Jack London: To Build a Fire

In Jack London’s, “To Build a Fire”, there are many elements present that illustrate naturalistic literature. In fact, it is the quintessential naturalistic story. As one of the foremost literary figures in naturalism, London does a remarkable job at creating a beautiful metaphorical journey, the classic conflict between man and nature. He depicts a believable everyday reality in which he implies a legitimate philosophical position. Is free-will just an illusion? Do we, as humans, really control our own destiny or are there forces beyond our control that govern our fate? Mother Nature has gone to great lengths to leave us in awe and we would be but fools to deny her power. With this dominating thought in mind, London skillfully plays with the environment within his text, bringing awareness to nature, reminding us all of the ugliness mother nature is capable of producing.

The movement of naturalism was born through the belief of evolution, set forth by Charles Darwin. In essence, it was these beliefs which produced the 19th-century ideas of social Darwinism. The concept that is social Darwinism spawned the notion that through natural selection an organism’s biological makeup can change when exposed to its natural environment; suggesting that there is no such thing as free will, but rather our destinies are shaped by biology. Simply put, we are a product of our environment. This way of thinking gave way to determinism, which is typically used in naturalism and is certainly evident in the short story, “To Build a Fire.”

A deterministic philosophy contains several important features: amorality and lack of responsibility attached to an individual’s actions. If one can anticipate a potential consequence, then isn’t their duty to take responsibility for that action? For instance, the man should have anticipated that building a fire under a spruce tree could carry a potentially significant consequence. Especially when he knew that keeping the fire alive was of paramount importance, meaning essentially, life or death. Foolishly, he ignored this obligation and ultimately, this plays a crucial role in his ephemeral existence.

Like many naturalistic stories, “To Build a Fire”, calls specific attention to the processes. The content specifies how one would go about building a fire, collecting twigs and branches, assembling them, lighting them, and keeping the fire aflame. Each process leads to the next, linking each other. The man seems adept with physical processes, however, there is evidence of a deficiency when it comes to his ability to mentally process causal links. London insinuates this at the beginning of the story, “it did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man’s frailty in general, able to live within certain limits of heat and cold; and from there it did not lead him to the conjectural field of immortality and man’s place in the universe” (651).

The husky breed which travels alongside the man has an intrinsic disposition; he represents the instinct that lives within a living creature. The man, on the other hand, signifies desire and sheer will. Nature is the force that unleashes these instinctual behaviors and when obeyed, one may be spared. If challenged, survival becomes uncertain. Essentially, it is the dog’s instinctual actions that allow a comparison to be drawn, exposing the distinct difference between instinct and intelligence.

“The dog did not know anything about thermometers. Possibly in its brain there was no sharp consciousness of a condition of very cold such as was in the man’s brain, but the bruit had its instincts. The dog experienced a vague, but menacing, apprehension that subdued it and made it sink along the man’s heels, and that made it question eagerly every unwanted movement of the man as if expecting him to go into camp or to seek shelter somewhere and build a fire. The dog had learned fire, and it wanted fire, or else to burrow under the snow and cuddle its warmth away from the air.” (London 652)

True to the naturalistic form, “To Build a Fire” uses a textual language that is consistent with animal imagery. London exposes the raw behavior of man by depicting him as a human beast. And when the man finally exhausts all of his resources, he soon realizes that his attempts at survival are futile. Eventually, the pressure of his dire circumstance releases the brute within. And London puts an exhausting focus on the description of the environment, rather than his main character. He spends a great deal of time elaborating on the scenery, while he purposefully neglects to give even a name to his main character, the victim. This literary technique is a common theme throughout the naturalistic philosophy:

In fact, naturalism rarely views human beings as complex at all; instead, it sees and portrays people in fairly generic terms, usually as victims. The naturalistic sometimes does not even provide a name for his main character, and often relies largely on animal and/or machine imagery to describe human behavior. Works of naturalistic fiction often devote more time and energy to the description of the setting, which often embodies the forces operating on characters, than to characterization. (Bendixen 18)

In general, most naturalistic stories often feature a character’s gradual progression towards degeneration or death; this is known as a “plot of decline.” “To Build a Fire” illustrates just that, it chronicles the unfortunate, the death of a man whom encounters nature and ultimately succumbs to its indifferent wrath. As the story progresses, the man’s aspirations go from making it to camp, to keeping warm, to merely surviving. As a reader, one can sense that the lack of responsibility, on the man’s part, only brings him closer to the inevitable, a frozen death.

There is also subtle pessimistic connotation throughout the story, a lugubrious veil that lurks overhead. And as the plot thickens, one could sense an imminent death. This is naturalism at its finest. London evokes such emotion with this approach to his text; he delivers his narrative that’s life as it really is. No sugar coating, just the truth, as ugly as it may be. In naturalism, the pessimism binds to determinism, creating a cynical outlook of the earth and all of its inhabitants. And despite all that, it is still possible to detect an undercurrent of optimism regarding the potential progress of human development.

Another common theme throughout this naturalistic storyline is the usage of ill-educated or lower-class characters. “In naturalistic works writers concentrate on the filth of society and the travails of the lower classes as the focal point of their writing”. The main character in London’s, “To Build a Fire”, is noted to have stayed behind to survey the land with intentions to use the spruce trees to gain a small fortune. This would obviously make him a drifter of lower- to- middle class stature. For who else would risk their life in such unforgiving conditions. London remarks, “They had come over across the divide from the Indian Creek county, while he had come the roundabout way to take a look at the possibilities of getting out logs in the spring from the islands in the Yukon.” (651)

Naturalism maintains that the world can be understood only through scientific, objective knowledge. In, “To Build a Fire”, there is a plethora of hard facts presented to the reader, which can supply a decent conception of the dangers that may be are present. For example, we know the temperature is less than negative fifty degrees Fahrenheit. This information clearly foreshadows the underlying risk of traveling alone. London also strategically details the amount of matches the man lights at once, exactly “seventy.” Furthermore, the man is lost in thought and is obviously very concerned with the distance it may take him to reach the camp and the time it would take him to do so. Armed with this knowledge, the man should have been able to asses, competently, the hazards associated with this particular journey. He lacked the prescience to distinguish an accurate account of his surroundings. Unfortunately, his failure to cohesively put the facts together ends up being a grave mistake. “Empty was the man’s mind of thoughts, he was keenly observant, and he noticed the changes in the creek, the curves and bends and timber-jams, and always he sharply noted where he placed his feet.” (London 653)

Naturalism is a literary movement that attempts to examine life and the effects caused by the elements that surround it. “To Build a Fire” embodies this very philosophy. As the man and his furry companion take the less traveled trail to their Yukon camp, they step into a tale of wilderness survival and grim circumstance. London’s stark, and somewhat, cold portrayal of his journey is naturalism at its finest. Brilliantly, he was able to utilize naturalism to remind us all that no matter where you go in life, nature will always be there posing a threat.

Works Cited

Bendixen, Alfred, and James Nagel, eds. A Companion to the American Short Story.

Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Print

London, Jack. “To Build a Fire.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature.

Ed. Nina Baym. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008. 650-660. Print

“Naturalism (literature).” New World Encyclopedia. 2 Apr 2008, 13:00 UTC. 20 Mar 2011, 20:58 http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Naturalism_%28literature%29?oldid=681807>.