To Build a Fire Questions and Answers
by Jack London

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Jack London was a socialist. How does his political orientation emerge in his work--specifically, in his story "To Build a Fire"? "To Build a Fire" by Jack London

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William Delaney eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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There is often an implicit or explicit message in all the many stories about the so-called "indifference of nature." It is not the indifference of nature that man really cares about but the indifference of God. These stories always imply that there is no longer a supreme being to appeal to for help, guidance, mercy, or whatever--if there ever was such an entity. Man is all alone in the universe. Consequently, the implicit or explicit message is that man has to start looking after himself. Conditions on earth can only be improved by human effort, and this necessitates human cooperation. There is no pie in the sky when we die. This point of view almost inevitably leads to socialistic ideologies, democratic or otherwise. Religions traditionally persuaded people to be satisfied with the status quo. The big change began with the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. Nature has always been indifferent. People didn't care that much about that indifference until they stopped believing in a personal God who could intercede for them.

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In his essay, "How I Became a Socialist," Jack London explains that he "fell into it" when he went out West as a man in search or work.  He writes,

I had dropped down from the proletariat into what sociologists love to call the "submerged tenth," and I was startled to discover the way in which that submerged tenth was recruited.

After this experience of realizing that he was not as superior as he had thought, that someday his strength would leave him, London concludes,

 I think it is apparent that my rampant individualism was pretty effectively hammered out of me, and something else as effectively hammered in....It was a Socialist.

Perhaps, then, the individual, "the man" of London's "To Build a Fire" who believes himself strong, superior to the forces of nature because he possesses strength and "judgment," is a metaphor for the man that London himself was in his bold youth.  And, while the man steps into the frozen water, so, too, was London figuratively submerged as he found himself at the "bottom of the[social]Pit.... hanging on to the slippery wall" and knowing that he would not survive by youthful strength alone.  For, there are forces stronger than the man of his story and stronger than London himself. Thus, the old-timer from Sulfur Creek's warning to not go forth without another also underscores the concept of socialism in which there is strength in the unity of men.

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