What is London's notion of death in the stories "To Build a Fire" and  "The Law of Life."

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

With respect to Jack London's "To Build a Fire," Earle Labor and Jeanne Campbell Reesman refer to the frozen landscape as a force in  contention with the man who  

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.

The man who "lacks imagination" is not only unable to understand the danger of going out into the incredibly low temperatures, but he also does not comprehend the forces of nature as the dog instinctively does. And so, he believes that he can start a fire and save himself when he steps into the frozen hole.  Whether or not he could get the fire going, as a man alone against nature's formidable power he is too weak to survive. In contrast, the husky, whose undercoat and outer fur have evolved to protect him, and whose instincts lead him to react according to what nature does, leaves the man to die and returns to the camp. 

This is the "law of life" that the old Inuit acknowleges as he waits for death in London's other story:

He also was an episode, and would pass away. Nature did not care. To life she set one task, gave one law. To perpetuate was the task of life, its law was death.

The tribe, like the husky, leave the old man, blinded and weakened by age. They provide him with wood so that he may prolong death some, but he understands that like the old moose taken down by dogs, he will succumb to the forces of nature.  Unlike the man who "lacks imagination," the old chief, in tune with nature all his life, succumbs to the ultimateness of death: "What did it matter after all?"

London's belief in Darwinism led him to hold with the inevitability of life, the survival of the fittest and natural selection.  Truly, he held that the one "law of life" is that only the strongest can survive against an unreasoning and unfeeling nature.


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To Build a Fire

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