A Comparison of the Similarities and Differences Between Jack London’s To Build a Fire and Stephen Crane’s The Open Boat
Survival Against Nature
Many works of American literature contain similar themes and elements. This is because some ideas are common to human nature and many authors strive to express them in different ways. An example of this is Jack London’s story “To Build a Fire” and Stephen Crane’s story “The Open Boat.” Both of these works of literature share similar themes but address them from different perspectives. Both stories share the theme of survival against nature and place their characters in life threatening situations that test both their physical and mental strength. The man in “To Build a Fire” is forced to fight his way through the freezing snow in his search for riches during the Klondike gold rush of 1897. He uses all of his recourses to try survive and even goes to the length of attempting to kill his only companion, his dog, to try and protect himself. The four men in “The Open Boat” learn to rely on each other as they battle the waves of the ocean after being shipwrecked. They form bonds with each other under such harsh conditions. The stories “To Build a Fire” and “The Open Boat” differ in their handling of the theme of survival against nature because “To Build a Fire” shows the selfishness that the need to survive can instill in a person while “The Open Boat” shows the need for survival bringing characters together.
While both “To Build a Fire” and “The Open Boat” share the theme of survival against nature they handle the presentation of this theme in very different ways. The two most obvious differences are London and Crane’s contrasting uses of point of view and character interaction. For example, London uses the third person omniscient point of view to give the audience full access to the thoughts and actions of characters and their surroundings. Crane uses the third person limited point of view, giving the audience a third person perspective to the narrative through the eyes of one of the characters. The second major difference in the presentation of the theme of survival against nature is the way the characters interact with each other within the two stories. London presents the theme using one major character and his inner thoughts to show how the need to survive can cause a person to become self-centered and care only for himself and his own survival. This is shown through the man’s greed for gold and his attempt to kill his dog in order to warm himself. This attitude is exemplified through the quote from the text “He would kill the dog and bury his hands in the warm body until feeling returned to them” (London, 76). This quote shows the man’s willingness to sacrifice any other life to save his own. Crane uses the interaction between his four main characters to show how them depend on each other and the need to survive can cause people to work together to beat the odds. This is shown through the interactions of the four men as they fight to survive after being shipwrecked and injured. This is exemplified through the quote “The oiler and the correspondent rowed the tiny boat. And they rowed. They sat together in the same seat, and each rowed an oar. Then the oiler took both oars; then the correspondent took both oars; then the oiler; then the correspondent. They rowed and they rowed” (Crane, 3). This quote shows the men sharing the responsibility of keeping the boat moving until they found their way to safety.
Both of the literary works “To Build a Fire” and “The Open Boat” draw upon historical events from their time period but use them in different ways to reflect the shared theme of survival against nature. “To Build a Fire” is based on the documented experiences of those who participated in the Klondike gold rush and how many men lost their lives because of their greed for riches. This supports the theme of survival against nature because of the harsh conditions men were willing to endure to fulfill their search for gold. “The Open Boat” is based upon the personal experience of the author when he was a passenger on a ship that sank. He used his experience to portray the theme of survival against nature and the way it brought his characters together and bonded them in a way that only the most difficult conditions can.
There have been many studies done on the brain and the way humans react physiologically when placed in life threatening situations. The characters in “To Build a Fire” and “The Open Boat” reacted in very different ways to the harsh conditions they faced and their responses support the theme of survival against nature in two very different ways. The man in “To Build a Fire” cared only for himself and his selfish need to survive. This may seem like a character flaw, but it is a normal human response and has true psychological reasoning behind it. A study done by psychologists Avi Besser and Beatriz Priel suggests that grandiose narcissism (caring only for oneself and how situations effect oneself) is a survival mechanism and a natural form of self-preservation (877). This would explain the man’s self-centered need to survive and the way he handled his life-threatening situation. However, the characters in “The Open Boat” show very a very different response then the man in “To Build a Fire.” They pull together and use their resources to help each other survive. A study done by Marco Zanon et al. states that humanity has developed the ability to react altruistically and empathetically during life threatening circumstances. They believe these characteristics have developed over time to help humanity survive as a species and that many basic moral codes have been created from the same sense of altruism (135). This would explain the behavior of Crane’s characters and the way their life threatening experiences cause them to bond and care for each other. Both of these very different types of reactions shown in each story depict two sides of humanity’s survival methods when fighting to live against the difficulties of harsh natural conditions. An experiment done by psychologists Kawani Jagmeet et al. suggests that these reactions to harsh situations can also depend on age, sex and experience by those who go through them (2). Both stories show different sides of the human need to survive against nature.
The overall theme of survival against nature is expressed through the stories “To Build a Fire” and “The Open Boat” in very different ways. Both stories have comments to make about human survival and the mechanisms people use to survive not just physically but also mentally under difficult conditions. Both stories draw upon actual historical events but use them to show separate sides of the human need to survive. Although the characters in each story are faced with different types of natural dangers, the tone of fear of death is seen in both. Although the characters in each story react to their circumstances very differently, both stories are relatable because both types of reactions are natural responses to emergency situations. The theme of survival against nature can be shown through many historical accounts, but the fictionalized versions of real events expressed by London and Crane are both relatable and support the themes from two very different perspectives. London shows the self-centered side to human survival strategies while Crane shows the altruistic and empathetic reactions that can come from great struggles. Life threatening situations show people what they are truly made of, and the clout it takes to survive defines the character strength of each individual.
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