illustration fo a man in winter clothes lying on the snow under a tree with a dog standing near him

To Build a Fire

by Jack London
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How does "To Build a Fire" by Jack London reflect the philosophy of Transcendentalism?

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Normally I haven't thought of Jack London's writings as expressing any form of the Emerson-Thoreau transcendentalist philosophy. London is usually associated with socialism (as in his dystopian novel The Iron Heel) or, perhaps paradoxically, the Social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer (which his protagonist vehemently defends in Martin Eden ...

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Normally I haven't thought of Jack London's writings as expressing any form of the Emerson-Thoreau transcendentalist philosophy. London is usually associated with socialism (as in his dystopian novel The Iron Heel) or, perhaps paradoxically, the Social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer (which his protagonist vehemently defends in Martin Eden). But "To Build a Fire" and other Klondike stories relate to the "self-reliance" aspect of the New England writers' philosophy, perhaps in contradictory ways—both positively and negatively.

The man in this story is self-reliant to an extreme and irrational degree. He's been told by the "old timers" that one should not travel alone in the Northland, but he does so anyway, even while contemplating (apparently without worry) the advice he's been given. We're told that he's intelligent in observing things but not in the "significances" of them. He recognizes the severity of the conditions he encounters (with his spit freezing in the frigid air before it hits the ground, for instance), but this fact doesn't seem to make any impression on him. He keeps telling himself that the "boys in camp" will take care of him, somehow not realizing that his chances of getting to the camp are slim to none under such conditions.

The two most significant defects in his brand of self-reliance, however, involve the fire he builds and the dog who is his traveling companion. He knows all the details of building a fire, such as the need gradually to add increasingly larger twigs to it, but he's unaware that starting the fire under the snow-laden boughs of a large tree will cause the branches to collapse onto the fire and smother it. And he does not anticipate the self-preservation instinct of the dog. The dog's normal compliance and obedience disappear when the dog's life is at stake. The dog has a better understanding of the overall situation than the man has, and the dog survives while the man doesn't.

Is it a case of self-reliance gone amok? Not necessarily, because in general London's writings do stress independence as an ideal, both for people and animals. But perhaps the Spencer-influenced thinking in the story is simply that of the survival of the fittest being an immutable law. The man tries, but he's unprepared, "unfit" to make it on his own in the Northland.

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In this story, nature is much more like an antagonist than anything else, and the protagonist's experience with nature seem to impress upon him "man's frailty in general"; he must guard himself against the extreme cold temperature, and he is not inspired to think on "the conjectural field of immortality and man's place in the universe."

In short, this story does not reflect transcendentalist philosophy. As the man travels, he jumps back from a spot where underground springs could bubble out, causing the ice to thin and creating "traps" where a person could step into three inches of water or fall into three feet of it. He "shied in [...] panic" from these spots. To characterize nature as full of traps goes against transcendentalist philosophy.

For the man to get his feet wet could be deadly due to the cold. Soon, he does break through one of these spots, and he has to stop and build a fire to dry his feet and clothes and shoes so as not to freeze. When this fire begins to work on the snow resting on the branches of the tree above, causing it to fall and douse the flames in an instant, the man feels as if "he had just heard his own sentence of death."

The more time that passes, the more the man becomes alienated from his own body and from the natural environment. He can no longer feel his extremities and must check with his eyes to even be sure that he is touching something or standing upright because he can no longer feel. Rather than putting the man in greater touch with himself, as transcendentalists suppose nature to do, nature has the opposite effect in this story. He seemed "to have no connection with the earth."

In the end, the cold—nature—kills the man. He had tried to rely on himself rather than listening to others' claims about their own experiences, another key transcendentalist philosophy, and his own ideas led him down the path to death.

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Transcendentalism had become a major philosophical field of thought during the 1830s, and despite no less a figure than Ralph Waldo Emerson himself claiming that it had died out by the 1840s, it remained a strong influence on both culture and literature. Jack London's writings show signs of transcendentalist influence, and yet his works were set firmly in the realm of Realism, with little use for idealistic thought and behavior. "To Build a Fire" is especially significant in that it almost directly contradicts the ideas of man transcending animalistic instincts and growing to individual strength on the basis of intellectual and moral growth:

[The cold] did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man's frailty in general, able only to live within certain narrow limits of heat and cold; and from there on it did not lead him to the conjectural field of immortality and man's place in the universe... Fifty degrees below zero was to him just precisely fifty degrees below zero. That there should be anything more to it than that was a thought that never entered his head.
(London, "To Build a Fire," jacklondons.net)

The unnamed protagonist is entirely rooted in The Real; the concepts of Man versus Nature never occur to him, and he makes the mistake of thinking that Nature must be malicious in order to harm him. In fact, it is the coincidental and unthinking aspects of Nature that cause his death. Instead of striving to make himself stronger than his human self by learning about the cold and taking steps to neutralize it, he simply walks into the wild and dies of hypothermia. There is no communion with nature, no epiphany of harmony, and the dog by his side doesn't even stay with him. In every sense, the story is rooted in Realism rather than Transcendentalism, and yet it works to reveal some of the essential flaws in that philosophy: man is not harmonious with Nature, but must be artificially protected from it, and to assume a spiritual or providential "right" to overcome Nature is to be willfully ignorant of natural dangers.

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