To Build a Fire
The Bonds That Ties Us Together in To Build a Fire and The Open Boat
To Build a Connection
We’ve all experienced those days where it seems the universe is out to kill, or at least psychologically maim, us. A series of mundane irritants accumulates into a seemingly unmanageable, insurmountable mountain, completely derailing any attempt at productivity…and in the midst of this one of many frustrating, yet trivial, scenarios is the nagging doubt that it’s all for nothing. It dimly occurs to us that this is just the interim between birth and becoming worm food, that we’re all just matter and energy that will eventually break down and contribute to new configurations of matter and energy. It also dimly occurs to us that this haphazard rearrangement of atoms will also fall beneath the gaze of an omnipresent—god? Force? Alien being? Or, perhaps more distressingly, it occurs to us that the gaze is nothing but an apathetic void.
Such contemplations fall to the naturalist writer to unpack. Authors like Jack London and Stephen Crane, whose respective short stories “To Build a Fire” and “The Open Boat” exemplify the genre, seek to chase this truth to its logical, frightening conclusion: we are all nothing but matter and energy with intent, and this alone does not entitle us to a nurturing, benevolent Universe or a sympathizing God. While both stories contribute to the genre by depicting humans’ relationship to their environment as inherently one-sided, the authors clearly subscribe to different interpretations of that relationship. London goes out of his way to construct a conflict based purely on biological, practical matters, while Crane delves deeper into the psyche of humans looking death in the eye and meekly wondering, “Why me? Why now?”
Though achieved primarily through the use of openly hostile environments, the stories’ themes are also carried by the repetition of key phrases that establish these authors’ differing views. In “To Build a Fire,” for instance, the protagonist’s repeated thought “it certainly was cold” carries with it first an observation of empirical fact: the extended thought process preceding this declaration is one of blasé observation, one that “made no impression on the man” because his concern is “not in the significances” of information so much as how it immediately applies to him—in this case, merely as an obstacle (809). Here, the appearance of “it certainly was cold” is only a bored reflection of his position in the Yukon, not an instinctual fear swelling below his civilized mind to warn him. Indeed, “[t]hat there should be anything more to it than that was a thought that never entered his head” (809); the protagonist, this inexperienced chechaquo, does not consider this environment as anything more than a passing obstacle that he will surely overcome—so surely, in fact, that the thought of his death in the tundra, and the fear that follows it, does not even occur to him at this juncture.
Contrast that with the final repetition of the phrase, where it appears only a few lines before we learn that the man has frozen to death, and that he does so with a certain sense of willing resignation, insisting that the “old hoss” who had warned him of the foolishness of his actions was right all along (818). The man sees no use in fighting any longer and seems to gracefully succumb to the cold. This establishes a sense of accountability, according to Donald Pizer. In his review of Lee Clark Mitchell’s book Determined Fictions: American Literary Naturalism, Pizer dismisses Mitchell’s idea of a universal determinism that allows no real opportunities for human “free will”; in the case of London’s chechaquo, Mitchell insists that this lack of agency ultimately propels the man to his frozen death. Pizer, however, contends that London’s “constant attachment of blame and therefore moral responsibility” to the intrepid protagonist clearly makes the case for human agency rather than human impotence (260). The man has overstepped the boundaries of his biological limitations and justifiably suffers the consequences. London attaches the chechaquo’s death to the man’s own lack of awareness, his own lack of “imagination” that might have chimed in and alerted him to his fatal can-do, can-have attitude that ineffectively defies the inimical Yukon winter. The man’s death, London suggests, could easily have been avoided had he only tapped in to his basic survival instincts rather than his purely human desire to conquer a hostile environment for the purely human desire to obtain arbitrarily meaningful wealth. By rejecting the instinctual understanding that humans must bend their will, contort their imagination, to their environment, and not visa versa, the chechaquo illustrates London’s belief that, while death is obviously inevitable, misplaced arrogance and lack of respect, and lack of the intuitive imagination that acknowledges things worthy of respect, will exacerbate the process.
Crane, too, illustrates the inevitability of death in “The Open Boat”; however, more so than London, Crane insists that respect and willingness to be held accountable for failure amounts to nothing when the Universe is so clearly indifferent to human—or all—life. Unlike “To Build a Fire,” Crane’s short story revolves around characters trapped in a situation where seemingly nothing short of divine intervention can provide succor. The chechaquo knowingly dismisses the experience of his fellows, but the shipwrecked crew of “The Open Boat” find themselves in the eye of peril despite their combined knowledge, experience, and caution. The crew’s repeated sentiment of “If I am going to be drowned…why…was I allowed to come thus far…?” (784) suddenly becomes much more poignant; it suggests an ingrained sense of injustice toward the situation that, based on their collective skill set, should not have happened. Here, even with the presence of awe, caution, and presumably the “imagination” found lacking in London’s protagonist are rendered insignificant by a Universe that sees neither right nor wrong, skilled nor unskilled, sentient nor completely instinctual.
Moreover, the crew’s sentiment about drowning after “coming thus far” parallels all humans’ experiences when confronting their own mortality. Because this feeling is collective (“As for the reflections of the men…they might be formulated thus”) rather than individual, and yet is not more or less significant than an individual’s supplications, Crane presents this density of despair as wholly impotent and objectively useless (784). The mere presence of impassioned struggle or seething rage does not—indeed, cannot—impress itself on an indifferent Universe. There is no assigning of responsibility in the case of these four crew members, and this lack of responsibility, coupled with their frantic, diligent struggle, manifests as a profound sense of injustice. Here, Crane implies, the will to live does not entitle one to life. No matter how “good” we act or how willingly we obey instinct, in the end we all die…and in the end, no great, nurturing God cares that we die.
The lack of an empathetic Universe is no reason for humans to resign themselves to a life of apathy and nihilism, however. While “The Open Boat” dabbles in the darker themes of humans’ “absurd” existence, devoid of intrinsic meaning, Crane still insists that inevitable death of the individual is trumped by the bonds of kinship and empathy that tie humans together. “It would be difficult to describe the subtle brotherhood of men that was here established on the seas,” Crane writes. “No one said that it was so. No one mentioned it, but it dwelt in the boat, and each man felt it warm him” (781). The struggle and tendency toward despair is mitigated by the fact that no man is alone in his fear, and this sense of togetherness, while obviously forced by circumstance, is no less useful in providing the protagonists a sense of meaning in an environment that otherwise forces them to doubt their significance in the Universe. To an extent, even London suggests human connection may be spiritually fulfilling institution, if not a particularly useful one. The chechaquo consistently refers to “the boys” waiting for him at camp, “the boys” who will find his frozen body, “the boys” who will presumably mourn him or at least notice the loss of his presence and deem it significant (818). While admitting that his blunders have led him to a premature death, his final thoughts are about the connection he’s forged with his fellows, the connection that, in part, propelled him to keep pressing forward until he no longer could. Even peripherally, a sense of optimism lurks in both stories, suggesting that, regardless of Universal significance, humans find strength and reassurance in the significance of their relationships.
Whether illustrated in more deterministic terms or in profoundly fatalistic terms, the fact remains the same: we all die, and nothing significant can ultimately be attached to these deaths. Ultimately, the external, hostile Universe may succeed in killing off every outraged, despairing human in existence—but the bonds formed by kinship are soldered by that outrage and despair, by the creeping sense of mortality or the immediate threat of annihilation. And in the brief interim between birth and death, those bonds knit humans together. As exemplified in “To Build a Fire” and “The Open Boat,” whether trapped beneath an apathetic eye or a gaping void, humans have forged their own meaning.
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.
Analysis Of Traveller In Jack London’s To Build A Fire
Dating back to Greek myths, the scenario in which a man fights alone against the hostile environment is not uncommon in literature. What makes Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” significantly innovative within this narrative subgenre is the author’s choice to scientifically observe reality rather than being passionately involved with the character’s decisions. London’s approach is based on the Naturalistic conception of storytelling, in which the writer’s task is to identify the mechanisms of cause and effect that lie at the foundation of society. The protagonist of the story, a solitary man who is travelling across the tundra, lacks the ability of understanding things beyond mere tangible facts, and this absence of imagination condemns him to tragically freeze in the snow of the Yukon Territory. The man’s flaws are made even more obvious in comparison to his wolf-dog, who is able to withstand the inhospitable climate thanks to his ancestral instincts. While the traveller cannot be held responsible for his flawed intuition, he is guilty of failing to counterbalance his inferiority towards nature by integrating intellectuality into his journey.
The author introduces the reader to the man’s insufficient ability to interpret the reality around him since the beginning of the story, when the cold temperature of fifty below zero “did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty”. This simple defect represents the first ring of the chain of events that will determine the outcome of the travel, since, although the man recognizes the harshness of the weather, he doesn’t adopt any counter-measure to improve his chances of survival. Although he had been advised by the old-timer about the foolishness of travelling alone, he disregarded the recommendation, not only because of subtle arrogance and pride, but largely because he hadn’t been able to visualize a situation that he had never experienced in person.
The man’s negligence is made even more evident by the author through the figure of the dog, whose connection with nature runs much deeper than in the case of the traveller. The animal, being perfectly adapted to survive in freezing weather and having trustworthy instincts, doesn’t need a fire to warm his feet and is able to foresee the menaces in front of him. The man, on the other hand, is a much more vulnerable creature and, instead of being cautious and in constant apprehension, keeps an impudent attitude and doesn’t recognize danger. He is less compatible with the environment, but he also can’t conceptualize with his judgment the “true tale” that the dog understands with its sixth sense. Ironically, the only primitive and instinctive response the man displays during the story is his attempt to kill the dog to warm himself up with the animal’s carcass, but the dog’s intuition proves to be sharper, preventing him to fall into the man’s trap.
The traveller, however, has an evolution in his way of thinking when, reached the point of freezing, he starts losing the support of his senses. Since he is incapable of using his fingers to pick up stimuli, he is forced to rely on the “sense of vision in place of that of touch”. This movement away from the corporeal point of view originates the first flashes on creativity in the man’s mind, as he starts to notice the peculiarity of how “he could run at all on feet so frozen that he could not feel them when they struck the earth”. The process of transcending himself from his weakening body is then taken to extreme when the traveller compares his condition to the orbiting of Mercury around the surface of the earth. Finally, as he recognizes that death is only a few moments distant, the man reaches the point of picturing himself in company of his friends looking for his own corpse, acknowledging that “he did not belong with himself anymore”. Even after this psychological metamorphosis, however, it is hard for the reader to consider the man as a hero of the story and to feel saddened for his demise. The reason for this emotional detachment is the fact that the narrator, besides remarking that the traveller admitted some of his faults, also gives us reasons to doubt about his moral improvement. The man’s conceptual reasonings are described as an improvised alternative to “taking an anesthetic” and can be attributed to the physical need of turning his focus away from the pain of hypothermia. He is regretful for disregarding the old-timer’s advice, but he still doesn’t hold himself completely accountable for his negligence, feeling “a great surge of envy” towards his dog, who just needs his fur to be safe from the outside temperature. Even the dignity that the traveller tries to maintain in his last instants is diminished by the image of the man “running around like a chicken with its head cut off” that the author describes in the same paragraph.
In conclusion, whilst it is possible to argue that the turning point of the traveller’s fate is the unpredictable event of stepping onto a too thin layer of ice, it is also true that the man’s ill-suited behavior plays an equally important, if not greater role in the character’s fate. London is exceptional at portraying Nature as vastly superior to the inexperienced traveller, but this should serve the man as an incentive to equip himself with the full potential of his intellectual skills, instead of justifying him to accept the role of the victim.
Naturalism in Jack London’s To Build a Fire and The Call of the Wild Research Paper
Nowadays, literary critics are being well aware of the fact that it was namely throughout the course of late 19th and early 20th centuries, that the naturalist motifs in European and American literature have come to their all-times-high prominence.
In its turn, this can be explained by the fact that, during the course of this historical period, more and more writers have been realizing that Darwin’s evolutionary theory, concerned with the survival of the fittest, correlates perfectly well with the essence of human societies’ inner dynamics.
As it was noted by Cuddy and Roche (2003): “[In early 20th century] The notion of the survival of the fittest in relation to inherited traits and response to environmental factors became fertile conceptual ground for literary analysis of human nature and society” (22).
The validity of such an idea can be well explored in regards to the literary legacy of one of America’s greatest writers – Jack London, as the extreme naturalism of many of his short stories and novels conveys a clearly defined philosophical message – only the objectively existing laws of nature, to which people are being subjected as much as plants and animals, which should be thought of as the basis of true ethics.
According to McClintock (1970): “Since, for London, science had dislodged idealistic concepts of man, his temperament insisted that affirmations of the human condition, too, have a scientifically justifiable rationale” (336).
Therefore, it comes as no surprise that in literary works of Jack London, naturalist motifs do not only serve the purpose of increasing the extent of plot’s emotional appeal, but they are also being expected to enlighten readers on the true essence of their existential mode. In this paper, we will aim to substantiate the validly of an earlier articulated thesis at length, while exploring the emanations of literary naturalism in London’s short story To Build a Fire and in the novel The Call of the Wild.
The close reading of London’s ‘Northern’ short stories and novels, points out to the fact that naturalistic themes and motifs, contained in them, are being utilized not only for the purpose of exposing a particular ease, with which a formerly civilized individual can be reduced to a primeval savage, while facing the elements, but also for the purpose of revealing a variety of Western ethical conventions conceptually fallacious, since they do not correspond to the essence of their carriers’ physiological functioning.
As Rossetti (2006) had put it: “Naturalism rebukes the primitive for his or her debasement. At the same time, however, it necessarily posits a privileged class and confirms that class’s elite status” (5).
The soundness of this suggestion can be explored within the context of a following quote from To Build a Fire: “As he [traveler] turned to go on, he spat speculatively. There was a sharp, explosive crackle that startled him. He spat again. And again, in the air, before it could fall to the snow, the spittle crackled” (The World of Jack London). Apparently, the author had made a deliberate point in drawing readers’ attention to purely physiological process of spitting.
Nevertheless, given story’s overall context, the fact that the traveler has been spitting rather excessively, does not degrade him in readers’ eyes, as this context confirms the validity of London’s conviction that whatever is natural, cannot be referred to as ‘immoral’ or ‘anti-aesthetic’, by definition.
In its turn, this explains why the apparent ‘distastefulness’ of London’s preoccupation with expounding upon utterly graphic aspects of human existence, clearly visible in this particular story, did not result in lessening the extent of story’s literary appeal.
The same can be said about the effects of utilization of naturalist motifs in London’s novel The Call of the Wild, where author had gone a great length while describing physical violence’s mechanical subtleties with great precision.
For example, in the scene where Buck receives his first ‘submission beating’, London appears to have deliberately strived to produce a heavy blow onto readers’ sense of aesthetic appropriateness: “The man, shifting the club from right to left, coolly caught him [Buck] by the under jaw, at the same time wrenching downward and backward.
Buck described a complete circle in the air, and half of another, then crashed to the ground on his head and chest” (11). It is needless to mention, of course, that the way, in which London had gone about describing the scene of Buck’s beating, can be best referred to as utterly graphic.
And yet, given the fact that London had never made a point in treating the subject of violence as ‘thing in itself’, while aiming to simply entertain intellectually marginalized readers, we cannot be referring to this particular scene’s clearly defined naturalism as being distasteful, in semantic sense of this word.
The earlier suggestion helps us to realize the essence of London’s literary talent. Apparently, unlike what it used to be the case with many of his writing contemporaries; he was not only able to benefit from tackling the issue of violence in intellectually honest manner, but also to show that, under no circumstances, should emanations of physical violence be regarded as ethically inappropriate, by definition, because in the natural environment, they do provide an additional momentum to the process living organisms becoming ever-more complex – hence, violence’s high morality.
In its turn, this explains the phenomenon of why it were author’s particularly naturalistic literary pieces that appealed to intellectually sophisticate readers the most – whatever the ironic it might sound.
In his article, Nash (1966) states: “His [London’s] readers had little difficulty seeing the moral for their own lives of Buck’s reversion to the primitive. Significantly, London’s White Fang (1906), in which a wolf becomes a family dog, never enjoyed the popularity of The Call of the Wild” (530). Thus, it will not be much of an exaggeration, on our part, to suggest that it is due to London naturalism’s strongly defined philosophical sounding that even today; most readers consider it contextually appropriate.
Another reason why it is being the case is that London often exposes naturalistic themes and motifs in conjunction with his characters being on a great mission. For example, even though author’s description of traveler’s physical appearance in To Build a Fire, implies his lessened ability to conform to the conventions of Western civilized living: “The man’s red beard and mustache were likewise frosted…
Also, the man was chewing tobacco, and the muzzle of ice held his lips so rigidly that he was unable to clear his chin when he expelled the juice” (The World of Jack London), it nevertheless does not imply his lessened ability to act as such living’s actual agent. The reason for this is simple – in To Build a Fire, the character of a traveler never loses its cool, right to the very end. In its turn, this subtly confirms the sheer objectiveness of a so-called ‘White man’s burden’ notion.
It is namely the fact that White people’s exposal to the hostile environment does not usually undermine their ability to face life’s challenges in a rational manner, which created objective preconditions for them to be given the mission of spreading the light of civilization throughout the world. This is exactly the reason why in To Built a Fire, author’s utilization of naturalistic motifs invokes perceptional stoicism in readers.
As Gurian (1966) had rightly noted: “Jack London’s men fight, as heroes, against surrounding force… London depicts protagonists fighting to win in a causative naturalist universe” (112). By naturalistically juxtaposing the character of traveler against the hostile forces of nature, London provides readers with the insight onto Faustian workings of White people’s psyche.
There can be very little doubt as to the fact that the strongly defined naturalism of many scenes in The Call of the Wild, serves essentially the same purpose. Given the fact that in this novel, dogs are being endowed with essentially human psychological traits, it comes as not a particular surprise that, while being exposed to the scenes of bloody rivalry between Buck and Spitz, readers gain a better understanding of what accounts for the essence of dynamics, within just about any human society.
Apparently, London believed that the representatives of Homo Sapiens specie are nothing but primates, with the layer of their civilizational sophistication being only skin-deep. Just as it is being the case with apes, people think of ensuring the propagation of their genes (through sexual mating) and of gaining a dominant position within social hierarchy, as such that represent their foremost priorities in life.
Therefore, the following naturalistic scene, where Buck and Spitz fight to the death, while trying to ensure their dominance, within the pack, can be best referred to as perfectly connotative of how people go about gaining social prominence, within a society to which they happened to belong: “In vain Buck strove to sink his teeth in the neck of the big white dog.
Wherever his fangs struck for the softer flesh, they were countered by the fangs of Spitz. Fang clashed fang, and lips were cut and bleeding, but Buck could not penetrate his enemy’s guard” (35).
Apparently, throughout the course of his life, London never ceased being aware of a simple fact that, on this earth, there is simply no enough place under the sun for all – only the smartest and the strongest enjoy dialectically predetermined existential superiority. This is exactly the reason why there are clearly defined Social-Darwinist undertones to naturalist themes and motifs, contained in both: The Call of the Wild and To Build a Fire.
Nevertheless, it would be wrong to think that these motifs are being essentially nihilistic. According to Auerbach (1995), the utterly naturalist way in which London’s characters address life’s challenges, is itself can be thought as the source of a new morality, based upon people’s recognition of natural laws’ full objectivity: “This [Darwinian] struggle… demands the dominance of one man over another; hence the origins of a master/slave dialectic… by working, [slave] becomes master over nature, and in doing so frees himself from nature as well as from himself” (59).
What it means that it is utterly inappropriate to refer to London’s literary naturalism as an indication of the fact that he thought of ‘primitiveness’ and ‘realness’ as basically synonymous concepts.
Quite on the contrary – as the reading of The Call of the Wild and To Build a Fire points out to, characters’ exposal to naturalistically defined primitivism, on the part of nature itself (in the short story) and on the part of gold-seeking brutes and their dogs (in the novel), cannot be discussed outside of how it helped these characters to realize the sheer extent of their perceptional nobleness.
We believe that the line of argumentation, deployed throughout paper’s analytical part, confirms the validity of an initial thesis that the presence of naturalist motifs and themes in London’s The Call of the Wild and To Build a Fire, should be thought of as having philosophical rather than purely instrumental purpose.
While never ceasing to treat readers in intellectually honest manner, sublimated in his tendency to provide graphically detailed accounts of characters’ struggle with the hostile environment and with viciously-minded competitors for the same environmental niche; London strived to promote an idea that it is only those capable of understanding the full spectrum of ‘survival of the fittest’ concept’s implications, who deserve to remain on the leading edge of biological evolution.
Given the fact that, due to being subjected to ideological oppression of political correctness, more and more men in Western countries now grow exceedingly feminized, it is very likely that in the future, London’s literary naturalism is going to be increasingly referred to as such that contains clues as to very essence of masculine virtuousness.
Auerbach, Jonathan “Congested Mails’: Buck and Jack’s ‘Call”. American Literature 67.1 (1995): 51-76.
Carroll, Joseph. Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature, and Literature. New York: Routledge, 2004.
Cuddy, Lois & Roche, Claire. Evolution and Eugenics in American Literature and Culture, 1880-1940: Essays on Ideological Conflict and Complicity. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2003.
Gurian, Jay “The Romantic Necessity in Literary Naturalism: Jack London”. American Literature 38.1 (1966): 112-120.
Labor, Earle “Jack London’s Symbolic Wilderness: Four Versions”. Nineteenth-Century Fiction 17.2 (1962): 149-161.
London, Jack “The Call of the Wild”. Ibiblio. The Public’s Library and Digital Archive. 2011. Web. http://www.ibiblio.org/ebooks/London/Call%20of%20Wild.pdf
London, Jack “To Build a Fire”. The World of Jack London. 2011. Web.
McClintock, James “Jack London’s Use of Carl Jung’s Psychology of the Unconscious”. American Literature 42.3 (1970): 336-347.
Mills, Gordon “Jack London’s Quest for Salvation”. American Quarterly 7.1 (1955): 3-14.
Nash, Roderick “The American Cult of the Primitive”. American Quarterly 18.3 (1966): 517-537.
Rossetti, Gina. Imagining the Primitive in Naturalist and Modernist Literature. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2006.
Seitler, Dana. Atavistic Tendencies: the Culture of Science in American Modernity. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.
- Gordon Mills. “Jack London’s Quest for Salvation”. American Quarterly 7.1 (1955),8.
- Earle Labor “Jack London’s Symbolic Wilderness: Four Versions”. Nineteenth-Century Fiction 17.2 (1962), 153.
- Dana Seitler. Atavistic Tendencies: the Culture of Science in American Modernity. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 221.
- Joseph Carroll. Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature, and Literature. (New York: Routledge, 2004), 117.
Jack London’s, “To Build a Fire” Essay
To Build a Fire by Jack London tells the story of a man who perishes in extreme whether conditions because he fails to take precaution before setting out on a journey on cold weather. The story is both naturalist and realist.
The naturalism movement in literature concerned itself with the struggles that a man had to go through to survive in the world. The nameless protagonist in the story goes through struggles as he encounters biting cold on his way to meet some boys. He walks through snow yet he had not dressed appropriately for the cold. The man uses his knowledge in order to fight the severe cold just as naturalism shows the struggles of man against nature.
At the end, nature subdues him (An Introduction to Realism and Naturalism, n.d.). The man who has set out to seek gold becomes preoccupied with the cold that threatens his life. The nature is indifferent to the man as he starts to suffer from frostbite as it continues to be cold anyway. The dog that accompanies the man is also indifferent to the man even though it seems to be have more aware of the danger posed by travelling in that kind of weather than the man who underestimates the danger.
The emphasis of naturalism is narrative rather than the individual (An Introduction to Realism and Naturalism, n.d.). The author does not bother to tell us the name of the man. He remains nameless and the author concentrates on telling the story about the struggle with nature. Moreover, just as the characteristic of naturalism is writing about the middle class the man obviously belongs to the middle class because he venture sets to get gold just as the boys. He is an ordinary person and not a hero who triumphs against the odds he faces.
The other characteristic of naturalism is determinism (An Introduction to Realism and Naturalism, n.d.). A man does not have a free will when it comes to nature, which shapes their behaviour. The behaviour of man is determined by nature. All the actions of man have results and the man’s actions such as building a fire under a tree leads to the destruction of the fire he had made and eventually he freezes to death, as he is unable to make another one successfully.
On the other hand, realism is evident in the story. Realism attempts to portray life as it is (Duiker & Spielvogel, 2008; An Introduction to Realism and Naturalism, n.d.). The story tells the fate of the man honestly. For instance, the man faces his death, which maybe could have been avoided because he lacked imagination. He failed to know or make judgments about the consequences of temperatures below 50 degrees Celsius.
Unfortunately, when he began to think critically it was already too late for him to overturn his fate. The author describes the environment and the actions of the man such that one can actually form a mental picture of the man trying to save himself desperately from the cold as he tries frantically to light a match but his frozen hands cannot help him.
Realism deals with ethical choices made by man rather than the emotions (An Introduction to Realism and Naturalism, n.d.). In the story, we see the choices that the man makes. For instance, he decided to go out despite the obvious looming danger.
He ignores the cold that bites his nose and instead of turning back or finding a shelter to keep warm, he continues with his journey. The choices he makes have consequences and one of them is death. Moreover, the story talks realistically about an ordinary man making an effort to improve the condition of his life by going the gold rich Yuken.
An Introduction to Realism and Naturalism. Web.
Duiker, J.W. & Spielvogel, J.J. (2008). World History, Volumes 1-2. Ed. 6. Canada: Cengage Learning.
‘The Open Boat’ and ‘To Build a Fire’ Essay
Naturalism was an offshoot of determinism and Darwinism. These schools of thought held that man had minimal control over his fate because the environment shaped his life. ‘The Open Boat’ and ‘To Build a Fire’ epitomize this literary movement. Not only do the writers use practical and succinct language that is typical of this school, but they also place greater emphasis on processes over people. This approach was in keeping with their reverence for neutrality.
How the two narratives exemplify naturalism
Naturalists often make conservative use of language in their narrations and these two books are no exception. These authors detached themselves from their characters as well as the human situations. ‘The Open Boat’ describes the four men’s adventures with a great degree of temperance. The author had opportunities to exaggerate their accomplishments as well as their failures, but he did not.
The desperate nature of the characters is consistent with their dreary settings, so every stylistic choice matches developments in the story. One should also note that only one of the characters in the story has a name –Billie. This level of detachment testifies to the realism that naturalists liked. Similarly, the writing in ‘To Build a Fire’ was objective and concise. London stays away from the emotions and insecurities of his protagonist.
Nothing sets him apart as a special individual. In fact, the hard language in the narration and the twists and turns of the story make the man seem like a sideshow. The author’s language is objective and factual. For instance, he talks about the number of matches that the man used and why ice froze on his beard (London 36).
This stylistic choice was in tandem with his naturalist thought. He wanted to furnish the audience with objective information such that they can competently assess the environment. Naturalism also explains why London did not name his central character. Doing so would have detracted readers from the subject matter.
As the name implies, naturalism was a school of thought that focused on nature. It dwelt on ‘what is’ rather than ‘what should be’. Therefore, when pioneers of the intellectual school wrote about something, they gave precedence to the environment rather than the people in them.
For instance in ‘To Build a Fire’, readers can find a lot of information about nature. London talks about springs, creeks, fires, snow and how each of these natural processes can change and affect the elements surrounding them. In the book, one understands the repercussions of exposing one’s cheeks to extremely cold weather.
Likewise, the same description of all things natural can be found in ‘The Open Boat’. Most of the discussions in the piece dwell on how the sea operates; its waves and tides can change dramatically and thus affect those who are standing on its way. At the beginning of the story, the sea seemed like a merciless monster that the men personified.
However, towards the end of the story, they soon realize that the sea is a natural object (Crane 14). It has no intentions and does not inflict deliberate harm. Crane wanted to prove that nature is ‘what is’. Man is the one that gets too preoccupied with what it should be.
Naturalists ascribed to Darwinian and determinist thought. Darwin led the determinist school by demonstrating how evolution occurred. The scholar affirmed that the environment shapes organisms over extremely long periods of time. It caused them to develop different physical characteristics (mutate) from those of organisms within the same species. In subsequent times, groups that had favorable traits survived while the ones with unfavorable ones died.
Determinism proved that man was helpless against his environment. His free will had little to do with what occurred to him (Sorrentino 104). These themes are present in both narrations. In ‘The Open Boat’, the waves are frequently changing; the men have little control over these waves even after spending a substantial amount of time at sea. Man can do little to change the forces of nature. Therefore, he must accept this condition and only focus on reacting to what nature presents.
Naturalists believed in the insignificance of free will. Likewise, the author of ‘To Build a Fire’, wanted to show how even intellectualism could not save many from nature. The man had a map and was set on hunting for gold. However, he later had to abandon these ambitions because of the harsh weather.
The dog had a higher chance of survival than the man because it understood its place in the natural world. It reacted to its environment and thus outlived the man. However, the protagonist did not respect the power of the natural world and thus subjected himself to danger. The deterministic environment altered his goals and thus triumphed over his free will.
Many naturalists acknowledge the determinism of the environment, but they do not believe in its divinity. Nature was neither against or for man; it was simply present. Therefore, one should not expect moral judgment from nature as this will not materialize (Bender 92).
London does not blame the man for the fall in the snow, and neither does he blame the snow. If one must ascribe moral responsibility on a party, then it should be placed on man since he can predict the consequences of his actions. Nature is also indifferent to man in ‘The Open Boat’.
The men initially blame the sea for their predicaments. In one occasion, they claim that the sea is hissing and snarling. However, the narrator later learns that nature was not against them when one large wave carries him to shore. One can thus deduce that nature is not a partisan party if it can rescue and cause harm at the same time.
Adherents of the naturalism movement favored members of the lower classes. Alternatively, their characters became classless in the wake of environmental forces. In ‘To Build a Fire’, the protagonist is probably one such character because he leaves his home for a dangerous expedition, in hostile weather, so as to hunt for gold (London 8). Conversely ‘Open Boat’ has an oiler, a correspondent, a cook as well as a captain. None of these titles matter in the grueling and unpredictable sea; all that counts is their survival.
Naturalists strongly espoused neutrality. This is evident in their succinct and factual language as well as their focus on plot rather than the people in their narrations. The authors under analysis show that man’s free will is irrelevant, and even his intellectualism cannot fight nature. Conversely, London and Crane acknowledge the impartiality of nature and its inability to wield moral judgment over man.
Bender, Bert. Sea-Brothers: The Tradition of American Sea Fiction from Moby-Dick to the Present. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press,1990. Print.
Crane, Stephen. 2011. The open boat and other tales of adventure. 2011. Web. ‹https://archive.org/details/openboatothertal00cranuoft/page/n6›
London, Jack. 2012. To build a fire. 2012. Web.
Sorrentino, Paul. Stephen Crane Remembered. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006. Print.
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.
Haddon, David. “Never Absolute Zero.” Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, vol. 25, no. 1, Jan. 2012, pp. 21–23. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.selu.edu/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=71250855&site=ehost-live.
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, ezproxy.selu.edu/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=6893733&site=ehost-live.
Ramirez, Nicole. “Summary: To Build a Fire.” Prezi.com, 25 Sept. 2014, prezi.com/rjwdbmpgbdrp/summary-to-build-a-fire/.
“‘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, americainclass.org/to-build-a-fire-an-environmentalist-interpretation/.
“To Build a Fire.” Full Text – Epilogue – Chapter I – Owl Eyes, www.owleyes.org/text/build-fire/read/Build-Fire#root-74266-21/85494.
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.