How does Jack London's  "To Build a Fire" illustrate the elements of naturalistic literature?

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Jack London often employed a naturalistic approach in his writing. “To Build a Fire” falls into this category.  Naturalism bases its theory on scientific laws.  The naturalistic writer focuses on the idea that nature is indifferent to man. 

One of the main characteristics is concentration on narrative rather than emphasizing character. Usually in naturalistic stories, the characters are unnamed and are from the lower to middle classes.  The language centers on the plot.

To the naturalist, man succumbs to nature because he has no control over it. Nature is indifferent to man’s plight. There are aspects of nature that are not meant for man.  Man is in charge of his own behavior; and, if warned, he should not engage in a battle with the unresponsive natural world. Man receives facts about nature; then, he should base his decisions on this information.

In the story, the unnamed man has been warned by the old timer about the severity of the weather.  It is 75 degrees below zero.  He has been told not to travel alone in this kind of weather. Rather than listen to the voice of experience, the newcomer judges that he is able to make it through his personal preparation.

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 newcomer in the land...

In addition, the man takes a dog along with him as his companion. Through instinct, the dog knows that the weather is too cold for travel.  One of the primary themes of the story is the difference between man’s thinking and the dog’s instinct. 

Despite the man’s preparation, he makes several mistakes which cause him his life.  Nature does not help or hinder him.  Nature is what it is…the natural world.  If man chooses to battle nature, man will lose because nature will not help him. 

Little is known about the man except that he is new to the Yukon.  From the story, the reader learns that he tries to make preparations---matches, food, tries to watch for hidden springs, runs.

What does he do wrong?

  • Goes into the terrible weather alone
  • Steps into the spring
  • Makes his fire under the tree
  • Panics
  • Loses his matches
  • Runs to regain his circulation but exhausts himself

The man has to change his initial goals of making it to the camp in a certain amount of time-- to keeping from getting frostbite-- to surviving to accepting of death.  The natural world has proven once again that man must be prepared to lose the conflict of man versus nature.


jameadows eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In the literary school known as naturalism, nature is a merciless force that defeats the human will at every turn. Instead of being glorified, as nature was in the Romantic movement, nature is harsh and inimical in literary naturalism. 

In "To Build a Fire," nature is a cruel force. There is no sun shining in the Yukon where the story takes place, and there is nothing to temper the ice and cold of the landscape. When the nameless man who is at the center of the story builds a fire, nature defeats him when a load of snow from the spruce tree above lands on the fire and extinguishes it. He then drops the rest of his matches in the snow, extinguishing his chance to survive. The dog who is accompanying the man merely trots off after the man has frozen to death, showing that the man's death did not affect him in the slightest. In this tale, nature is an unpitying force that defeats humans.