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.
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