To Build A Fire – Jack London

‘To Build A Fire’ is a short story written by an American author called Jack London. There are two written versions of the story, with one being published in 1908 while the other in 1902. However, the 1908 version is more widely known by readers around the world.

This story tells a tragic tale of a man who decided to travel through the wilderness of the Yukon in freezing temperatures, alongside him a half-tame wolf dog. The dog’s instincts told it not to travel in such cold, however the man was indifferent about the situation. During his journey, ‘the man’s life depended upon his ability to light a fire to keep his feet from freezing.’ However, after countless pitiful attempts to make a fire, and running around in vain to regain good blood circulation, the man grew calm, and ‘decided to meet death with dignity,’ while recalling the words of an old man he’d met previously from Sulphur Creek: one mustn’t travel alone in temperature below minus fifty.

Jack London initially spent some influential years of his youth mining for gold in the arctic north, and returned to the United States a changed man. He was convinced that it was undeniable that modern conveniences and civilization had turned everyone, particularly men, into weak, wimpy cowards. He felt that the Yukon deemed an ideal place to use as the setting for his story, in order to make people realize that they needed to ‘reconnect with their animal instincts if they wished to remain strong against the pampering forces of the modern world.’

To build a fire – Jack London

One could undeniably argue that besides our main character, the setting is the most important factor in the story, along with being one of the main themes (conflict between man and nature). As mentioned above, ‘To Build a Fire’ takes place in the Yukon, located in Alaska, during the great Klondike Gold Rush. During this period of time, thousands and thousands of people flocked to Canada’s Yukon territory in hopes of making an instant fortune; few knew how brutal and bitter their lives would become.

Like many others, Jack London experienced the harsh wilderness first hand, consequently making his writing of the Yukon very detailed and comprehensive; we can see this by London’s devotion to describing different situations and components in the story, such as the cold wind and the crusting ice over the man’s face: “The man’s red beard and moustache were likewise frosted, but more solidly, the deposit taking the form of ice and increasing with every warm, moist breath he exhaled. 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.”

From hot spring pools to the spruce tree that dumped snow on the man’s fire, the setting is constantly challenging and working against our main man, while the man tries his best to overcome nature. Not only does Jack London’s setting attempt to make a physical impression on us, but also a philosophical and spiritual one; it reminds us that out there, there is always a harsh and unforgiving wilderness. Jack London gives us a hint on how we should respond to this wilderness: by learning to appreciate our surroundings, and not taking things for granted.

Another theme portrayed by the man in this story is the fight for survival, and acceptance of death; as his situation deteriorates, the man’s emotional state oscillates between seeming to foresee his approaching death, and other times having faith in his survival. When the snow fall on the fire, the man’s initial shock reflects his certainty of his death, but his calm reaction and response seems optimistic. After repeatedly dropping the matches, he attempts to innovate by planning to kill the dog to warm his hands; this quick thinking reflects man in desperate situations, forced to kill in order to live. However, after being unable to kill the dog, panic and fear overcome the man; his repeated running and falling shows the back-and-forth between his fight and his acceptance. His final fall represents his acceptance that death has befallen him. Alterations between the man’s perspective on his life and death, his need to struggle and his stages of acceptance, reflect the larger aspects of Realism.

One other equally significant theme in the story is instinctual knowledge against scientific knowledge. The dog and the man represent a huge distinction between nature and humans. The dog is unable to understand or reason, but his instincts direct his survival throughout the story. The man, on the other hand, relies on information gained from others, on logic, and on tools and technologies.

This scientific knowledge shadows the man’s instinctual knowledges, causing him to become overconfident in his abilities to survive in a harsh environment; he ignores the dog’s instinctual knowledge, that the weather is too cold to travel safely. Ultimately, the conclusion of the story shows a triumph of instinctual knowledge and trust in one’s gut feelings over confidence in logic and reason.

‘To Build a Fire’ belongs to the literary movement ‘Realism’, however also exhibiting aspects of Naturalism. Instead of acting like “superheroes” or relying on a certain someone to come save the day, the man simply did what he believed were the smart things to do at the time. A strong aspect of Realism is shown at the end of the story, as the man dies and the dog is left alone, instead of the stereotypical ‘hero comes to save the day’ ending. This sad and tragic outcome after so much hard work and dedication is typical for Realism; truth is that things in life do not always work out as planned. The story also showed the hardships people went through during the Gold Rush; during this time period, many people died while trying to become rich. Though very devastating, it is realistic; sometimes, nature does defeat the strength of even the most determined human.

Regarding the tone of the story, we could say it’s dispassionate, but sometimes judgemental. When the story begins, we might assume that we are getting a peek at the thoughts of the unnamed man, who finds the day not just “cold and gray” but “exceedingly cold and gray, however it is unclear whether these are his thoughts or the narrator’s. The narrator describes the incredibly cold temperatures and the man’s frozen face without much emotional sentiments, and there’s really only one time when the narrator seemed somewhat surprised, and that’s when an exclamation point was inserted after the falling snow from the tree has made sure that the man’s fire is “blotted out!”.

Nevertheless, this could’ve just reflected the man’s shock, and not the narrator’s concern. For the most part, the narrator seems not to care whether or not the character dies, and seems to only tell the story factually.

Nonetheless, Jack London constructs sentences that are incredibly descriptive, despite his bland and dispassionate tone. “Day had broken cold and gray, exceedingly cold and gray, when the man turned aside from the main Yukon trail and climbed the high earth bank […] he paused for breath at the top, excusing the act to himself by looking at his watch”.

Mentioning symbolism in the story, we look at an old theory: If an object or thing appears in the title of a story, it’s probably symbolic in some way. The presence of fire in this story represents life, and the absence of it shows that life is running out every minute, as is the case when the man’s fire gets blotted out by falling snow and he feels “as though he has just heard his own sentence of death”. In an everyday situation, getting your feet wet might not seem like the end of the world, but when that happens in the Yukon, building a fire quickly is more important than just building one. Whenever fire comes up in this story, you can constantly hear a tick-tock in the background.

Jack London wrote this story, with the aim to remind us that no matter how comfortable and cozy we feel inside our homes, there is always a brutal nature out there. We might never have to face it head-on ourselves, but it’s still out there. At the very least, the story gives us a great lesson in toughness and perseverance, and that we can never, and should never take survival and our surroundings for granted.

by Michelle – Honors Class


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