Essays and Criticism
To Build A Fire Overview
The third paragraph of Jack London’s ‘‘To Build a Fire’’ offers a concise assessment of the personality and motivation of the story’s unnamed central character as he embarks across the vast and snowy winter landscape of the Klondike:
But all this—the mysterious, far-reaching hair-line trail, the absence of sun from the sky, the tremendous cold, and the strangeness and weirdness of it all— made no impression on the man. It was not because he was long used to it. He was a new-comer in the land, a chechaquo, and this was his first winter. The trouble with him was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances. Fifty degrees below zero meant eighty-odd degrees of frost. Such a fact impressed him as being cold and uncomfortable, and that was all. It did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man’s frailty in general, able only to live within certain narrow limits of temperature; and from there on it did not lead him to the conjectural field of immortality and man’s place in the universe. Fifty degrees below zero stood for a bite of frost that hurt and that must be guarded against by the use of mittens, ear-flaps, warm moccasins, and thick socks. Fifty degrees below zero was to him just precisely fifty degrees below zero. That there should be anything more to it than that was a thought that...
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Keeping His Head: Repetition and Responsibility in 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 viceversa, allow the contorted styles of naturalism to achieve their effect, and customary assumptions about time and character all of a sudden begin to erode. Such writing clearly testifies to what is for most an alien vision of experience and, therefore, almost by definition veers from realist standards. But it is far from inept.
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Journeying across the Ghostly Wastes of a Dead World
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 Walker provides a carefully researched account of London’s day-by-day adventures, against which he parallels his use of similar experiences in his fictions. Walker contributes significantly to our knowledge of London’s sources and artistic techniques, but he does not analyze the more subtle movements that occurred in London’s inner life, as he...
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Alaskan Nightmare and Artistic Success: 1898-1908
‘‘To Build a Fire’’ is London’s most mature expression of his pessimism. The nameless ‘‘chechaquo’’ or tenderfoot who confronts the white silence in this short story possesses neither the imagination that gives man an intuitive grasp of the laws of nature and allows him to exercise his reason to accommodate himself to them, nor the ‘‘thrice cursed’’ imagination that convinces man of the absurdity of confronting the unknown with ridiculously finite human powers:
The trouble with him was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances. Fifty degrees below zero meant eighty-odd degrees of frost. Such fact impressed him as being cold and uncomfortable, and that was all. It did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man’s frailty in general, able only to live within certain narrow limits of heat and cold; and from there on it did not lead him to the conjectural field of immortality and man’s place in the universe.
He does not recognize that man is so finite that the bitterly cold Alaskan landscape inevitably destroys the individual. The rest of the story suggests that man is totally unequipped to face the unknown and inherently too limited to explore life’s mysteries and live. If the individual is to survive, he must avoid truth-seeking and...
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