Is "To Build a Fire" by Jack London an example of someone fighting for survival in an indifferent universe or someone who fails to see that he is in an indifferent universe?

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carol-davis | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Jack London helped to develop the literary movement called naturalism.  Naturalism maintains that the environment that man finds himself in is indifferent to its inhabitants.  This indifference becomes the challenge faced by the naturalist characters. 

Certain characteristics determine a naturalistic story.  The main character finds that within himself there is an entity that is capable of brutality if needed to survive.  Secondly, nature is unsympathetic to the characters caught in the conflict.  Lastly, there are forces in the environment and heredity of the individual that work against the protagonist. 

A good story must have a conflict.  The conflict or struggle affects the main character.  The man in this story must survive nature.  Nature unfeelingly works against the man at every turn.  Furthermore, his lack of natural understanding of the horrifically cold weather, force him to face his mortality and eventually lose the battle.

Even though the conflict is man versus nature, the natural world is not out to hurt the man. He has made choices that have placed him in an untenable position.  His decisions have consigned him to a lethal battle for his life.  Although inexperienced in this type of weather, the protagonist does have some skills which help in the beginning of the story and throughout each crisis that he faces.  The man’s acknowledges his precarious position but continues to take unwise actins. Finally, the man faces the inevitability of his demise.

Because of his ignorance to these  hostile conditions, the man listened to the” old-timer on Sulphur Creek” who had tried to warn him about  the weather’s indifference, but the man chose to ignore the old man.  He was impressed by his advice, but he was arrogant and thought he could withstand the cold:

He was a newcomer in the land, and this was his first winter…He was quick and alert to things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances…Fifty degrees below zero was to him just precisely fifty degrees below zero.

The man finds himself in a hostile environment that he does not understand; in addition, he has tried to overcome many obstacles to survive in but there is no one to care whether he makes it or not. 

As the man begins to succumb to hypothermia, he begins to have visions:

He could see him [old-timer on Sulphur Creek] quite clearly, warm and comfortable, and smoking a pipe.  ‘You were right, old hoss; you were right,’ the man mumbled…

When the man freezes to death, nature does not even notice. 

The protagonist’s companion, the dog, works strictly on instinct. Through his ancestry, he has inherited the wisdom to know what to do.  In this adverse environment, instinct wins over intelligence; to prove this, the dog was even aware when the man wanted to kill him to use its body warmth to survive. 

With the man’s more complex abilities and intelligence, he thinks he can  survive.  Yet, the dog only has to use his inherent understanding of the cold and it dangers to survive. When the man freezes, the dog waits to see what will happen.  After approaching the man and scenting his death, the dog howls towards the skies for his master.  Then, with its intrinsic abilities, the animal turns toward the camp and the warmth of the fire.   Animal wins, and man loses. 


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