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 tenderfoot attempts to build is crucial to his survival, but he is too far gone to accomplish this task. His hands are by then too frozen to manipulate his matches, and his mind is so far gone that he cannot fully understand the seriousness of his peril. All he can do is believe in the possibility of his survival. The story provides an interesting study in the psychology of an unhinged mind.
London’s story depends for its effect on situational irony. An ironic strain that runs throughout the story is the tenderfoot’s sense of superiority and contempt for the old trapper on Sulphur Creek. The irony is dramatic in that the reader soon realizes that the old man was right, a realization that escapes the tenderfoot until the very end of the story.