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 never entered his head. (Excerpt from ‘‘To Build a Fire’’)
Referring to the above passage, James I. McClintock asserts that this ‘‘quick and alert’’ man tries to use reason instead of imagination to get him past his difficulties and safely to camp but that human rationality proves to be helpless against the Klondike’s ‘‘killing landscape.’’ In the same vein, Earle Labor and Jeanne Campbell Reesman refer to the frozen landscape as a powerful enemy or ‘‘antagonist,’’ asserting that the man ‘‘falls into misfortune because of . . . an overweening confidence in the efficacy of his own rational faculties and a corresponding blindness to the dark, nonrational powers of nature, chance, and fate.’’
In the context of ‘‘To Build a Fire,’’ then, ‘‘imagination’’ is the ability to recognize one’s limitations. As it happens, the man does not possess this ability until it is too late. From the beginning, he is aware of and responds to the intensity of the cold. At first, he greets this ruthless cold matter-of-factly and with relatively mild surprise: ‘‘It certainly was cold, he concluded, as he rubbed his numb nose and cheek-bones with his mittened hand.’’ This reaction seems especially low-key when compared with the dog’s response in the paragraph immediately afterward: ‘‘The animal was depressed by the tremendous cold. It knew it was no time for traveling.’’
As the story progresses, the man becomes more keenly aware of the magnitude of the cold. Nevertheless, this awareness does not fundamentally alter his mundane response to the unearthly ‘‘cold of space’’: he feels only a ‘‘pang of regret’’ after realizing that he should have covered his nose and cheeks against frostbite; he is only ‘‘a bit frightened’’ at the speed with which his fingers go numb when he removes his mittens; he is merely ‘‘angry’’ at his bad luck when he plunges knee-deep through the ice on the river-trail. It is not until snow falls from a tree and extinguishes his poorly placed fire that the man becomes ‘‘shocked’’ rather than merely surprised and at last acknowledges...
(The entire section is 1491 words.)
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.
Still, all of this risks too much too soon by linking the varied styles of naturalism to individual author’s control. What we need to do here is merely to loosen our critical categories and to agree that while metaphysics may not disprove maladroitness, at least maladroitness can be approached as a kind of after-the-fact metaphysic. Postponing for the moment, that is, the question of London’s ultimate purpose, we can simply describe what happens in one seemingly rough-hewn work—his short story, ‘‘To Build a Fire’’ (1906).
As good a place as any to begin is with the story’s concluding paragraph, where the style’s very strengths appear most dramatically to be little more than flaws. The unnamed man who has repeatedly failed to ward off the Arctic cold at last slips into frozen sleep, watched over by a gradually bewildered dog:
Later the dog whined loudly. And still later it crept close to the man and caught the scent of death. This made the animal bristle and back away. A little longer it delayed, howling under the stars that leaped and danced and shone brightly in the cold sky. Then it turned and trotted up the trail in the direction of the camp it knew, where were the other food providers and fire providers.
These lines seem a bit abrupt and lend a halting rhythm to the story’s ‘‘sense of an ending,’’ but we cannot merely ascribe their oddity to London’s personal quirkiness. For whatever his intentions, there is no denying that this is a self-consciously structured prose, evident specifically in the paragraph’s minor transgressions. London refuses to subordinate clauses, for instance, though the more natural form of description invites such a pattern. And as if even greater formality were desired, phrases are self-consciously inverted (‘‘a little longer it delayed,’’ for example, and ‘‘the camp it knew, where were the other food providers’’).
Yet the more convincing evidence of stylistic control appears in the paragraph’s most striking feature: its multiple repetitions. Just as alliteration echoes a series of ‘‘l’’s, ‘‘c’’s, ‘‘b’’s, and ‘‘t’’s through to the final clause’s ‘‘f-p’’s, so syntax compounds that phonic stutter by trusting almost exclusively to the copulative—seven times in five relatively short sentences. Prepositional phrases emerge additively instead of in the usual subordinated pattern (as when the dog trots ‘‘ up the trail in the direction of the camp’’); one phrase merely rewords, that is, rather than extends another. Even the shifters repeat, crosshatching the whole through identical words and sounds (‘‘Later’’ ‘‘later’’; ‘‘still’’ ‘‘little later’’). And although it may first seem that this gives events a certain progressive sequence, that effect is countered by the passage’s reliance on the simple past tense, as if it were avoiding the very temporal elaborations that might otherwise reflect a controlling narrative consciousness. Throughout, each sentence and sometimes each clause offers itself autonomously—as units only loosely interconnected. Phonemic and syntactic repetitions, in other words, reveal not an interdependent world larger than the sum of its grammatical parts, but the very absence of an organizing grammar to the text.
The paragraph’s verbal echoes remind us that the plot itself reiterates a few basic events. On a single day, an unnamed man walks in seventy-fivebelow- zero temperature, stops to build a fire and eat lunch, resumes walking, falls into an icy spring, builds another fire that is obliterated by snow from a tree, then fails to build a third fire before finally freezing to death. Banal as these events are one by one, they repeat themselves into an eerie signifi- cance, as the man attempts over and over to enact the story’s titular infinitive. In turn, everything that somehow contributes to those attempts is doubled and redoubled, iterated and reiterated, leaving nothing to occur only once. Just as verbal repetition disrupts a normal grammatical progression by breaking phrases into autonomous units, so the recurrence of things themselves has a curiously disruptive narrative effect. By disconnecting things from each other, repetition instills a certain static quality to the story’s motion. Moreover, the reiterated concentration on the material lends a paralyzing quality to the story’s events, which gradually draws into question the very notion of plot as onward narrative progress.
Its unsettling effect in ‘‘To Build a Fire’’ is nicely illustrated in the repetitions of this passage:
Once, coming around a bend, he shied abruptly, like a startled horse. . . . The creek he knew was frozen clear to the bottom—no creek could contain water in that arctic winter—but he knew also that there were springs that bubbled out from the hillsides and ran along under the snow and on top the ice of the creek. He knew that the coldest snaps never froze these springs, and he knew likewise their danger. They were traps. They hid pools of water under the snow that might be three inches deep, or three feet. Sometimes a skin of ice half an inch thick covered them, and in turn was covered by the snow. Sometimes there were alternate layers of water and ice skin, so that when one broke through he kept on breaking through for a while, sometimes wetting himself to the waist.
That was why he had shied in such a panic. . . .
Whatever it lacks as exposition, the passage clearly shows that what might have seemed one paragraph’s idiosyncrasies actually integrates the story. The subject—some form of H2O—is repeated over and over, whether ‘‘creek,’’ ‘‘water,’’ ‘‘snow,’’ and ‘‘ice’’ three times apiece, or ‘‘springs’’ and ‘‘skin’’ twice, or the implied referent of ‘‘froze,’’ ‘‘frozen,’’ ‘‘bubbled,’’ and ‘‘wetting.’’ For both man and dog, that alternating substance forms a series of fatal ‘‘traps’’ that are themselves phonemically reiterated in the cold ‘‘snaps’’ which never quite freeze the springs. Other internal sentence rhymes reverberate through the text, as does an alliteration that extends from the hard ‘‘c’’s in the second sentence. Sentence structures themselves repeat, whether resuming from similar subjects and adverbs (‘‘They were . . .’’ ‘‘They hid . . .’’; ‘‘Sometimes . . .’’ ‘‘Sometimes . . .’’); or dividing in the middle (‘‘Three inches deep, or three feet’’; ‘‘he knew . . . but he knew’’; ‘‘He knew . . . and he knew’’); or turning on chiasmus (‘‘Sometimes a skin of ice half an inch thick covered them, and in turn was covered by the snow’’). Finally, the grammatical whole binds together with the repeated claim that the man ‘‘shied’’ away.
As in the earlier paragraph, multiple repetitions return us back to where we began and tend in the process to drain whatever suspense we might otherwise have felt in the action. Narrative progression seems denied through the very stylistic recurrences that integrate the passage. Or rather, to be more precise, the...
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‘‘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....
(The entire section is 1276 words.)