To Build a Fire : About the author
One of the most translated writers of the 20th century, Jack London is said to be among the pioneers of commercial fiction writing. His tales of adventure which capture the splendour and might of nature have held the readers rapt for decades. There is rarely a reader of works like the White Fang, The Call of the Wild and the Sea Wolf who might contest the artistic heights his work is capable of reaching. Interestingly, the life of this storyteller is as adventurous as his fiction. Born John Griffith Chancey, Jack London was deserted by his father at an early age and had to take up the surname of his stepfather. Weighed down by poverty, he quit school (aged 14) and decided to explore the San Francisco Bay area. He sailed to Japan for some months, landed up in jail once and became a militant socialist in 1894. London gained admission to University of California, Berkeley but had to quit owing to financial difficulties and the now 21 year old young man headed off to Klondike Gold Rush to make a fortune. There, he firsthand experienced the cold, unforgiving climate and witnessed the sufferings of brave young men who had come in hope of a better life. His health deteriorated, he suffered from scurvy and he eventually had to return home. London then decided to escape poverty by writing and was lucky to make that decision just when development in printing technology had led to lowered costs in the production of printed materials. Magazines aimed at wide readership begin thriving and by the 1900s London ended up securing financial stability for himself. In 1903 he published The Call of the Wild which established him as a formidable writer. He covered the Russo-Japanese War in 1904 for San Francisco Examiner and was arrested multiple times by the Japanese while on his mission. His release after the final arrest was made possible only through the personal intervention of Theodore Roosevelt, the then president of US.
in 1905 he purchased a huge ranch in California which cost him a fortune. He also built a lavish mansion called Wolf Hall in its premises. However, the mansion was burnt down in an accident barely two weeks before the London family could move in.
Jack London published a staggering output of novels, essays, short stories and poems throughout his lifetime and for which he will long be remembered.
He died on 22nd November 1916 in his ranch, possibly due to accidental morphine overdose.
To Build a Fire : The story
To Build a Fire, a tale of man’s struggle against nature sheds some light on various aspects of the human condition and man’s place in the universe. It follows the icy, Arctic journey of a man and his dog in a cold and harsh setting of the Yukon territory in Canada. The hardy man resolutely carries on his journey, fuelled by his unmovable and almost unwarranted determination to reach his destination. Unfortunately, his iron-will and his lack of self-assessment leads to his untimely death, as shall be seen later in the course of analysis. Like most of London’s works, the setting plays a crucial role in determining the entire structure of the story. To Build a Fire is a great example of London’s craft whereby the plot is furthered by the setting and vice versa. The pace of the story almost mimics the pace of the man’s journey and with each step we get a clearer picture of the the unnamed character who can be seen as representative of humans in general. The dog, with its instinctive discretion is set as a foil to the man’s rational recklessness. Writing within the Naturalist tradition, the cold, calculating man is contrasted with the dog who constantly seeks warmth and is instinctive in nature. By the end of the story, we see that it is the dog which survives and the man who dies- all because he has failed to build a fire.
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To Build a Fire : Summary
The story opens in a cold, harsh setting where a man has turned aside from the frozen Yukon river and is on his way to the Old Claim on the left fork of Henderson Creek. It is 9 o’clock and the man is determined to get there by six in the evening. Despite the man’s determination and his certainty about things, the narrator gives a sense of immensity of the area and the limitless expanse of the setting against which the man is pitted and in which he is just a minute dot :
This dark hair-line was the trail-the main trail- that led south five hundred miles to the Chilkoot Pass, Dyea and salt water; and that led north seventy miles to Dawson, and still on to the north a thousand miles to Nulato, and finally to St. Michael on Bering Sea, a thousand miles and half a thousand more.
All this makes no difference to the man for we are told that by nature, he is receptive only to the facts and is blind to its consequences : he is “quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in their significances.”
Disregarding the advice of the old-timers , the man is traveling without a mate. His only companion is a wolf-dog and their’s is not a relationship of love and trust but rather one based on self interest. The man shows no love towards the dog which could possibly be returned. The dog is the “toil slave” of the man who in turn is just another “fire provider” for the dog.
After reaching Henderson Creek at ten, he decides to make it to the Fork by twelve and eat his lunch over there. At one point in his journey, he shies abruptly “like a startled horse” on hearing the ice under him crack : the thin sheet of ice hides pools of water and falling into one could mean death by freezing.
Once, on suspecting a similar trap, the man compells the dog to move forward. The dog is hesitant to do so but the man forces it to move on. It runs quickly across the white unbroken surface, suddenly breaks through the ice before picking itself up again to escape the danger. The water on its paw immediately turns to ice and the dog begins licking it off.
The two resume their journey. They reach the Fork exactly at twelve-thirty. The man decides to eat but then realises he must first thaw the ice-muzzle formed over his mouth by lighting a fire. After thawing the ice , he sits down to eat his meal. The fire is lit and he enjoys his meal in its warmth while the dog stretches itself near the fire “close enough for warmth and far enough away to escape being singed“. The dog, unlike man, clearly knows its limits. Soon, the man sets off again but the dog is rather unsure about it. Nevertheless, it doesn’t strive to communicate this concern to the man as there is no intimacy between the two. For about half-an-hour nothing untoward takes place. Then, out of the unknown, disaster strikes : the man breaks through the thin ice and wets himself halfway down the knees before he can pull himself out. Aware of the dangers a wet foot can invite, he begins building a little fire with a shivering frame and numbed fingers.Finally, the man finds some trunks of several small spruce trees and decides to build his fire under one by lightning a small shred of birch-bark. A little fire is evinced.
However, disaster again strikes when least expected : the branches of the tree under which he built the fire had been fully loaded with snow, and each time he had pulled a twig, a slight agitation had reached the branches. This leds to a terrible disaster which the man hadn’t foreseen at all :
High up in the tree one bough capsized its load of snow. This fell on the boughs beneath capsizing them. This process continued, spreading out and involving the whole tree. It grew like an avalanche, and it descended without warning upon the man and the fire, and the fire was blotted out!
What follows next is a painstaking struggle to light the fire again. Try as he may, he fails to strike the matches with his numb fingers. He then attempts to set it alight by holding the matches in between his teeth. Despite succeeding in lighting the match, the smoke enters his lungs causing him to cough spasmodically. The matches fall and fizzle out. He presses the bundle of matches between the heels of his hands and sets it alight. But again, the fire eats into his flesh and starts burning until he can no longer endure it. The matches fall to the ground but the birch bark is finally lit. He then proceeds carefully to feed the fire with more twigs. However, a large piece of moss falls on the fledgling fire and in a bid to remove it, the man’s shivering fingers poke it too far, disrupting the core of the little fire which finally goes out. The man is doomed. In utter desperation, he looks at the dog and gets reminded of another man who saved himself from freezing by killing a deer and crawling in its carcass. He gets a ruthless idea of killing a dog and using its carcass for warmth. He crawls towards the husky and the dog backs off, sensing danger. The man stands up and calls the dog in an authoritative tone. He then lunges at the animal and attempts to hold him but soon realises that his lifeless hands will not be able to kill it. After lying in an awkward position with the dog for sometime, the animal frees himself and stays at some distance. It is then that an actual fear of death gets hold of him. With great effort, he manages to get up and start running and the circulation of blood provides him some warmth. However he soon becomes drained of energy and falls headlong. This process is repeated for sometime until he can no longer keep up the struggle. He then decides to face his death with dignity and begins imagining his death: of how his friends will come to carry off his lifeless body.
Slowly, he drowses into a deep sleep, a sleep that will last forever. The dog stands there for sometime waiting for the man to rise. With the advent of twilight it goes near the man, gets the scent of death and backs off. Finally, it turns around and trots off in the direction of the camp in search of other food and fire providers.
To Build a Fire : Analysis
Jack London’s To Build a Fire has been hailed as the exemplary naturalist short story and no sound analysis of the story is feasible without taking into account the 19th century literary movement of Naturalism. Coined by the French novelist Emile Zola, Naturalism was a literary movement which took a scientific approach to literature and a lot of its features can be seen in To Build a Fire. Some of these features of this school included scientificity, an obsession with understanding the mechanisms of natural events, prominence of the narrative, amorality, detached observation, the primacy of the instinct, representation of the working class and man’s treatment as a biological subject.
It is also worth remembering that Jack London had a first-hand experience of the rigours of the cold Klondike setting while embarking on a number of expeditions for prospecting gold. The Klondike Gold Rush (1896-1899) attracted a lot of working class men with a promise of making a fortune and London sure was one of them. This personal experience of London definitely adds to the realistic portrayal of the cold, harsh setting.
To Build a Fire is story with a theme as old as the origins of man. At the heart of the story is the one of oldest struggles we know of: the ancient struggle of man versus nature. It is a story of a struggle for survival, survival at all costs. The story depicts a struggle that is rough, raw and real.
The story is narrated in the third person by an omniscient narrator. In line with the Naturalist tradition, the narrator maintains a detached tone throughout the story, rarely presenting his opinion about the man and his actions. The speaker merely reports the action as a good naturalist speaker should. The protagonist of the story is in the Yukon territory of Canada, travelling in freezing temperatures. He hasn’t been given any name. He is just a specimen that is placed in the experimental setup of a Naturalist story. His namelessness is the hallmark of Naturalism for it allows the narrator and the naratee to maintain a detached distance of an observer and prevents either party from attaching any emotion to the character, lest it interfere with the results we infer.
The harsh conditions and the risky nature of the Gold Rush mostly attracted those who were willing to risk their lives to make some money and the one who did mostly came form the working class. The man, who has risked his life prospecting for logs in such a harsh climate seems to belong to working class as well.
Again in line with the Naturalist tradition, the story is quite obsessed with facts and figures. The process of building a fire, the natural processes of formation of ice sheets and the description of the dangers of unfrozen streams beneath the layers of snow is done with great precision. This obsession with facts and figures is also visible in the precise time registered by the watch, precise temperature recorded, the exact number of matches with which the fire is lit and several other instances.
The story opens with the man skirting off the main Yukon trail and taking a “dim and little-travelled trail” where “a foot of snow had fallen since the last sled had passed by”. One may take the road not taken. But not in the Arctic tundra. The man learns this the hard way. The mysterious trail, the freezing temperatures, the absence of sun, none of these factors have an impact on the man. It isn’t even the case that he’s got it all covered. For all we know, he is a chechaquo, a novice , a first timer . And this is his first winter. He is determined to make it to an old claim on the left form Henderson Creek where ‘the boys’ have already reached. Keenly observant of the environment around him, the man is obsessed with facts. He knows it is cold but he is confident that he’ll make it. He hopes it is fifty. It is seventy five below zero. The man’s instincts aren’t developed enough to process information that aren’t based on data.
Fifty degrees below zero was to him precisely fifty degrees below zero. That there should be anything more than that was a thought that never entered his head.
We are thus given to understand that he values empirical knowledge over experiential knowledge which later proves to be fatal for him. The experience of the old-timers will be of greater use than any precise thermometer whether it is fifty of seventy-five below zero. But this is not what he thinks. Instead, he scoffs at the experienced men whom he considers ”rather womanish”. Despite this being his first winter in the region, he disregards the advice of the Old Timers that one must always travel with a partner in such circumstances. His dangerous male chauvinism tells him that “Any man who was a man could travel alone“. We later see that he travels alone only to die alone.
Trotting behind him is a wolf-dog who instinctively knows that venturing in such a terrible cold is a bad idea. And the dog is right:
But the dog knew; all its ancestry knew, and it had inherited the knowledge. And it knew that it was not good to walk abroad in such fearful cold. It was the time to lie snug in a hole in the snow and wait for a curtain of cloud to be drawn across the face of outer space when this cold came.
The abovementioned lines not only depict the immensity of nature but also the real cause of such cold. The cold which cripples every life form is actually the cold of space. Considering this fact (which the dog knows very well), the line “there was not a cloud in the sky” in the opening of the story actually carries an ominous sign. An open sky in the Yukon is actually something to be worried about. It must be noted that nature isn’t represented as being ruthless to the man. It isn’t malevolent and doesn’t have anything personal against the man. Naturalism saw nature as an indifferent, disinterested force . The cold setting would’ve killed any another reckless man in pretty much the same way.
The mental faculties of this man is limited to registering facts. He doesn’t know how to translate those facts to useful information. He lacks, what the speaker calls “imagination“. What substitutes for this lack of imagination is a sense of ‘certainity’. He’s certain that he will make it despite the cold and reach the boys on time. It is this ‘certainty‘ that does him in for he thinks he knows but actually doesn’t and therein lies his folly. Instances of his ignorance abound in the story : He is ignorant of the fact that it is seventy five below zero, the ice gives in at a point where he’s certain of his safety and his surety on his endurance makes him fall headlong while trying to run away from death.
To Build a Fire derives its impact from a host of literary devices effectively deployed by London to achieve literary finesse. The fate awaiting the man is hinted throughout the story by the literary device of foreshadowing .
The fate of the man especially vis-a-vis that of the dog is foreshadowed time and again throughout the story. We are told that the hair on the man’s face “did not protect the high cheek-bones and the eager nose that thrust itself aggressively into the frosty air”. The dog on the other hand, isn’t very eager to challenge the forces of nature. Both of them break through the ice, wetting themselves. But the dog is built to endure the cold whereas the man has to build a fire. Perhaps, the fate of the two is best foreshadowed in the first few pages of the story :
The frozen moisture of its breathing had settled on its (the dog’s) fur in a fine powder of frost, and especially where its jowls, muzzle and eyelashes whitened by its crystal breath. The man’s red beard and mustache were likewise frosted, but solidly, the deposit taking the form of ice and increasing with every warm, moist breath he exhaled…If he fell down it would shattered itself, like glass, into brittle fragments.
True enough, the dog knows its limits and knows how to bend when faced with overwhelming force of nature. The man doesn’t bend which is why he breaks, quite like the crystal-beard. By the end of the story,we see that after a long struggle the man falls to the ground and is frozen to death.
The masterful used of the visual and tactile imagery depicting the cold, icy setting is often tinted with hints of gloom and danger :
The day had broken cold and grey, exceedingly cold and grey when the man turned aside from the main Yukon trail and climbed the high earth-bank, where a dim and little-travelled trail led eastward through the fat spruce timberland.
The aural imagery used to describe the sound made by the man’s spitting carries with it the sound of violence and danger :
As he turned to go, he spat speculative. There was a sharp explosive crackle that startled him.
The use of situational irony is seen throughout the story. The man takes the roundabout way to take a look at the possibilities of getting out logs in the springs from the islands in the Yukon and this decision of navigating through an unchartered territory costs him his life. Time and again, he entertains the thought of getting to the warm camp and being taken care of by “the boys” only to die a cold death.
The wolf-dog is set as a foil to the man as it is instinctive in nature. It is well adapted for such cold conditions, apprehends dangers and knows how to fend for itself. It doesn’t need facts to sniff danger and stay away from one. It knows that the day isn’t right for travelling and, unlike the man, clearly knows its limits. The dog has what we are told, an inherited knowledge, relayed by lines of ancestry that had been through such cold. The man had inherited some knowledge too, a knowledge of different kind: the advice of the old-timers. Indeed, the experience of others is a knowledge inherited by us and such knowledge has formed the basis of human civilization. However, the man chooses to ignore this precious knowledge as well. A little more humility was all that was required of him to stay alive. Naturally, the arrogance of the intellect is humbled before the promptings of instinct.
To Build a Fire is a story where conflict is present in two realms, both external and internal. The external conflict between man and nature takes place in tandem with the internal conflict between the man’s pride and the sound wisdom of the experienced Old Timers. The man recalls their advice every time he overcomes some disaster (external conflict) and every time he tries to prove them wrong by dismissing them (internal conflict). Both the conflicts ultimately get resolved in his death.
Jack London has brilliantly portrayed how humans are first and foremost, biological creatures. Naturalism held that there are natural laws that govern the natural universe and that breaking the natural laws can lead to disaster. The man, in pushing his body beyond the temperatures it is meant to resist, breaks the natural law of human anatomy and has to die as a consequence. In a rare, naturalist masterstroke, the speaker separates the man’s emotional/ psychological self from his biological self and shows how the former cannot overrule the requirements of the latter. While such instances abound in the text, this demarcation of the biological from the emotional is best depicted while describing the effects of the cold on the blood running in his veins :
The cold of space smacked the unprotected tip of the planet, and he, being on that unprotected tip, received the full force of the blow. The blood of his body recoiled before it. The blood was alive, like the dog and like the dog it wanted to hide away and cover itself up from the fearful cold
By emphasizing the living nature of blood and its revulsion to the man’s decisions, London provides a ‘selfhood’ to the blood. This isn’t done in a literary sense but in a literal, scientific sense which sees blood as a living entity. The demands on scientificity by Naturalism is handled with such care that it becomes difficult to notice the beauty of it at first sight.
The man who was described as lacking in imagination begins imagining things as he inches towards death. While making the final dash, the man feels weightless owing to the numb, insensate legs that bear him. The image of Mercury flashes across his mind:
Somewhere he had once seen wind Mercury and he wondered if Mercury felt as he felt when skimming over the Earth
Similarly, his decision to meet death with dignity after the shameful state he’s been reduced to is captured by the curious simile which crosses his mind : that he’s been “running around like a chicken with its head cut off”.
Finally, it is his imagination which comforts him till the final moments until he gets chilled to death:
He pictured the boys finding his body next day. Suddenly he found himself with them coming along the trail and looking for himself …When he got back to the States he could tell the folks what real cold was.
Perhaps this man who was obsessed with facts, figures and precise measurements is beginning to understand that there are things which cannot be known and that which cannot be known may only be imagined. Death, being the realm of the unknown, forces him to imagine and use a faculty he has lacked all this while. As he drifts towards the realm of the unknown the only thing that accompanies him is his imagination.
The fire is symbolic of life and the determination to live. So long as the fire is burning, the man has a chance to survive. The moment the fire goes out, the man begins freezing to death. It must be pointed out that the fire stands for life in general and not just in relation to man. The dog yearns back to the fire for it knows that fire is what will help it stay alive. As mentioned earlier, Naturalism treated nature as an indifferent, impersonal force and fire, being a part of nature, is indifferent to whom it provides the lifesaving warmth. Note, when the fire stops burning for the man, the dog walks off in search for other “fire providers and food providers”. There is fire somewhere out there and as long as there is a fire, there’s a possibility for life. The dog knows this very well.
It is worth noting that London wrote two versions of To Build A Fire. The first version was published on 1902 and the much anthologized second version was published on 1905. The two, despite having identical plotlines are nevertheless drastically different in their treatment of the characters. The first version is a much Romantic rendition, with the man ending up alive by the end of the story. Also, the man in the first version is saved by the blanket he has carried whereas the man in the second version is quite proud of “travelling light“. The second version is a more realistic portrayal of the consequences of standing up to the forces of nature. The man in the first version has a name: Tom Vincent. Tom needs to meet his friends (who’ve been on a moose hunting expedition) in order deliver them some “cheery letters” from the States. Naturally, this personal element is missing in the naturalist version because, in line with the naturalist style of writing, it treats the man as a specimen, not as an individual. Also, the dog is missing in the first version. Because the 1902 version of the story doesn’t require an instinctive foil to the man’s mechanistic nature, the inclusion of a dog becomes redundant. One look at the two versions not only demonstrates the growing maturity in London’s technique but also his gradual shift towards Naturalism insofar as the short story is concerned.