Skip to content

To Build A Fire Realism Essay

SOURCE: “The Theme of Jack London's ‘To Build a Fire,’” in American Book Collector, Vol. 17, No. 3, November, 1966, pp. 15–18.

[In the following essay, Peterson discusses the motif of the journey in “To Build a Fire.”]

Judged simply by the number of times it has been selected by the editors of anthologies, “To Build a Fire” is Jack London's most popular and presumably his best short story. What merit editors find in it, I can only speculate; but I imagine that it is admired as a fine example of a suspenseful story with a strong theme presented in vivid, realistic detail. All this, of course, it is; and it is interesting to recall in this connection that, aside from the death of the protagonist, the story treats of precisely the range of experience that London himself had had in the northland. He too, in his relations with cold, dogs, fires, and all the rest of the exotic mise en scène, had never become more than a chechaquo; and writing within that narrow range of experience, he recreated a moment of truth about the Yukon more clearly and credibly than anywhere else in his fiction.

Valid as it is, however, an interpretation which halts at the careful contrivance of suspense, a strong theme—by which is meant, I suppose, the primitive struggle for survival—and precise, realistic details cannot explain the appeal of the story, which, like all serious fiction, hints at a depth and richness of meaning below the level of literal narration. In this paper I wish to discuss this “depth and richness of meaning,” or theme, particularly in terms of the fable and the characters. To put the discussion into context, let me summarize the story even if its great popularity guarantees that most readers are familiar with it.

A man, whose name is not given, is traveling alone, except for an almost wild dog as companion, in the far north in the dead of winter. Although aware of the dangers of the journey, the man is confident. He is alert and careful; but even so he accidentally breaks through the surface of a frozen stream and gets his feet wet. When he fails in his attempts to build a fire to dry himself, he dies. His wolf-dog companion leaves the body to seek food and warmth with the dead man's companions waiting in camp.

The fable unfolds as a journey taken in the face of serious danger in which the conflicts between man and nature and between man and dog provide the drama. But I wish to consider here the journey itself, presented in the first sentence of the story in a passage that is both rhetorically impressive and charged with implication:

Day had broken cold and gray, exceedingly cold and gray, when the man turned aside from the main Yukon trail and climbed the high earthbank, where a dim and little-traveled trail led eastward through the fat spruce timberland.

These details, admirably foreshadowing the events of the story, tell how a man leaves the well-trodden path of the familiar world of men to follow a faint and difficult trail into a world of mysterious (“dim and little-travelled”) but significant (“fat spruce timberland”) experience. The very rhythms of the passage reinforce the meaning. The shifts from the initial iambic rhythm to anapestic and back to iambic follow the movement of the passage from the scene itself (“Day had broken …”) to the first action (“… turned aside …”) and to the second (“… climbed the high earth-bank. …”). The double stress upon “earthbank” emphasizes the boundary between the realms of familiar and unfamiliar.

The journey thus brilliantly announced is, as I have implied, more than a literal journey, although the hard, realistic surface of the narrative may obscure what ought to be obvious. The nameless man (his anonymity is significant) is a modern Everyman who, if not precisely summoned, nevertheless takes a pilgrimage the end of which “he in no wise may escape.” At the realistic level, the direction of the journey is toward camp and safety, a return to the comfortable, sensual world of the known and familiar, but it becomes a journey into the unknown with the possibility of illumination as well as the risk of disaster. Hence another analogue, what Maud Bodkin, after Jung, has termed the archetypal theme of rebirth, suggests itself.

For Miss Bodkin, the rebirth theme consists of a double movement—downward toward disintegration and death and upward toward redintegration and life, but life greatly enriched. Jung terms this latter change “subjective transformation” and the result the “enlargement of personality.” The pattern is similar to what Toynbee calls “withdrawal and return.” “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is a rich and exciting work employing this theme, whether formulated in Jung's or Toynbee's terms; but the theme is a common one in fiction, including London's. “The Story of Jees Uck” (1902), an obvious instance, tells of Neil Bonner, a spoiled young man who is forced by his father to leave the civilization that has corrupted him and to live in the northern wilderness. There he has experiences, including a liaison with Jees Uck, a native girl, which give him new insights and values. These he takes back to civilization where he becomes a prominent member of his society.

“To Build a Fire” is of this general type. The central character—like Neil Bonner and the Ancient Mariner—has a misconception that must be changed, for living in such ignorance is a kind of death. At the beginning of the story we are told “That there should be anything more to it than that [cold as a fact requiring certain simple precautions] was a thought that never entered his head.” Extreme cold is a metaphor for a whole range of experiences beyond the man's awareness, and the point of the story is not that the man freezes to death but that he has been confronted with the inadequacy of his conception of the nature of things.

Neither the analogue of Everyman nor of the archetypal rebirth quite fits, however. The man, unlike Everyman, undergoes no redemption; nor, like Neil Bonner and the Ancient Mariner, does he return to civilization changed by the intensity and significance of his experience. He does not even have a moment of illumination as he dies. He comes nearest to insight when dying, he thinks, “When he got back to the States he could tell the folks what real cold was.” The inadequacy of the vision is indicative; had he been capable of truly comprehending his experience, London implies, he might not have died. Inexact as the analogues are, however, they define the kind of story “To Build a Fire” is and show that its significance lies in something profound and universal in the fable.

Before turning to a discussion of the characters, I must call attention to several details of the setting that seem to me symbolic. The “dark hairline” of the main trail and the “pure snow” on the broad frozen Yukon suggest the narrow limits of the man's rational world compared with the...

Naturalism in Jack London's To Build a Fire Essay

1276 Words6 Pages

Naturalism in Jack London's "To Build a Fire"
This essay has problems with format

When Jack London wrote "To Build a Fire" he embraced the idea of naturalism because it mirrored the events of daily life. Naturalism showed how humans had to be wary at every corner because at anytime death could be there, waiting for them to make a mistake and forfeit their lives. He used naturalism, the most realistic literary movement, to show how violent and uncaring nature really is and how no matter what you do nature will always be there. London also presented the basic idea of Darwinism and the survival of the fittest, basically if you are dumb you will die. Collectively, London used naturalism to show how in life, humans can depend on nothing…show more content…

When the man was trying desperately to re-light the fire he removed his gloves and lost all feeling in his hands. If he had remained calm and thought about his situation he might have had a chance to survive. Nature showed no mercy when the man attempted to re-light the fire using only his palms, and he failed. "He was losing his battle with the frost. It was creeping into his body from all sides."(1754) The man's unfortunate mistakes cost him his life and nature felt no sympathy for him. He was just another man who failed to defeat nature for one more day. If the man had brought along a companion for the journey like the old man in the town had suggested he would still be alive. However, his stubbornness would not submit to that. "The old-timer on Sulfur Creek was right, he thought in the moment of controlled despair that ensued: after fifty below, a man should travel with a partner."(1752). Instead the man brought a wolf dog with him to keep him company. The only thing that the dog was good for was as an outlet for the man's jealously when he realized all the mistakes he had made. The man envied how the dog could just sit in the snow and his warm fur would protect him from the elements. The mistakes that the man made reflect everyday life by showing how just one accident or miscalculation can cost you your life. Naturalism utilized the environment to show how fierce and apathetic the world can be. In the opening scene of "To Build a Fire" London used a bleak

Show More