Jack London’s short story, “To Build a Fire,” is the tragic tale of a man who decides to travel alone through the hostile environment of the Yukon in sub-freeing temperatures and falls victim to the unrelenting and unforgiving power of nature. During his journey, the man gets his feet wet as he falls through the ice into the water of a hot spring (London 122). Because of the severity of the cold, some “one hundred and seven degrees below [the] freezing point,” the man’s life depends upon his ability to promptly light a fire to keep his feet from freezing (122-23). After one, half-successful fire-starting endeavor, and several other pitiful attempts, the hopelessness of the man’s lone struggle against the hostile environment of the Yukon begins to become apparent. After a lengthy episode of panic in which the man tries desperately to return the feeling to his extremities by “running around like a chicken with its head cut off” (128), the man at last “grows calm and decides to meet death with dignity . . .” (Labor 66). The story’s central theme is one portrayed by many existentialist writers—that man lives a solitary existence which is subject to the relentless, unforgiving forces of nature; an ever so subtle part of this theme is that it is man’s goal to find meaning in his existence.
The word existentialist, as well as the subject of existentialism itself, evades definition. Davis McElroy points out this problem by comparing the act of defining existentialism to the act of trying “to explain human existence in a single sentence . . .” (xi). For the sake of brevity, perhaps a short, simple definition would be best; according to the American Heritage Dictionary (3rd ed.), existentialism is “a philosophy that emphasizes the uniqueness and isolation of the individual in a hostile or indifferent universe” This statement defines the theme of Jack London's short story—the lone man traveling across the bleak, unfriendly expanse of the Yukon can come to be seen as the solitary individual who inhabits a cruel and indifferent cosmos. At the conclusion of the story we finally see the man come to the realization, in a round about way, that it was best to meet his fate with dignity, thus giving meaning to an otherwise meaningless and cruel death. This existential theme in “To Build a Fire” is not likely to be a mere coincidence, but instead appears to be part of London’s intentional design. According to Charles Child Walcutt, Jack London was greatly influenced by the ideas of such men as Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, and Friedrich Nietzsche, all prominent thinkers of London’s time (5). So it is no accident that at the heart of the story lies an existentialist theme.
London emphasizes the existential theme in “To Build a Fire” in several ways, the most important of which is his selection of the setting in which the story takes place. The story is set in the wilderness of the frozen Yukon during the harsh winter months when “there was no sun nor hint of sun” in the sky (118). London places his solitary human character in the perilous setting of the wilderness of the Yukon, which is enough to begin to illustrate his theme, but when London combines this unforgiving environment with the deadly cold of the Yukon winter, he creates a setting which is the epitome of the hostile, existential environment. The remoteness of the Yukon wilderness, as well as the absence of a human travel companion for the man, serve to illustrate the existentialist idea that man is alone in the universe. To further emphasize this idea, London has not given the protagonist a name, but simply refers to him as “the man” throughout the story. By not naming the character, London has placed him at an even greater distance from the reader within his deadly setting, thus isolating him all the more in a bleak and hostile universe.
Imagery is an important element which London uses to illustrate and emphasize his theme. Earl Labor sees the “mood and atmosphere, which is conveyed through repetitive imagery of cold and gloom and whiteness,” as being “the key to the story’s impact” (63). Indeed, London does rely heavily on imagery to set the mood of the story, and in this way he draws a picture of the merciless environment his character must endure. London uses imagery with such skill that the reader can almost feel the severe and deadly cold of the environment and can almost hear the “sharp, explosive crackle” when the man’s spit would freeze in mid-air (119). Through the use of such vivid imagery, London guides the reader toward the realization of the story’s theme; the reader can visualize the man “losing in his battle with the frost” and thus can envision man in his conflict with a cruel and uncaring universe (128).
London also uses irony to illustrate and stress his existential theme. The man is “keenly observant” as he moves through the treacherous terrain of the Yukon (120). He is constantly on the lookout for signs which tell of the hidden dangers that he wishes to avoid, but, ironically, the man “falls through the ice” in an area which is absent of any “treacherous signs” (Perry 227). The man gets a further dose of the capricious and impassive nature of the universe when, after painstakingly starting a fire, the life-sustaining fire is ironically snuffed out by falling snow just as he is about to begin thawing out his freezing feet. King Hendricks sees irony in that even “with all his knowledge [the man] is still a helpless victim to natural powers and natural forces” (22). Hendricks further notes the irony in the fact that the man “could not survive in the Artic [sic] weather of 75 degrees below zero while the dog, living only by instinct, without mittens, without earflaps, without a coat, without lunch, and without a fire, saved himself” (22). To preserve the existential theme of man being alone in an uncaring cosmos, the reader must not be confused by the presence of the dog as a traveling companion to the man; the reader must instead see the dog for what it really is—a further extension of the apathetic and uncaring environment. The dog is not a sentient being as man himself is and cannot therefore be looked upon as being a kindred spirit who shares the bitter existence of the lone, lost soul who is the protagonist. By accenting the essential parts of his story with irony, London directs the reader’s attention to the heartless indifference of nature and thus the existential theme of man’s living a solitary existence in a capricious and harmful universe.
With his classic style, Jack London has created an exciting and unforgettably tragic tale which illustrates a modern philosophic theme. This story’s theme speaks of man’s need to find meaning in the sufferings of his solitary existence in an environment which is both hostile and indifferent to his sufferings. London illustrates and emphasizes this theme in three ways: through his choice of setting, his imagery, and his artful placement of irony within the story.
“Existentialism.” The American Heritage Dictionary. 3rd ed. New York: Dell, 1994.
Hendricks, King. Jack London: Master Craftsman of the Short Story. Logan: Utah State U P,
1966. Rpt. In Jack London: Essays in Criticism. Ed. Ray Wilson Ownbey. Santa Barbara:
Peregrine, 1978. 13-30.
Labor, Earle. Jack London. New York: Twayne, 1974.
London, Jack. “To Build a Fire.” Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry and Drama.
6th ed. Ed. X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia. New York: Harper Collins, 1995. 118-29.
McElroy, Davis Dunbar. Existentialism and Modern Literature. Westport: Greenwood, 1968.
Perry, John. Jack London: An American Myth. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1981.
Walcutt, Charles Child. Jack London. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1966.
--Richard F. Robbins
First Part Summary:
A man turns off from the main trail in the Yukon (in Alaska) on an extremely cold, gray morning. He surveys the icy, snowy tundra. The cold does not faze the man, a newcomer to the Yukon, since he rarely translates hard facts, such as the extreme cold, into more significant ideas, such as man's frailty and mortality. He spits, and his saliva freezes in mid-air, an indication that is colder than fifty degrees below zero. He shrugs it off; he is going to meet "the boys" by six o'clock at the old claim near Henderson Fork. He has taken an alternate route to examine the possibility of getting out logs in the spring from the islands in the Yukon. He feels his lunch of biscuits inside his jacket, warming against his skin.
The man walks through the thick snow, his unprotected cheekbones and nose feeling numb. A husky wolf-dog follows him, instinctively depressed by and apprehensive of the cold. Every warm breath the man exhales increases the ice deposit on his beard. He passes over more terrain to the frozen bed of a stream, ten miles from his destination, where he plans to eat lunch. The faintness of the last sled-trail in the snow indicates no one has been by in a month, but the man pays it no mind; still, he occasionally thinks that it is very cold, and automatically and unsuccessfully rubs his cheekbones and nose to warm them. He realizes his cheeks will "frost," and wishes he had prepared for this, but decides that frosted cheeks are only painful and not very serious.
Though the man does not spend much time thinking, he is observant of the curves and the possibility of dangerous springs in the creek as he wends along it. If he crashed through one, he could potentially get wet up to his waist, and even wet feet on such a cold day would be extremely dangerous. As he continues, he avoids several springs. At one point, suspecting a spring, he pushes the reluctant dog forward to investigate. The dog's feet get wet, and it instinctively licks and bites at the ice that forms between its toes. The man helps the dog, briefly removing his mitten in the numbing cold.
A little after noon, the man takes out his lunch. His frozen beard prevents his biting into it, and his fingers and toes are numb, so he decides to build a fire. He thinks about the man from Sulphur Creek who gave him advice about the cold; he scoffed at it at the time. He takes out matches, gathers twigs, and starts a fire. He thaws his face and eats his biscuits. The dog warms itself near the fire. After, the man continues up a fork of the creek. The dog wants to remain with the fire or at least burrow in the snow, but since there is no "keen intimacy" between the two, the dog does not try to warn the man for his own sake; it is concerned only with its own well-being. Still, it follows the man.
"To Build a Fire" is the quintessential naturalist short story. Naturalism was a movement in literature developed largely by Emile Zola, Theodore Dreiser, Edith Wharton, Stephen Crane, and Jack London in the late 19th-century. Its major themes (which will all be explained and explored in greater depth here) are determinism over free will; the indifference of the environment; survival; absence of moral judgment; instinct over intellectualism; a fascination with processes; the emphasis of narrative over character; depiction of characters in the lower classes; and more realistic language befitting such characters and settings.
"To Build a Fire" reveals much about itself and its naturalist origins in its title. "To Build a Fire" sounds almost like an instruction manual, and the story does, indeed, teach the reader how to perform various acts, such as building fires, avoiding dangerous springs, and navigating a creek. As in Herman Melville's Moby Dick (not considered a naturalist novel, but it shares many of the same concerns), where the reader learns all about whale hunting, the reader leaves the story with a sense of the processes at work in its world. We see other processes in effect, too, such as the layers of snow and ice that have built up in the Yukon, or the ice that accumulates on the man's beard.
The title also implies the need for survival. London might have (unwisely) given his story the unpleasant title "To Survive, You Need To Build a Fire." Naturalism is interested in the deep conflicts that bring out the brute instincts of man. London's story provides one of the oldest conflicts in literature and life: man versus nature. The man is at constant risk of freezing in the brutal cold, and soon mere survival, rather than the prospect of finding gold, will become his preoccupation.
The man is clearly not an experienced Yukon adventurer. He ignores all the facts that indicate danger--he underestimates the cold, he ignores the absence of travelers in the last month, he de-emphasizes his soon-to-be-frostbitten cheekbones. Again, processes are important: he does not make any mental processes, taking facts and assigning them increasing significance. While this may seem at first like an intellectual deficit, what the man truly lacks is instinct--the unconscious understanding of what the various facts mean.
The dog, on the other hand, is pure instinct. While it cannot intellectualize the cold as the man can, assigning numerical values to the temperature, it has "inheritedknowledge" about the cold. Without thinking, the dog knows the cold is dangerous, knows the spring is risky, knows to bite at the ice that forms between its toes, and even knows not to get too close to the fire for fear of singeing itself.
While the main conflict is man versus nature, it would be inaccurate to say that nature actively assaults the man. Nature does not go out of its way to hurt the man; it would be just as cold without the man's presence, as well. Rather, the environment is indifferent to the man, as it frequently is in naturalist literature. The bitter environment does not aid him in any way, and it will not notice if he perishes. In the same way, the dog does not care about the man, only about itself.
Even London does not seem to care about the man too much--or, more precisely, he does not make any overt moral judgments about the man. He merely conveys the objective facts, pessimistic though they may be about the man. For instance, in describing the man's inability to make mental leaps, London only states "That there should be anything more to it than that was a thought that never entered his head." London never denounces outright the man's foolhardiness; his most aggressive comment, "The trouble with him was that he was without imagination," is only a suggestion that the man will encounter trouble because of this deficit.
Likewise, London maintains an air of neutrality with his prose, objective and reportorial. He focuses mostly on the narrative and little on the man's interior world and history--indeed, we never even know the man's (or the dog's) name. He is less an individual and more a representative of all humanity, especially humanity up against nature. Also in keeping with the naturalist tradition, the man is obviously not a member of the upper class. Like "the boys," he hopes to strike it rich by prospecting for gold, as did many during the Yukon Gold Rush in the late 19th-century, or even by selling logs.
One major point of naturalism not discussed yet is determinism. It will become more important in the next part of the story.