddon, David. “Never Absolute Zero.” Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, vol. 25, no. 1, Jan. 2012, pp. 21–23. EBSCOhost,

London, Jack. To Build a Fire.

Mitchell, Lee Clark. “‘Keeping His Head’: Repetition and Responsibility in London’s ‘To Build a Fire.’” Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 13, no. 1, Mar. 1986, p. 76. EBSCOhost,

Ramirez, Nicole. “Summary: To Build a Fire.”, 25 Sept. 2014,

“‘To Build a Fire’: An Environmentalist Interpretation – Lesson Plan.” Leading the American Revolution, George Washington: Correspondence, Portraits; Military Broadsides, Primary Sources for Teachers, America in Class, National Humanities Center, 7 June 2016,

“To Build a Fire.” Full Text – Epilogue – Chapter I – Owl Eyes,

Realism in “To Build a Fire” by Jack London

Realist literature is considered as literary realism. It is a part of realist art movement to present things in their native or original form. There is no place for elaboration and Imagination. Realism was started so that people can know the reality of actual world. On the other hand, naturalism literature considered as a type of extreme realism. It emphasizes on the roles of family in a person life. It also tries to explain the social values in their raw forms. It also depicts the environmental condition which have great impact on character building of a person.

In “To Build a Fire”, Naturalism is shown to be a simple fact that is unchangeable. Nature is shown to be Powerful and Unrelenting. The presentation of Nature in ” To Build a Fire” says how Nature is not bothered by Man. It is an individual in itself and should not be challenged or taken for granted as it can turn into the most notorious troubles to Man. Knowledge is all the information and facts that Man relies upon to approach a situation. According to “To Build a Fire”, it can cloud a Man’s instinctive Judgement and makes him think himself to be Powerful. Instinct is the Natural observation, Presence in the moment, Connection with nature to get answers. It is to bow to Nature and listen to it. To Build a Fire” is basically a story of a younger miner. He comes to a place named as Yukon with a motive to find gold.

This story depicts the struggle of man against the nature. He tries to fight with nature along with scarcity of food and other necessary important equipment. , “the man did not know cold, possibly all the generations of his ancestry had been ignorant of cold, of the real cold, of cold one hundred and seven degrees below freezing- point” (London, p 1117). This description demonstrates that the main character was built to endure those types of temperatures. Throughout the story, he possesses great mental strength and remains calm throughout the aching pains of his limbs freezing. However, nature does test his mental and physical abilities by numbing his face, hands, and feet which made travel very difficult. Nevertheless, he tends to stay in touch with reality by implementing ways to stay warm.

After long, warmth began to wear off which caused the character to experience forms of distress and panic. In comparison, this relates to realism because of the “real” raw emotion of how he strategically plans to make it home and even mentally preparing for death. Furthermore, naturalism stems from realism because of the way humans react to extreme circumstances. In this case, being faced with harsh weather conditions has led the main character to revert to ancestral human instincts by having thoughts of killing his dog, who accompanied him, to stay warm by using its fur.

The Definition of Nature in “To Build a Fire”

Reading a story that contains real places, events, and characters that could exist in real life lets the reader feel like they are a part of the story. It seems intimate because the reader knows that the story is possible to happen in real life. These kind of works are known as realism, a fragment of American Literature.

Literature and art can be dissected into movements throughout time. Specifically, American literature dates back to the colonization of the New World, this first time frame was from the early 17th century to the late 18th century, and it was known as the Colonial Period. Next in line, from the late 18th century to about 1800, is the Revolutionary period. The Early National Period starts slightly before the Revolutionary Period ends, from about 1775 to about 1828. The last period before the Realistic Period is the Romantic Period, lasting from about 1828 to the Civil War. During and after the Civil War two new eras of writing emerged called the Realists and Naturalists Periods. Naturalism is quite similar to Realism, but more on that later. Around the same time as the Realism Period in literature began the realism movement in the arts was starting to transpire. It began slightly before the literature movement did, and it endured a harder upcoming. The causes of the movements, important characteristics of realism and naturalism, and the effects of the movements are all essitional when analyzing the Realism and Naturalism Periods in American Literature and in the art world.

The Romantic Period in American Literature was a time where imagination was favored along with the celebration of nature and the beauty within it. However, during and after the Civil War writers moved away from the unrealistic, fabricated stories, and they wrote from the “grim realities of a devastating war” (Luebering, n.d.). The realists writers published embellished versions of the world as it truly was, that is also how realism got its name. The Realism Period is also seen as a reaction against the Romanticism Period. It began a new interest in scientific method, systematizing of the study of documentary history, and the influence of rational philosophy (Campbell, 2015). The new writing acted as a mirror of the real world, and although most stories were fictional they were possible to actually happen in the real world. Around the same time Naturalism began to develop, and because there is little difference between realism and naturalism they are sometimes considered to be the same movement or two movements at the same time. The characteristics between the two almost seem incomparable, but minor differences do separate the two movements.

Realism is easily distinguishable in American Literature as well as in art, but the movement began slightly before the literature one did. From about 1400- 1800 the art world was dominated by Renaissance themed pieces (“”Realism Art Movement: History, Characteristics of Naturalism,”” n.d.). Realism began to rise with the Industrial Revolution taking place, it illustrated an accurate, detailed, unembellished depiction of nature or contemporary life (“”Realism | Definition & Characteristics,”” n.d.). Although realism depicts the real life, the art world first rejected the idea of it. Art was a place that imagination and ideas could roam freely but to see the world how it was truly was practically scared art patrons. Not only did it show the real world, but it was also an anti- Romantic movement, just like the literary realists movement. It was a movement that revolted against the emotional and and exaggerated themes of Romanticism (“”History: Realism Art for Kids,”” n.d.).

If one is ever wondering if a piece they are reading is considered realism or naturalism a few aspects will stand out to determine if it is. One possible characteristic is that details are more important than the plot, and in some cases the plot does not even make sense (Firth, 2016). The author is trying to describe real places using as many details as possible in order to obtain the real aspect of their piece. Not only is the details more important than the plot, but the characters are as well. It is seen in most realists pieces that character development is a higher priority than the plot (Firth, 2016). Again, the author needs to prove the possibility of the story actually happening, and character development and details are more important than the plot because the story is fictional. The subject of the story tends to be a complex ethical choice, usually about someone choosing between right and wrong and it is up to the character to decide (Firth, 2016). To give a story the real aspect, the author favors the choices that real people might face in everyday life. Another essential, distinctive aspect is the choice of class most realists writers choose to write about. Middle, lower, and the working classes are found to be more important than the higher classes of society (Firth, 2016). It is a major aspect of both realism and naturalism. The events that are happening in realists pieces are plausible, hence “real” in realism. Although the plot might not make sense, the events that take place are either referencing real life events or ones that could happen in real life. Lastly, diction in realism is considered common vernacular (Firth, 2016). There is little to no snooty language, such as though, thy, etc… The authors wrote how they talked, though the tone of the story may be sarcastic, comic, statinic, or matter- of- fact. Again the purpose of realism was to reflect the world how it truly was, not to use a language that would make their pieces no different from previous ones. Authors wanted to be different from previous movements and as true as possible. By making the characters and details more important than the plot, the events believable, making the subject revolve around ethical choices, and using common diction, they were able to do exactly that.

Naturalism can be seen as the same or similar movement because there is only one difference between the two. The characteristics between the two are identical except for that naturalism exaggerates on the lack of control people have. According to Mrs. Firth, naturalism can described as realism plus the ideas that people’s lives are often deeply affected by natural forces such as hereditary, environment, or even chance (Firth, 2016). She explains that in naturalist pieces characters can not control such forces, that the world is basically out to kill them and there is nothing they can do to prevent it. Most pieces maintain a depressing tone because one or all characters end up dying in the end. Other than the lack of control characters experience with their hereditary, environment, and chance in a naturalist piece, no other differences present themselves. From comparing the major aspects in realism and naturalism one can see that the two movements are almost the same, or the two at the same time.

Realism in art, as in literature, describes itself. It illustrates the real world exactly how it is seen by the naked eye. Favorite subjects included rural and urban working class, scenes of street life, cafe and nightclubs, increasing frankness in the treatment of the body, nudity and sensual objects (“”Realism Art Movement: History, Characteristics of Naturalism,”” n.d.). Realists portray real people, the non idealized people, because this movement was during a time of little happiness and prosperity. Artists wanted to capture the hard life and the struggle the working class was experiencing. Pieces ranged from drawings, paintings, photography, and sculptures about real life events.

A good example that illustrates both realism and naturalism is “To Build a Fire” by Jack London. The story takes place in Northern Alaska, where temperatures are normally below zero degrees Fahrenheit, and with snow banks as high as buildings. The main character goes into the wild with terrible weather conditions looming above, it was 50 degrees below zero with a windchill of negative 80 degrees. He is on his way when he steps into a small spot of water. He knows he must stop and build a fire, for his foot will die in an hour if he does not. He begins to build a fire knowing that the first one must work or else he would face death a lot sooner than he would like to. He finally gets his fire up and going and starts to use his knife to cut off his shoe. Little does he know a branch above his fire holds enough snow to distinguish his fire, and that the heat from the fire is slowly melting it away. Soon the snow fell, ended the fire, and left the man in despair. He knew his leg was getting worse by the second and continued to try to build another fire. He kept running into bad luck as he continued to try to defeat death.

However, no matter how much he tried he was not able to make it and soon died of hypothermia. In this short story, the reader can find that the details and character are better developed than the plot does, an easy identifiable aspect of realism and naturalism. The character does not have to face an ethical choice, however he faced the choice to try to keep living. The events and setting in the story are likely to happen in real life, except for the fact that a man should know better than to go into the Alaskan forest by himself with few supplies. Finally, the language that is used is not beyond what a average reader could understand and it fits the setting of the story. The natural aspect is seen because no matter what he did to try to help himself, life kept coming and destroying any hope he had left. Nature had been against him since the beginning as well as he slowly realized he was not going to make it to his destination. “To Build a Fire” by Jack London is a short story that both represents realism and naturalism.

A photo that was captured by Dorothea Lange during the Great Depression is a excellent representation of realism. It captures the struggle of everyday life in the 1930s. One can tell by looking at the picture that the mother has a daily struggle of keeping up. The holes in their shirts and dirt on their hands and faces illustrate the conditions they were living in. Although the picture does represent a depressing time and family, it proves how bad conditions were and what the country, as a whole, came out of, and it was exactly what the realists were trying to do.

Realism is seen in both literature and art. While the art movement began before the literature one did, authors and artists held the same theme and meaning behind their works. They wanted to capture the real world, exactly how it was, hence the name realism. Pieces depicted the working and lower classes, and both movements were against the Romanticism and Transcendentalism Periods. In literature realism is closely related to the naturalism because they hold the same characteristics with only minor differences so they are sometimes considered the same movement. Realism is a movement in literature and art that captures the real world and celebrates the hard work behind the middle and lower classes. Realism and naturalism are essential in understanding the history of literature and art.

A War Against Nature: Instinct in “To Build a Fire”

“But man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.” This quote by Rachael Carson evokes the internal struggle of man in his yearning to survive against the incessant onslaught of nature. “To Build a Fire” by Jack London expresses an existential crisis through the concept of Naturalism. To convey to readers that when man is at nature’s mercy, animalistic instinct is victorious over scientific technology, London juxtaposes the two types of knowledge and their evolution throughout the below-freezing hike endured by a man and his dog through the Yukon Trail by using setting, characterization, and imagery.

To begin, the setting in the story is vital to the significance of the work because it is an unrelenting and static antagonist. The details of imagery regarding setting in the story evince that the man and the dog are submissive to nature, and thus the characters must revert to their known means of survival. In the exposition, the author introduces the setting by describing the man, who “…turned aside from the main Yukon trail and climbed the high earth-bank, where a dim and little traveled trail led eastward through the fat spruce timberland” (London, 1). London expresses the extremity of the frigid weather by syntactically describing it as “…cold and grey, exceedingly cold and grey…” (1). Additionally, the author personifies the weather in such passages: “He was losing his battle with the frost. It was creeping into his body from all sides.” By putting an emphasis on the freezing temperature of the surrounding nature, London makes setting a catalyst for the theme of the triumphant knowledge of instinct. The characters are obligated to survive using the strategies that they have become accustomed to.

Next, meaningful characterization exhibits how each character reacts to the setting, with one reigning victory. The struggle between science and instinct becomes lucid, as the man symbolizes humankind and the dog represents animal instincts. This is inferred, as neither character is granted a name. As a technologically savvy human, the man relies on manmade means such as matches and thermal garb, including “…mittens, ear-flaps, warm moccasins, and thick socks” (1) against nature. Meanwhile, the dog “…merely obeyed the mysterious prompting that arose from the deep crystals of its being…” (3) by biting ice from between its toes and treasuring the man for his gift of fire. Additionally, the man’s tragic human flaw is that he is arrogant, and chooses not to heed the advice of those wiser and more experienced. Meanwhile, the dog followed instinct, for “…all its ancestry knew, and it had inherited the knowledge” (2). At the demise of the man in the denouement, characterization in the setting proves that the dog’s instinctual knowledge was more successful than the man’s artificial resources.

Finally, imagery in the story records realistic and relatable mortal tendencies, so as to gain sympathy from the audience and thus illustrate the meaning of the work as a whole. Each vivid image elicits a unique response from the reader so that the author is able to portray a specific theme. London contrasts the characters’ responses to the setting by evoking various senses, especially those of sight and sound. For instance, the author stimulates the sense of sight by describing the man as “…a warm-whiskered man, but the hair on his face did not protect the high cheek bones and the eager nose that thrust itself aggressively into the frosty air” (2). In another account, the man is conveyed with “…a crystal beard of the colour and solidity of amber” (2). Both picturesque scenes characterize the man in his setting, emphasizing his being entwined with the harsh nature surrounding. Also, when the man spat, “There was a sharp, explosive crackle that startled him” (1). Onomatopoeia in this passage manifests the extremity of the weather. Likewise, the dog is affected by the cold visually in that “The frozen moisture of its breathing had settled on its fur in a fine powder of frost, and especially were its jowls, muzzle, and eyelashes whitened by its crystaled breath” (2). All instances of imagery in the story illustrate that both the dog and the man are equally affected by the freezing snow, so each must revert to internal knowledge to survive. Imagery has significance in the falling action of the story as the “…dog whined loudly. And still later it crept close to the man and caught the scent of death” (10). This final scene provokes a powerful response in that it solidifies the theme that instinct proves victorious over man’s scientific technology.

Throughout “To Build a Fire,” setting, characterization, and imagery are used to convey the theme that when scientific and instinctual knowledge are juxtaposed in their success against nature, instinct will prevail. The meaning of the work is communicated through symbols of mankind’s behavior and of the innate knowledge of an animal that has been learned through generations. Setting is a vital component in the examination of the work, as it prompts conflict for the characters, who were forced to adapt the only way they knew how. Similarly, characterization proved to be a critical and compelling ingredient in analyzing the author’s purpose, as London differentiated the varying ways in which the man and the dog reacted to the setting. Furthermore, imagery helped to gain sympathy from the audience and to reinforce London’s theme. “To Build a Fire” by Jack London offers society an insightful reflection upon the often-abandoned lesson that instinct is a valuable, wise, and sometimes necessary solution to conflict. Had the man in the story trusted the instinct of his own being, he might have survived the battle versus nature. However, it is mankind’s tragic flaw that we are plagued by arrogance, and thus London evokes the consequence of such an overwhelming trait. Despite all of the scientific technology that the man carried with him, London begs the question as to whether it was the dog who proved more prepared and evolved in its humbleness, as “Its instinct told it a truer tale than was told to the man by the man’s judgment” (2). The dog in “To Build a Fire” unknowingly reminds the reader to trust innate, instinct-given gifts.

Chain-smoking: Causality in “To Build a Fire”

The modern fireplace is a marvel of invisible technology, a contained conflagration sparked by the flip of a switch and without human error or intervention. Only recently, and in the comforts of home, has building a fire been so simple. As the title implies, Jack London’s 1908 short story contains within its narrative a literal set of sequential directions on how “To Build a Fire.” London extends this sequential conceit to his fatidic vision of the universe. Unlike the dog in the story, who can rely on its pure-bred arctic instinct as it navigates through the dangerous tundra, the anonymous man possesses a duller, myopic instinct which is unable foresee the consequentiality of the environment. This instinctual flaw in mankind (relative to that of a husky) is a given, but the man fails to compensate by integrating intellectuality into his journey. Were he to use all his resources efficiently, as the dog does, the man could anticipate the chain of events that leads to his demise, and then alter his literal and figurative course. Such a deconstruction of a pre-ordained universe is possible, London suggests, since the reader is made aware – through parallelism, choice wording, and other stylistic and suspenseful devices – of the subtle ways in which seemingly disconnected events are causally-linked.London prompts an investigation into the motifs of linkage in the first two sentences by crafting a landscape of connections, layers, and progression:Day had broken cold and gray, exceedingly cold and gray, when the man turned aside from the main Yukon trail and climbed the high-earth bank, where a dim and little-travelled trail led eastward through the fat spruce timberland. It was a steep bank, and he paused for breath at the top, excusing the act to himself by looking at his watch. (462)The care which London takes to produce a conjunctive atmosphere is delicate but insistent. The adverbial and prepositional clauses – “when the man turned aside from,” “where a dim,” “through the fat spruce timberland” – create a solid and mobile image in the reader’s mind of the man’s progression on a metaphoric ladder that extends horizontally as much as it does vertically. Even the modifying adverb “exceedingly” alters the first bleak “Day had broken cold and gray,” cueing the reader to the probability that the temperature will worsen throughout the story (or at least the man’s reaction to it will). Throughout the story the man can only repeat to himself “It certainly was cold,” adding surety to his present observation rather than forecasting in the way “exceedingly” does.London further capitalizes on this scenic moment to expose the man’s status as a foil to the environmental chain, an unanchored participant who begins the story in stasis and will end in the same position. On high ground (verticality will play an important role later), the man “pause[s]” to check the time. Rather than continuing to merge with the fluid environment, his only definition of progression is a temporal, technological one, and not geographic. Viewing the world in numerical – the narrator, or the man, later gauges the main trail’s unseen “dark hair-line” main trail in mileage to various checkpoints – rather than spatial terms foreshadows his literal downfall. The man looks “back along the way he had come” instead of looking forward on his route, and the description of the ground makes a punning “no impression on the man,” as few warning signs in the story do: “The Yukon lay a mile wide and hidden under three feet of ice. On top of this ice were as many feet of snow. It was all pure white, rolling in gentle undulations where the ice-jams of the freeze-up had formed” (462). The causal relationship between layers will become crucial later in this story, and for the man to see only the “pure white” surface and not suspect a threat lurking below is craftily summarized by London when he describes the man’s next step: “He plunged in among the big spruce trees” (463).What prevents the man from seeing more than the surface, and refraining from such a bold plunge, is explicitly described by London early on: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 uncomfortable, and that was all. It did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty in general, able only to live within 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. (463)One of the main obsessions of Naturalism, that of processes, of omniscient descriptions of how water flows from a reservoir to a faucet to a sewer, of how meat turns into food and is digested through the body, is immaterial to the man. He is unwilling to engage his predictive intellect, even when the evidence invites analysis of processes: “The man’s red beard and mustache were likewise frosted, but more solidly, the deposit taking form of ice and increasing with every warm, moist breath he exhaled” (464). The man refuses to consider consequentiality, even when his future is threatened by the accidents: “And all the time, in his consciousness, was the knowledge that each instant his feet were freezing. This thought tended to put him in a panic, but he fought against it and kept calm” (472). Compare this description to the pessimistic scenario he battles against while he runs shortly before his death: “…and that he would soon be stiff and dead. This thought he kept in the background and refused to consider. Sometimes it pushed itself forward and demanded to be heard, but he thrust it back and strove to think of other things” (476). By this point any anticipation is fatalistic, so the man’s thoughts of the present are reasonable. But during his prior attempts to revive himself, he is unable to use future plans in league with present action: “He drove the thought of his freezing feet, and nose, and cheeks, out of his mind, devoting his whole soul to the matches” (472).The mind-body link is further disrupted once he effectively loses the use of his hands, rendering natural selection’s advantage of opposable thumbs moot. In place of an instinctual communication between his brain and his body, the man must compensate with sight:The dead fingers could neither touch nor clutch…He watched, using the sense of vision in place of that of touch, and when he saw his fingers on each side the bunch, he closed them – that is, he willed to close them, for the wires were down, and the fingers did not obey. (472)This movement away from a corporeal stance towards his environment incites the first glimmers of imagination and creativity in the man. He finds it “curious that one should have to use his eyes in order to find out where his hands were” (475). This curiosity extends to how “he could run at all on feet so frozen that he could not feel them when they struck the earth and took the weight of his body” (476). With death rapidly approaching, the man is fully removed from any bond with the environment: “He seemed to himself to skim along above the surface, and to have no connection with the earth” (476). The disappearance of causality between his head and his body and between his body and the earth provokes an analogous imagination in the man that has been hitherto absent: “Somewhere he had once seen a winged Mercury, and he wondered if Mercury felt as he felt when skimming over the earth” (476). The closer he comes to death, the further he abstracts himself, wholly transporting his mind from his body: “Then the thought came to him that the frozen portions of his body must be extending…the thought asserted itself, and persisted, until it produced a vision of his body totally frozen” (476). His initial solipsism, or at least lack of external regard, is replaced by regard from the external, by sight from the outside. As death grips him he sees himself no longer as a man but as “a chicken with its head cut off – such was the simile that occurred to him” (477). His final self-vision comes from joining the boys in discovering his dead body: “He did not belong with himself any more, for even then he was out of himself, standing with the boys and looking at himself in the snow” (477). This premonition comes far too late, activated only by the immediate onset of death and not by its distant call. Even after this inspired vision of detachment, the reader is reminded once more of the static intellect that entrapped the man: “It certainly was cold, was his thought” (477).But his immobile intellect is only half of the equation. The man’s reliance on his weak instinct, especially in comparison to the native husky’s, plays a similar part in his ruin. Even their physical descriptions show their contrasting states of compatibility with the environment. The man may be “warm-whiskered, but the hair on his face did not protect the high cheek-bones and the eager nose that thrust itself aggressively into the frosty air” (464). His impudence in attacking nature is offset by his noble features that are not designed for such a climate. The dog-wolf, of course, may be “depressed by the tremendous cold,” but is able to withstand it and, what is more, recognize that “it was no time for travelling” (464). The difference is clarified by London: “Its instinct told it a truer tale than was told to the man by the man’s judgment…It experienced a vague but menacing apprehension that subdued it…and that made it question eagerly every unwonted movement of the man” (464). Apprehension is the natural reaction in such a menacing situation for the animal mind, instinct being based on survival. Whereas the man must be told something by his judgment, the dog has no need for any communication – it has no links which can be broken. It bites out ice from its feet without delay, and without absolutely requiring the human invention of fire: “This was a matter of instinct. To permit the ice to remain would mean sore feet. It did not know this. It merely obeyed the mysterious prompting that arose from the deep crypts of its being” (466-467). This same recessed instinct prevents the dog from falling into the man’s trap to kill it and use its carcass for warmth: …in his voice was a strange note of fear that frightened the animal, who had never known the man to speak in such way before. Something was the matter, and its suspicious nature sensed danger – it knew not what danger, but somewhere, somehow, in its brain arose an apprehension of the man. (474)Again, apprehension. The arrogance of the man in venturing out in such weather despite the old-timer’s advice, despite his body’s frequent warnings, and despite the first accident (the man scoffs “Any man who was a man could travel alone”) precludes such a useful apprehension (470). But can we read the first accident as a fatidic precursor to the second, as the first link in a two-part chain? In other words, should or could the man have been apprehensive given his surroundings and operating with his intellect and instinct? Let us return to the physical description of the land. The snow and ice hides springs of water underneath their packed layers. Falling through the ice is a processional act: “Sometimes there were alternate layers of water and ice-skin, so that when one broke through he kept on breaking through for a while, sometimes wetting himself to the waist” (466). But the man, as we have established, has problems conceptualizing and internalizing these future developments, though he does panic and shy away from the creek. When he does break through the ice, in “a place where there were no signs” (meaning his instinct was not keen enough to detect it, and his intellect not sharp enough to heed the old man’s advice), the action takes on the pronoun “it,” as if nature is acting upon the man, though he is the one who plunges through the “soft, unbroken snow” that he observed in the opening scene: “Then it happened” (467-468). After supposedly defeating the wetness by building his fire, he calls it an “accident” (470). All these details set him up for the second “accident.” Nearly everything is in reverse in the narrative description and in the physical reality. Again, London writes that “it happened” (471). Just as the snow was packed with fragile layers, so is each bough of the tree overhead “fully freighted” with snow (471). And just as breaking through the layers is a process, so is the dislodgment of the snow described as one:Each time he had pulled a twig he had communicated a slight agitation to the tree – an imperceptible agitation so far as he was concerned, but an agitation sufficient to bring about the disaster. High up in the tree one bough capsized its load of snow. This fell on the boughs beneath, capsizing them. This process continued, spreading out and involving the whole tree. It grew like an avalanche, and it descended without warning upon the man and the fire… (471)Without immediate warning, yes, but the accident is too similar to the first one for the sentence not to carry some irony along with its fire-snuffing snow. Another word comes into question at the start of the narrative: “It was his own fault or, rather, his mistake” (471). A fault implies an active, free-willed stake, but we are clued in by the pronoun “it” that nature is again the dominant force in the equation. A mistake is far less prominent, a mere blip on the radar screen. The man does not cause these events; they are inevitable episodes that act upon him.We must remember that the two “accidents” are inevitable only to the extent that the man should have picked up the warning signs from the first accident, that he should not have leaned so heavily on his human instinct but incorporated his true human advantage, his predictive intellect and, above all, that he should have heeded the old-timer’s advice to travel with a partner in such weather. With this in mind, London serves as an American complement to Rudyard Kipling’s 1890s writings of man’s confrontation with a hostile nature. Both men expose civilization, and the “civilized” mind, as a thin shield from the elements. The man’s final, delusional words defer to the old-timer and continue the motif of the man’s repetition in lieu of advancement: “‘You were right, old hoss; you were right'” (477). He certainly was right.