To Build a Fire
Symbolism in to Build a Fire by Jack London
Jack London’s “To Build A Fire” explores the stubbornness of man. And the risk men take to achieve something even if it is not in their reach. The setting takes place in the woods during Yukon winter which is one hundred and thirteen degrees below freezing point. Now throughout this story winter or nature symbolizes dominance you can’t change the outcome of nature. The man, dog, and nature are all important symbols throughout this story as they show a characteristic of human life.
First of all a very important symbol is the “Yukon Trail” when the man takes off from the right direction. That’s a symbol of risk see before the man left off the right direction of the trail he was on the correct path with his boys or in another term his companions. The main trail symbolizes safety and security and the departure from his comrades symbolizes the danger that he is to face ahead throughout the story. The relationship of man and nature are very important as you read through this story see a trail helps man survive nature and survive the wilderness. As well as the expectations a person needs to survive the wilderness. “The trouble with him was that he was without imagination he was quick and alert in the things of life but only in the things and not the signifgance.” Jack London shows no sympathy for the man he seemed to make the character arrogant and very disrespectful to the enviroment of the elders all of the good attributes were givin to the dog. To me it seems Jack London likes the dog more than man.
Another important symbol Is the old man the old timer at Sulphur creek he is used repeatedly as a symbol throughout the story. The old man gave the man advice stating that “No man should be out here if temperatures are below zero especially alone by yourself.” The old timer bridges the gaps between human and nature. Because he has a very healthy perspective on how nature can be a threat if not being cautious. The dog also sees the view of the natural world and the dog seems to know that the man cannot rely on his resources for survival. “And to get his feet wet in such a temperature meant trouble and danger.” The old Timer or old man had been very serious in laying down the law stating that no man must travel alone in Klondike after fifty below. See its more of intellect vs instinct because the old timer is trying to convey to the man that he has no chance of with standing that Yukon weather. But with the man it is instinct why because he knows of the harsh wind but he chooses to still go instead for the search. But the mans fellow traveller the dog has a very natrual instinct the man dies because of his miscalculation’s of his trip and underestimates the power of nature. Every problem the man encountered he realized that the old timer was correct moments before his death the man admits to the old timer. “You were right, old hoss you were right.” The man mumbled to the old timer of Sulphur creek. See I believe that it was luck that the man met the old timer from Sulphur creek because the old man speaks of taking someone with the man so the man is not alone in the wilderness. Also if you notice the old timer talks about keeping your feet dry and then he states this about the cold “There must be no failure when it is seventy five below zero a man must not fail in his attempt to build a fire that is if his feet are wet the circulation of wet and freezing feet cannot be restored by running when it is seventy five below.” So throughout this story all the old timer was doing was trying to help guide the man but negligence by the man led to his downfall that is why to me it is human vs nature.
Third and important symbol is the fire it shows the difference between life and death. The title of the story keys in the important role of fire within the story the goal of the man is to build a fire and he fails later on in the story. The Building of fire symbolize life in the story but it shows life through human knowledge skill and also technology and failure by the man to build the fire is showing the failure of things expressed by man and by the brutal cold of nature.
Representation of Necessary Role of a Woman in to Build a Fire
The intelligence of women is a controversial matter which has been debated for centuries. Although recent feminist movements have allowed for more equality between men and women, traits such as “emotional” and “worrisome” are perceived in a manner that allow women to be viewed as inferior. In To Build A Fire by Jack London, the independence of man is tested as he tries to survive through excruciating cold weather. The man fails various attempts at starting a fire, eventually leading to his death. Although the short story does not evidently introduce a female character, To Build A Fire exemplifies the discrediting of woman’s intelligence as a result of perception.
The attribute of vigilance which many women attain is often criticized and perceived as a sign of weakness. This notion is depicted when the man in To Build A Fire begins reflecting on the advice given to him before entering the cold. London writes, “He remembered the advice of the old man on Sulphur Creek, and smiled. The man had been very serious when he said that no man should travel alone in that country after 50 below zero. Well, here he was; he had had the accident; he was alone; and he had saved himself” (72). In this instance, the man in the story finds himself complete without a companion. This thought represents a viewpoint on the role of women in the life of men. In many cases, females aren’t recognized to be of value other than company; however, the man in this story does not even view the companion aspect as desirable.
At the time when To Build A Fire was written (1902), women’s suffrage had not yet been granted throughout the United States. In fact, California (London’s birth place), did not grant voting rights to women until 1911. Women were not considered anywhere near equal to men, furthermore represented through Jack London’s writing. The denigration of women in society is illustrated when London writes, “Those old men were rather womanish… All a man must do was to keep his head, and he was all right. Any man who was a man could travel alone” (72). London not only comments on the discrediting of women’s intelligence, but the perception that a “real” man does not need a woman at all. Indirectly, London also draws on some men’s egotistical values of being the dominant sex due to a higher intelligence level.
Although women may be thought to be less intelligent than men, many studies have proved otherwise. The intellect of women is often degraded as a result of emotionalism. When To Build A Fire was written, the intelligence of women was assumed rather than studied, but throughout the years, scientists have sought to determine the intellect of women in comparison to men’s. In 2012, there was an increase in women’s IQs, allowing that of women to surpass man’s. Alice G Walton (writer for Forbes magazine) comments, “Being more educated, more intellectually engaged, and more ensconced in professional life may all have effects on women’s IQ over time.” Not only has women’s intelligence increased significantly, but Walton implies the continuing growth of women’s IQ levels through the years to come.
In the past years, researchers have found a connection between perceived intelligence and IQ. In a 2014 study, researchers involved in the Department of Philosophy and History of Sciences in Charles University (Prague, Czech Republic), sought to determine the accuracy of perceived intelligence through the use of standstill photographs. In the study, all candidates were able to accurately assess the intelligence of the men’s pictures; however, “these results suggest[ed] that a perceiver can accurately gauge the real intelligence of men, but not women” (1). The study implies a higher intelligence level in women as opposed to men’s intelligence level.
Once being hit with the realization that he is in severe danger, the man in To Build A Fire is faced with a reevaluation of his decisions as a result of the ignorance given to the old man’s advice. London writes, “The man was shocked. It was like hearing his own judgment of death. For a moment he sat and stared at the spot where the fire had been. Then he grew very calm. Perhaps the old man on Sulphur Creek was right. If he had a companion on the trail he would be in no danger now. The companion could have built the fire” (73). The man in the story immediately begins to feel regretful of the consequences caused due to his disregard of the advice given to him by the old man in the story. At this moment, he begins to wish for a companion, in this case a woman. Through this event, London implies the significant role a woman has on the life of a man.
Overall, the intellect of women cannot be accurately assessed through perception. Vigilance and emotionalism, which are often seen as negative attributes, are one’s that contribute to the underestimated intelligence of women. London’s ideals on the inaccuracy of perception as well as the necessary role of a woman are clearly represented in To Build A Fire. The absence of a woman in the short story, ultimately leads to the demise of the main character. The journey (representative of life) which the man travels alone, is conclusively ended in destruction. Although the man in the story criticizes the need for a companion, he dies regretting his decision to travel alone, furthering London’s implication of the essential role of a woman in the life of a man.
To Build a Fire: Unique Combination of Jack London’s Techniques
In Jack London’s To Build a Fire, complex yet crucial literary tactics are used to portray a lesson of nature that would otherwise be left untold. Symbolism and point of view play a pivotal role in the development of the story’s concealed meanings. The author incorporates omniscient narration to subliminally paint a transparent mural of existentialism, revealing a commonly overlooked yet fundamental concept.
Unique tactics were used in To Build a Fire to strengthen the functionality of the story. One of the most advanced tactics London used in his work was omniscient narration. The narrator in this story described all of the travelers encounters and thoughts, while voicing his opinion on his actions. Jack London used one of the key advantages to the omniscient point of view, which is the extended ability to describe the experiences of the main character, without the individual thoughts of the character taking away from the action. This tactic is useful in To Build a Fire as it prevents the audience from developing sentimental feelings for the traveler. The narrator was not fond of the traveler’s intelligence, and as the story unfolds the audience is manipulated into similar negative feelings due to the bias inflicted by the omniscient narrator.
One of the many roles of the omniscient narrator was providing cues of symbolism throughout the story. Mentioned several times in the work as well as in the title, fire not only represented the opportunity to live but also the inexperience of the traveler. The traveler consistently leaves the fire despite the physical cues provided by his companion, and makes several mistakes based solely on his inexperience in the tundra. London also incorporated an additional symbol of life into his story, the traveler’s hands. Initially the man slips off his gloves to help his dog remove the ice from his paws. Due to his inexperience, he is surprised by the extent to which the ice caused numbness in his hands. After failing to select a functional spot to build his fire, his hands become too numb to build another. Once he understands that he cannot build the fire he attempts to kill the dog in order to warm his hands with its insides. It is clear that the lack of functionality in his hands impacted his fate, as now he could not build the fire which was the only factor protecting him from death.
Jack London uses complex strategies to emphasize the calamity that closes the story that ends in the unsuspecting traveler’s death by the force of mother nature. In a scholarly article composed by Donald Pizer, the story is analyzed from a unique standpoint in which he mentions the obscure style London uses in the story that is commonly acknowledged as determinism. The original idea of determinism being used in the story originates from a book written by Lee Clark Mitchell. Pizer argued that the story was not based on determinism in stating that:
“repetition is used throughout by London not to express a belief in a deterministic universe but rather as an obvious tool of narrative irony to buttress the story’s emphasis on the man’s weaknesses and limitations and thus his responsibility for his fate (Pizer)”.
Determinism is defined in the Merriam- Webster dictionary as the theory that occurrences in nature are determined by preceding events or natural laws and that people have no real ability to control what happens to them (“Determinism”). It is clear that Lee Clark Mitchell may have manipulated the definition of determinism to adhere to the story in order to form an analysis by choosing not to use the definition in its entirety; or there may be inconsistency in the definitions of Determinism based upon the sources available in modern day versus when Lee Clark Mitchell wrote his analysis. The official definition of determinism does not describe the story, as the narrator placed continuous blame on the traveler for making uneducated decisions resulting in his death.
Although the presence of determinism in this story is questionable, the occurrence of existentialism is not. According to the Merriam -Webster dictionary, existentialism is a philosophy that emphasizes the uniqueness and isolation of the individual in a hostile or indifferent universe (“Existentialism”). In London’s story, the man has the freedom and ability to avoid death by hypothermia considering that was previously warned. Existentialism places emphasis on the idea that when found in extreme conditions, one is presented with the opportunity to survive based only upon their choices; not fate. Continuously throughout the story the narrator mentions the dog accompanying the traveler. The dog did not want to embark on the journey and shortly before the man’s death the dog pushed to stay near the fire, the only source of warmth. The dog survived because he was naturally more prepared for a trek in the tundra; he was unique compared to the man, a concise example of existentialism. The man lacked the experience and natural ability of the dog, therefore his choices determined his death. Clearly, To Build a Fire highlights the unique traits of two separate individuals, a man and a dog in a hostile climate which projects the overall philosophy existentialism.
The unique combination of techniques that jack London used to create To Build a Fire acted as the foundation for the overall success of the story. The amalgamation of omniscient narration, symbolism, and the existentialist philosophy established a unique story that emphasizes the importance in making educated and reasonable decisions rather than being driven by pride and impatience. To Build a Fire is an extraordinary display of mature literary technique and life experience combined with one another to project an extremely relevant concept to for all to see.
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.
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.