Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
The fiction of London, in tandem with the work of Frank Norris, Stephen Crane, and Hamlin Garland, helped to shape an American naturalism, a particular strain of scientific realism that was influenced by European writers of the later nineteenth century, particularly the French writer Emile Zola, who described the role of the novelist as that of “a scientist, an analyst, an anatomist” who interprets reality through the application of scientific determinism. In “To Build a Fire,” London places his protagonist in a harsh natural setting that tests to the limits his ability to survive in the wilderness.
The style of this particular brand of realistic fiction depends on the cold, objective presentation of detail that respects the force and power of nature and reduces the individual to a position of relative insignificance. The central character of London’s story is a vain creature, supremely and ironically confident of his ability to survive.
The story is carefully structured around the building of several fires. The first two fires the tenderfoot builds are merely matters of convenience, when he stops on his journey to rest and eat. In both instances, the dog is reluctant to leave the safety of the fire. The third fire is built to stave off an emergency because the man has gotten his lower body wet. This fire is foolishly built, however, because the tenderfoot has no foresight or common sense.
The fourth and final fire the...
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Late Nineteenth- Early Twentieth- Century America
Although Jack London’s ‘‘To Build a Fire’’ was first published in 1908, the story was inspired by the Klondike Gold Rush, which began in 1897. America’s focus during the early years of the twentieth century was much the same as it had been during the closing years of the nineteenth century. The country had recently undergone significant expansion across the western plains and along the Pacific coast. In 1898 America expanded offshore as well, with the annexation of Hawaii and—as a result of the Spanish-American War—Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico.
The late nineteenth century also saw an influx of immigrants into the United States and, with it, the opening of Ellis Island in 1891 as a processing station for the new Immigration Bureau. Immigrants became an important part of the country’s industrialized economy, which produced not only the textiles of earlier years but also focused on mining as well as on the production of steel and heavy machinery. Whole families became involved in the work force. Labor laws were passed and labor unions were formed in response to unsafe working conditions and to the economic depressions which occurred in 1893-97.
The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries brought about an increase in the number of public schools and libraries. By 1900 most states had compulsory education laws, and an increasing number of women were...
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The story is set in the Klondike in the Yukon Territory of Canada, the site of a gold rush in the late nineteenth century. Gold was discovered in the area in 1896, and, by 1899, thousands of prospectors had flooded the region. The Klondike is in upper northwest Canada, near the Alaskan border at about the same latitude as lower Siberia, and the area is intensely cold in the winter with temperatures regularly reaching fifty degrees below zero. One prospector mentioned in a letter that his thermometer had reached sixty-five degrees below zero, which was the lowest the thermometer would go, and it stayed there for several days.
When he was twenty-one, twelve days after the news of the gold strike reached the United States, London and his brother-in-law ventured to the Klondike. Reaching the gold fields was very difficult. Many prospectors, including women, used the Chilkoot Pass where they had to lug equipment and supplies up a steep trail. Some used sleds, but many just carried the load on their backs as London did. He would take a load up a mile, leave it and go back and get another one, time after time. One woman reported that the trail was only about two feet wide and had loose snow on either side. She said that if someone slipped off the trail, he or she was never seen again. After negotiating the pass, the prospectors had to float their belongings down a river to Dawson and the site of the gold diggings.
Many people and animals died on the...
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‘‘To Build a Fire’’ is the story of an unnamed man traveling across the Klondike territory in winter to meet his partners at a mining camp. Ignoring the advice of an old-timer, the man makes the journey alone except for a dog, despite the intense cold. As the result of a series of mishaps, the man freezes to death without reaching camp.
Point of View
Point of view means the perspective from which the story, or narrative, is told. The point of view in ‘‘To Build a Fire’’ is third-person omniscient. In other words, the narrator stands outside of the story and refers to the characters in the third person (‘‘he,’’ ‘‘the man,’’ ‘‘the dog,’’ ‘‘it’’) and sometimes comments on their behavior and personalities. The omniscient narrator is by definition all-knowing— able to present not only what the characters are doing and saying but also what they are thinking. Thus the narrator in ‘‘To Build a Fire’’ shows us that the man in the story is observant and careful enough to look for dangerous cracks in the river trail, but he also remarks that the ‘‘trouble’’ with the man is that he is unreflective and ‘‘without imagination,’’ so that he never thinks about his own mortality and cannot imagine that the intense cold could be anything worse than uncomfortable. Similarly, the narrator comments on the dog’s thoughts, telling us that the animal can sense that the temperature is...
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"To Build a Fire" is written in the spare style of naturalism. It is more like a report than the fiction written in the florid style of other writers of the early twentieth century. London uses short sentences and merely combines them to create longer sentences. While the resulting prose is rather choppy, the story is so compelling that the reader does not notice the short sentences. This style presages the modernist writing style of Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Chandler who tell stories in few words but manage to make every word count.
London's style is also influenced by American realism which emphasized details to make the characters as realistic as possible. This influence is most notable in London's discussion of the man's mouth and chin as the cold freezes his breath to his beard and mustache, creating a powder of frost. Also London tells us that the man chews tobacco, "and the muzzle of ice held his lips so rigidly that he was unable to clear his chin when he expelled the juice." So, London continues, "the result was that a crystal beard of the color and solidity of amber was increasing its length on his chin. If he fell down it would shatter itself, like glass, into brittle fragments.... It was the penalty all tobacco chewers paid in that country." Details like this make the story more interesting and believable.
The author discusses the effects that cold can have on people, noting that the man's speed of four miles per hour had kept...
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The story of the man who freezes to death presents several problems that young adults might encounter. The most important thing the man does is ignore good advice. London says, "He remembered the advice of the old-timer on Sulphur Creek, and smiled. The old-timer had been very serious in laying down the law that no man must travel alone in the Klondike at fifty below." The man thinks that he has succeeded in defying the old-timer's advice only to discover that his hands have frozen, and he cannot grasp a twig to start a fire. It occurs to him that "perhaps the old-timer at Sulphur Creek was right. If he had only had a trail mate he would have been in no danger now." But because he thought he knew better than people who had lived in the area for a long time, he died.
Many young people think they know how the world operates and pay no attention to the advice of their elders. By ignoring more experienced adults, some do not make it through the learning experience. Like the man, they die or are injured physically or mentally. And like the man, when they see the real truth, they wish they had paid attention to the advice of the old-timers. But by then, it is too late, and if they have survived, they become the old-timers themselves. So it might be wise to heed the advice of the old-timers. That might save young people from needless pain and anguish.
The man made another mistake by isolating himself. London shows how very small a man is when he is...
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Compare and Contrast
1890s: In 1895, Guglielmo Marconi transmits a message using radio waves recently discovered by Heinrich Rudolph Hertz in 1887. This is the beginning of the ‘‘wireless telegraph.’’ News of the gold discoveries, made in the Klondike region of Canada’s Yukon Territory since August of 1896, reach the U.S. in January, 1897, and start another gold rush.
1990s: The network of telecommunication lines, radio and television transmitters, cellular phones, and orbitting satellites makes it possible to transmit news even from remote locations to most urban places in the world in a matter of minutes.
1897: English physicist J.J. Thomson formulates the idea of an atomic nucleus orbited by one or more electrons. This number of electrons characterizes the atom, giving it its atomic number.
1905: Swiss theoretical physicist Albert Einstein introduces the concept of the equivalence of matter and energy with his equation E=mc2, and raises the possibility of new sources of power and heat.
1911: Ernest Rutherford at the University of Manchester in England proposes that an atom is composed of a positively charged nucleus with electrons orbiting this nucleus.
1938: German chemist Otto Hahn and his assistants Fritz Strassman and Lise Meitner produce the first recorded fission of uranium atoms with the consequent release of a large quantity of energy and heat.
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Topics for Discussion
1. How does London characterize the cold in the story? Why would anyone want to live in such cold weather? How do the people who live in Canada, Alaska, Siberia, and other areas that are near the Arctic cope with the cold weather?
2. The man in the story feels superior because he is human. Are humans generally superior to other animals? Why? Are humans ever inferior to other animals?
3. The man in the story abuses the dog by whipping and yelling at it. What other kinds of abuse can be seen in daily life? What can be done to prevent abuse?
4. What would it be like to have no imagination? Some think that people lose "the sense of wonder" as they grow up. That means that they lose the ability to be amazed at the natural world. Why is this a problem?
5. How much are dogs like wolves? How do they differ? Is it a good idea to keep a wolf as a pet? What about other wild animals as pets?
6. Pride is one the man's biggest liabilities in the story. What are you proud of? When can pride be excessive and cause problems like it did for the man in the story?
7. What do you know about the Arctic? What sorts of animals and plants live there? How does a glacier work? Where exactly is the North Pole? How do people survive in such cold climates?
8. How did people develop fire? Why is fire so important? What other inventions did the use of fire allow humans to discover? How do you think travelers in the...
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Try closely observing nature. Look very closely at leaves, grass, birds, plants, the sky, etc. What do you see, and how does it make you feel? Use all of your senses when you investigate nature and see what you learn that you did not know before.
2. What do you know about the Klondike gold rush? Look up stories and information about that gold rush and other gold rushes. Why do people go to gold rushes? What makes them think they will become rich? Why do some people think being rich is so important?
3. London was a Socialist. What was the socialist movement about? Why would anyone become a Socialist? Is socialism still alive today?
4. The dog in the story is characterized as being a step away from a wolf. What are the differences between dogs and wolves? What is the situation of wild wolves today? What about coyotes, Australian dingo dogs, and other wild dogs?
5. Look up Darwin's theory of natural selection and survival of the fittest. Can these theories logically be applied to societies of people? What characteristics have evolved in people to allow them to survive? Can people from advanced countries survive in difficult terrain without any technology? What problems would they have to solve? Do people rely on technology too much?
6. Look up literary naturalism and examine its major characteristics. How can these ideas be applied to modern life? Why is naturalism considered to be pessimistic?
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Topics for Further Study
Research the symptoms of and treatments for frostbite and hypothermia. Use your findings to discuss the deterioration of the man’s condition in ‘‘To Build a Fire.’’
Investigate the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897: the types of people who participated in it; the ‘‘sourdoughs’’ versus the ‘‘cheechakos’’; the routes they took and the supplies they carried with them; and the dangers they encountered. Compare what you learn about these people with what you know about the man in ‘‘To Build a Fire.’’
As mentioned in ‘‘To Build a Fire,’’ the Yukon River formed the main route for prospectors on their way to Dawson to search for gold. Research the indigenous people living near the Yukon River and the effects of the Klondike Gold Rush upon their way of life.
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"To Build a Fire" is part of London's "Klondike" books, the most important of which are White Fang and The Call of the Wild. In addition, Burning Daylight shows the beauty of the wilderness, and Smoke Bellew is also about the northern wilderness. There are short stories about the wild in several of London's collections, most notably Lost Face and The Faith of Men. London wrote several science fiction books, including The Star Rover, The Scarlet Plague, and The Iron Heel, and some of his science fiction stories appear in Moon Face, When God Laughs, and The Red One. There are many adaptations of Jack London's works, some of which are in languages other than English.
Many movies have been made in a number of languages based on London's tales. A good adaptation of "To Build a Fire," starring Ian Hogg and narrated by Orson Welles, was made in 1969 and is available on DVD and VHS cassette from VCI Home Video.
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‘‘To Build a Fire’’ was adapted as a 56-minute film with actor-director Orson Welles providing the story’s narration. The film is in VHS format and is distributed by Educational Video Network.
The story was also adapted as a recording, read by Robert Donly and distributed by Miller-Brody.
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What Do I Read Next?
The Call of the Wild (1903) is one of Jack London’s most famous Klondike novels. The novel’s hero is a dog named Buck, a family pet that is stolen and sold as a sled-dog for use in the Klondike Gold Rush. The novel depicts Buck’s experiences as he is brutalized by his captors, grows increasingly wild, and fights to become lead dog.
Published in 1906, Jack London’s novel White Fang is often considered the counterpart to The Call of the Wild. It recounts the adventures of White Fang, a dog that is also part wolf, living half-wild in the Klondike and subject to both the savagery and kindness of humans. The novel portrays White Fang’s eventual domestication.
The Library of America edition of Jack London’s Novels and Stories (1982) contains not only the texts of The Call of the Wild and White Fang but also includes maps of the areas featured in London’s Klondike fiction as well as a ‘‘Historical and Geographical Note’’ by the volume’s editor, Donald Pizer.
Pierre Berton’s Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush, 1896-1899 (rev. ed., 1987) examines the rush for gold in Canada’s Klondike territory from the Canadian point of view, discussing the clash of cultures that occurred between orderloving Canadians and libertarian Americans as they hunted for gold.
Alaska: Reflections on Land and Spirit (1989) is a collection of essays written over the last...
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For Further Reference
Reesman, Jeanne Campbell. Jack London: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1999. Various essays on London's short fiction and London criticism in general.
Sherman, Joan. Jack London: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1977. A bibliography of works published about London to help guide students to articles and books written about London.
Watson, Bruce. "Jack London Followed His Muse into the Wild." Smithsonian (February, 1998): 104. A lively short biography of Jack London.
Watson, Charles N., Jr. The Novels of Jack London: A Reappraisal. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983. A good introduction to the study of London's novels.
Ghosts of the Gold Rush http://www.goldrush. org. April 12,1995. A good site for information about the Klondike gold rush.
"Jack London." Online Literature Library http://www.literature.org/authors/ london-jack. June 29, 1999. Contains web versions of over twenty London stories and books.
The Jack London Collection http://sunsite. berkeley.edu/London. May 15, 2000. The site includes a biography, audio clips, photos, documents, London's writings, a bibliography and research aids, resources for students and teachers, and links to other sites.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Barker, James H. Always Getting Ready/Upterrlainarluta: Yup’ik Eskimo Subsistence in Southwest Alaska, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1993, pp. 13, 118.
Barltrop, Robert. ‘‘The Materials of Fame,’’ in his Jack London: The Man, the Writer, the Rebel, Pluto Press, 1976, pp. 179-91.
Komarnitsky, S. J. ‘‘Grandparents, Child Freeze to Death.’’ Anchorage Daily News, Vol. 51, January 19, 1996, A1, A12.
Labor, Earle, and King Hendricks. ‘‘Jack London’s Twice- Told Tale,’’ in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 4, Summer, 1967, pp. 334-41.
Labor, Earle, and Jeanne Campbell Reesman. ‘‘The Literary Frontiersman,’’ in Jack London, edited by Nancy A. Walker, rev. ed., New York: Twayne, 1994, pp. 18-48.
Lundquist, James. ‘‘Meditations on Man and Beast,’’ in his Jack London: Adventures, Ideas, and Fiction, The Ungar Publishing Company, 1987, pp. 77-113.
Perry, John. Jack London: An American Myth, Nelson- Hall, 1981.
Sinclair, Andrew. ‘‘The Beauty Ranch,’’ in his Jack: A Biography of Jack London, Harper and Row, 1977, pp. 159-69.
Stark, Peter. ‘‘Death by Degree,’’ We Alaskans: The Anchorage Daily News Magazine, February 2, 1997, G4-G11.
Walcutt, Charles Child. Jack London, University of Minnesota Press, 1966.
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Auerbach, Jonathan. Male Call: Becoming Jack London. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1996.
Cassuto, Leonard, and Jeanne Campbell Reesman, eds. Rereading Jack London. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1996.
Hedrick, Joan D. Solitary Comrade: Jack London and His Work. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982.
Kershaw, Alex. Jack London: A Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.
Labor, Earle, and Jeanne Campbell Reesman. Jack London. Rev. ed. New York: Twayne, 1994.
Reesman, Jeanne Campbell. Jack London: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1999.
Sinclair, Andrew. Jack: A Biography of Jack London. New York: Washington Square Press, 1979.
Stefoff, Rebecca. Jack London: An American Original. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Watson, Charles N. The Novels of Jack London: A Reappraisal. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1982.
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