How does "To Build a Fire" illustrate the elements of naturalistic literature?

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Doug Stuva eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Jack London's "To Build a Fire" is a product of naturalism or naturalistic thinking in a couple of different ways. 

First, the story perceives human beings as akin to nature, in the sense that human beings are a higher form of animal.  We are not destined to inherit the earth, there is no master plan that guarentees our success, etc.  We are a product of survival of the fittest.  In London's story, however, humans are, in fact, inferior.  We are at the mercy of nature.  The dog is better adapted to survival in the wilderness than the man is, and the dog survives, while the human does not.  Humans are not inherently superior to nature.  There are times and places when and where we are at its mercy.  Biologically, we are not necessarily superior.

Naturalism is, at least in part, an outgrowth or a form of realism.  "To Build a Fire" is very realistic.  The story is gritty and full of detail and the human is presumptuous and overconfident.  But it goes beyond realism to present man vs. nature, and depict man's weaknesses when confronting nature.  The story reveals a human at the mercy of forces he cannot control.  This is an element of naturalism:  realism on steroids, you might say.  This story presents a value judgment about the real or actual.

This particular story doesn't present a human at the mercy of hereditary and social forces.  These forces don't take away the human's free will and show him as a product of determinism, as they do in many naturalistic works.  Instead, nature is the determining force in "To Build a Fire."