To Build a Fire, Jack London
“To Build a Fire” Jack London
The following entry presents criticism on London's short story “To Build a Fire” (1902).
“To Build a Fire” (1902) is one of London's most redoubtable and frequently anthologized short stories. The initial version of the story appeared in Youth's Companion in 1902 but was considered strictly a children's cautionary tale. A revised version of the tale was published in Century in 1908 and collected in London's volume of short fiction entitled Lost Face in 1910. Both versions of the story concern man's struggle for survival in nature, but the latter incarnation of the narrative ends in the death of the protagonist, which signals man's defeat by nature as he freezes to death in the Alaskan wilderness.
Plot and Major Characters
“To Build a Fire” chronicles the peregrination of a young man who ignores the warnings of seasoned prospectors never to travel alone in the Alaskan wilderness during severe cold. Overconfident, he starts his journey to join his partners at their mining camp, approximately a day's hike away. In the first published version of the story, the young man, named Tom Vincent, although alert and careful, breaks through a patch of thin ice and soaks his feet with freezing water. Immediately, Tom builds a small fire to warm his extremities. When the fire extinguishes, he fails in his attempts to build another. Remembering a hunting camp five minutes away, he is devastated to find it empty when he arrives. With desire for life spurring him on, Tom attempts to build another fire. Burning his hands in the process, he finally starts a fire and is able to warm his hands and feet. In the morning Tom limps back to camp, humble and wiser from his experiences. To conclude, Tom resolves to never travel without a companion again. In the later published version, considered the definitive “To Build a Fire,” the unnamed protagonist sets out on his journey accompanied by a half-wild dog. When the protagonist breaks through the ice and soaks his feet, he builds a fire only to have it extinguished by falling snow. He then fails in his attempts to start another fire. Fighting panic, the man loses feeling in his hands and feet. Desperate for warmth, the man considers killing the dog, but is physically unable. Realizing the futility of his situation, he panics and runs on his frozen feet until he falls exhausted into the snow. Eventually, he quiets and accepts his fate. Resigning himself to death, he realizes his hubris in traveling without a companion in the frigid weather. As the man dies in the snow and cold, the dog senses the man's fate, leaves the cadaver, and travels to camp safely.
As with most of London's fiction, the central motif of “To Build a Fire” concerns the struggle of man versus nature. While some critics maintain that the protagonist of the story dies due to a lack of intuition or imagination, unable to conceive of the possibility of his own death, others assert that he dies as a result of panic and the failure of his rational faculties. The protagonist's dangerous expedition—taken against the advice of experienced prospectors—and his superciliousness in assuming he will prevail are regarded as important themes in the story. Some critics assert that London's moral is that by using reason instead of intuition, modern man has allowed his primal instincts to atrophy. The theme of rebirth is also suggested, as the man realizes his mistakes and accepts his death with dignity. The repetitive nature of London's imagery and language functions to create an atmosphere of doom and loneliness. Some commentators suggest that this milieu also signals the inevitable fate of the protagonist, as the young man eventually freezes to death.
Most critics consider the 1908 version of “To Build a Fire” as a masterpiece of naturalist fiction. It is certainly one of most anthologized short stories produced by an American author. Some reviewers have noted that the story exhibits many of the Aristotelian concepts of tragedy. Other critics perceive the protagonist as an Everyman who is punished for his transgression of natural laws and the unwritten code of the wilderness. A few reviewers regard the protagonist and his canine companion as archetypal characters. The dog is viewed as the foil to the young man, as the animal displays the instinct and wisdom that the man lacks. Commentators have analyzed the significance of the symbolism in the setting, particularly the whiteness of the landscape and the absence of sunlight. The story has also been praised for its vivid narrative, its graphic description of physical action, and it dramatic sense of irony.
The Son of the Wolf: Tales of the Far North 1900
The God of His Fathers, and Other Stories 1901
Children of the Frost 1902
The Faith of Men, and Other Stories 1904
Moon-Face, and Other Stories 1906
Love of Life, and Other Stories 1907
Lost Face 1910
South Sea Tales 1911
When God Laughs, and Other Stories 1911
The House of Pride, and Other Tales of Hawaii 1912
Smoke Bellew 1912
A Son of the Sun 1912
The Night-Born 1913
The Strength of the Strong 1914
The Scarlet Plague 1915
The Turtles of Tasman 1916
The Red One 1918
On the Makaloa Mat 1919
Dutch Courage, and Other Stories 1922
A Daughter of the Snows (novel) 1902
The Call of the Wild (novel) 1903
The People of the Abyss (essay) 1903
The Sea-Wolf (novel) 1904
War of the Classes (essays) 1905
White Fang (novel) 1906
Before Adam (novel) 1907
The Road (essays)...
(The entire section is 173 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 2927 words.)
SOURCE: “Jack London's Twice-Told Tale,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 4, Summer, 1967, pp. 334–41.
[In the following essay, Labor and Hendricks contrast London's two versions of “To Build a Fire,” concluding that the first is “a well-made boys' story; the second version is a classic for all ages.”]
While Jack London's fiction awaits a proper critical assessment, “To Build a Fire,” that “brilliant little sketch whose prose rhythms … are still fresh,” has firmly established itself as a perennial favorite among the world's readers.1 In it London managed to combine those qualities which distinguish his best work: vivid narrative, graphic description of physical action, tension (e.g., human intelligence vs. animal intuition, man's intrepidity vs. cosmic force, vitality vs. death), a poetic modulation of imagery to enhance mood and theme, and—above all—a profound sense of irony. It is therefore hardly surprising that this masterpiece of short fiction is still available in a dozen contemporary anthologies.
What is surprising is that London sold the same title to two magazines. The first sale was made in December, 1901, to The Youth's Companion,2 a Boston weekly whose circulation exceeded a half-million and whose contributors included Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, William Dean Howells, Theodore Roosevelt,...
(The entire section is 3768 words.)
SOURCE: “Between Fire and Ice: A Theme in Jack London and Horacio Quiroga,” in Symposium, Vol. XXIV, No. 2, Spring, 1970, pp. 17–26.
[In the following essay, Chapman finds parallels between London's “To Build a Fire” and Horacio Quiroga's “La insolación.”]
Some say the world will end in fire, Some say in ice.
When the strong nations assume that man's only true work is to break through frontiers, they also assume that the courage it takes is the only one that validates existence. Because nature seems to taunt us with our limitations, she must be beaten, and no one but a coward would accept without a struggle the physical restrictions of his planet. Action is the only right response, and we often must go into it alone. The “ultimate frontier” of space now promising an infinite conquest, Man the Conqueror is a role that as far as one can see will endure for all time. In this projection, man identifies his body with all nature, and therefore takes his body as his enemy. Its refusal to obey his commands, in other ages accepted with degrees of patience, now chafes him with greater cruelty than ever, because he thinks he has sharper standards. We long for the efficiency of metals, and envy computers. Among the somatic confinements none is more galling than the thermal boundaries, and no injustice is older than the rule of 98.6 degrees, chaining us...
(The entire section is 4464 words.)
SOURCE: “Jack London's ‘To Build a Fire’: Epistemology and the White Wilderness,” in Western American Literature, Vol. 5, No. 4, Winter, 1971, pp. 287–89.
[In the following essay, Bowen delineates some critical misconceptions associated with “To Build a Fire.”]
Common misconception has it that the dog's survival in “To Build a Fire” metaphorically demonstrates London's belief that man should, upon occasion, rely on his intuitive truths rather than follow his rational thought processes.1 The story is not all that simple, for London, even with his reverence for the canine, would not advocate a total giving over to primordial urges under any circumstances. Indeed, he knew that a regression of this kind would never lead to the Nietzschean superman he so often portrays in his most dynamic characters. Moreover, to accept an overly simplified exegesis denies London at his artistically complex best. For should London endorse such an epistemological position, he would necessarily have to create two equally endowed representatives, confronting a common phenomenological concern. This London does not do; in fact, he devotes the entire third paragraph of his story to an assessment of the chechaquo's rational limitations. Although a somewhat observant man, he is a man who does not penetrate beyond the obvious. And, as London emphasizes, he does not possess the ability to connect isolated...
(The entire section is 1163 words.)
SOURCE: “‘To Build a Fire’: Physical Fiction and Metaphysical Critics,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 15, 1978, pp. 19–24.
[In the following essay, May questions the critical perceptions of “To Build a Fire” as a metaphysical fiction.]
Ten years ago Earle Labor and King Hendricks, perhaps the most avid partisans of Jack London, reproved critics for not giving London's fiction its “proper critical assessment” and urged that a “fine discrimination,” equal to London's own, be exercised in taking his measure as an artist.1 Labor's new book in the Twayne American Author Series and a recent Modern Fiction Studies special issue devoted to London may then be seen as steps toward reevaluating and rescuing a writer who has been considered too minor to merit serious attention. I have no major contribution to make toward this reassessment of London's fiction, but I do wish to express some reservations about the “discrimination” made in the last ten years in regard to London's best-known piece of short fiction, which Labor calls “a masterpiece” and says is one of the most widely anthologized works ever written by an American author.2
A common method of critics who wish to rescue a work that has not been highly valued is to subject it to a critical category that is highly valued. If the work “fits,” even in the coarsest fashion, with...
(The entire section is 2698 words.)
SOURCE: “Journeying across the Ghostly Wastes of a Dead World,” in Solitary Comrade: Jack London and His Work, The University of North Carolina Press, 1982, pp. 48–55.
[In the following essay, Hedrick compares London's “The White Silence,” “In a Far Country,” and “To Build a Fire.”]
His purse exhausted after a year at the University of California, in 1897 London joined the second wave of fortune-hunters in the Klondike. He returned with little more than a case of scurvy to show for his efforts, but the stories he wrote from his Alaskan experience established his literary career. In them we can see the lineaments of a hero who would never appear in London's “civilized” fictions. He represents the most fully mature and human character London was to imagine. The aloneness of this Alaskan hero is different from the aloneness of London's romantic heroes. Martin Eden's aloneness grows out of a syndrome of self-abasement and self-exaltation like that which was operating in London's consciousness as he entered the middle class. The Alaskan hero's aloneness is based on a more realistic assessment of his strengths and weaknesses. He understands that there is something stronger than he—Death. Death is the ultimate equalizer, and in this awareness London wrote a handful of stories that imply the need for human solidarity.
In Jack London and the Klondike, Franklin...
(The entire section is 3187 words.)
SOURCE: “‘Keeping His Head’: Repetition and Responsibility in London's ‘To Build a Fire,’” in Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 13, No. 1, March, 1986, pp. 76–96.
[In the following essay, Mitchell provides a stylistic analysis of London's “To Build a Fire.”]
Even enthusiasts cringe at naturalism's style. Given excesses so plain and a motion so plodding, sensible critics have simply dropped the subject. And perhaps the greatest embarrassment has been caused by Jack London, whose flat prose seems especially open to criticism. His very methods of composition prompt a certain skepticism; the speed with which he wrote, his suspiciously childish plots, perhaps even his self-advertising pronouncements have all convinced readers to ignore the technical aspects of his fiction.
Yet good manners seem misplaced once we grant that literature need not appear a certain way, since it is difficult to see then what it might mean to reject a work's style as inappropriate. Indeed, the very strangeness of naturalism's vision emerges so vividly in its prose that wrenched stylistic maneuvers soon seem to the point. As we have come to acknowledge with cubist perspectives, metaphysics shapes style, not maladroitness. Once admit certain large claims about time and character, and naturalism appears less inadequate to conventional criteria than at last merely inaccessible to them. Or vice-versa,...
(The entire section is 9610 words.)
SOURCE: “Jack London's ‘To Build a Fire’: A Mythic Reading,” in Jack London Newsletter, Vol. 20, 1987, pp. 48–51.
[In the following essay, Clasby maintains that in “To Build a Fire” London's “unquestioned myth-making ability has produced an extreme expression of a common archetype.”]
D.H. Lawrence observed, in his Studies in Classic American Literature, that the quintessential American hero is a divided person. Natty Bumpo of the Leatherstocking Tales stands first in the line of these dual heroes, paired with his dark companion, Chingachgook. Ishmael and Queequeeg, Huck and Jim follow in a succession leading to such twentieth century pop-culture icons as Batman and Robin. Lawrence theorizes that the excessively dualistic quality of the American male psyche required that the emotional, instinctive aspects of the self, which is perceived as “feminine,” be projected onto a dark, devalued alter-ego. The primary persona remains detached. In Lawrence's words, the “essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer.”
The protagonist in “To Build a Fire”1 is all of these things. In fact, Jack London has created, in this story, an extreme example of what Lawrence sees as the American Hero myth. The protagonist wanders through a hostile wilderness, alone except for a single companion. The companion is not, however, an indian...
(The entire section is 2148 words.)
SOURCE: “Imposing (on) Events in London's ‘To Build a Fire,’” in Determined Fictions: American Literary Naturalism, Columbia University Press, 1989, pp. 34–54.
[In the following essay, Mitchell explores London's narrative techniques in “To Build a Fire,” particularly the use of repetitive language and images.]
More than other naturalist authors, Jack London has been considered an embarrassment, a writer whose prodigious output simply confirms his lack of craft. His flat prose seems to offer an immediate, easy target of criticism, and our skepticism only grows with knowledge of his slipshod methods of composition. Given the speed with which he tossed off stories that appear suspiciously childish, most readers have simply agreed to ignore the technical aspects of his fiction. Even admirers balk at treating so inconsistent a self-proclaimed theorist as if he were nonetheless on the whole a self-consistent artist. Publicly committed to a super-race and yet to an utterly classless society, for instance, London affirmed the radical individualism of Nietzsche's will-to-power even as he was given to signing letters to Marxist friends, “Yours for the revolution!” Understandably, critics upset with the stylistic excesses of naturalism have seized upon him, out of frustration with his muddled thought, his evident artlessness, and his unabated worldwide popularity.1
(The entire section is 9216 words.)
SOURCE: “Why the Man Dies in ‘To Build a Fire’,” in The Critical Response to Jack London, edited by Susan M. Nuernberg, Greenwood Press, 1995, pp. 27–35.
[In the following essay, Adams investigates ambiguities in “To Build a Fire” and suggests another perspective on the story.]
During a discussion of “To Build a Fire” a student asked me, “Why was the man in the Yukon?” I answered that he was probably a prospector, since the “camp” in the story is an “old claim.” But only the earliest version of the story tells us explicitly that men are in the Yukon “prospecting and hunting moose.” I began thinking about that difference and other differences between the various versions of the story, especially major differences like the dog and the man's death, and it seemed to me that there was a general pattern to the changes London made. What was explicit and in the foreground of the first version became implicit or in the background of the later versions. This suggested to me that the foregrounded additions, the dog and the death, were thematically linked, and that in a special way the man dies because of the dog.
In the plot of the later versions of the story the man does of course die because of the dog; more precisely, he dies because he cannot kill the dog in order to warm his hands enough to build a fire.1 This foregrounded and explicit plot detail...
(The entire section is 4861 words.)
Sherman, Joan R. Jack London: A Reference Guide. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1977, 323 p.
Primary and annotated secondary bibliography.
Tavernier-Courbin, Jacqueline. Critical Essays on Jack London. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1983, 298 p.
Includes an updated bibliography of secondary works on London.
McClintock, James I. “Alaskan Nightmare and Artistic Success: 1898–1908.” In Jack London's Strong Truths, pp. 116–19. East Lansing, Mich.: Michigan State University Press, 1997.
Regards “To Build a Fire” as London's “most mature expression of his pessimism.”
Additional coverage of London's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 13; Authors in the News, Vol. 2; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 2; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vols. 4, 13; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1865–1917; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 89–92, 110, 119, 126; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 25, 73, 85; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 8, 12, 78, 212; DISCovering Authors;...
(The entire section is 240 words.)