Make judgment on "To Build a Fire."Lodon wrote another, more commercially acceptable ending for an earlier version of "To Build a Fire." In the first version the man survives, returns to camp and...

Make judgment on "To Build a Fire."

Lodon wrote another, more commercially acceptable ending for an earlier version of "To Build a Fire." In the first version the man survives, returns to camp and learns an important lesson: Never travel alone. Do you think this ending improves the story or weakens it? Explain your opinion.

Expert Answers
accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

You might receive a range of responses to this question, and it is always interesting to debate alternative endings to texts. However, my own feeling is that the rather pessimistic ending we have today is infinitely superior to any ending that would allow the man to survive and escape the consequences of his arrogance and poor judgement. One of the key factors that the story focuses on is how the man underestimates nature and has forgotten instinct, in sharp contrast with the dog, who is ruled by instinct and thus survives. London is trying to communicate his message of the dangers of underestimating nature and believing that we are invulnerable. Even if an ending presents us with a man who has learnt his lesson, it is less of a shocking impact than the original ending where the man dies. Note, too, how the survival of the man would tone down the message concerning how dangerous nature actually is. If the man survived, we would still be tempted to believe in how invulnernable man is, because although the man would have nearly died, he did not die in the end. No, in my opinion the original ending is still superior, as it shows us how dangerous it is to not "medidtate upon man's frailty in general." Even today, in spite of all of our scientific advances, nature is still a bleak, brute reality whose power and might we ignore at our peril.

Susan Hurn eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This alternative "happy ending" would have destroyed the story as an excellent artistic representation of realism, naturalism, and determinism in American literature. For the man to have survived would have created an artificial ending, one not consistent with the facts and events established in the narrative, thus violating one of the basic principles of realism. His survival also would have negated the literary themes of naturalism and determinism, themes which develop the ideas that human lives are determined and controlled by heredity and environment. A discussion of naturalism and determinism can be found here:

Finally, for the man to have survived and "learned a lesson" would have personalized him and destroyed the story's objective, detached tone. In the narrative, the man is not a person with a unique identity; he is not even given a name, which emphasizes this. He functions in the story not as a human being, but as a creature of biology who merely responds to the forces acted upon him.

scarletpimpernel eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I cannot imagine the story being nearly as memorable if London had changed the ending. Like most of London's works, "To Build a Fire" highlights a belief in survival of the fittest. The dog's instincts tell it when to burrow in the snow, and he survives. The man ignores any advice given him and follows his inferior instincts and dies.

Similarly, because London had such a difficult time in the Yukon himself, his changing the man's fate would contradict his Realist ideology. London takes great pain in the story to illustrate how cold it actually is (the tobacco spit freezing instantly, the frozen food, etc.) so that the man's relatively quick death seems unavoidable and credible.

Noelle Thompson eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Oh my gosh, no wonder why Jack London nixed the earlier version!!!  It would totally negate the entire point if the man lived and returned to camp in "To Build a Fire"!!!  In fact, I like the wording of accessteacher who states that the current ending is "infinitely superior" to the one you suggest.  The entire point is that pride and stubbornness are the tragic flaws of the man (if you'll allow me to use that term in this short story).   Couple that with the fact that instinct saves, as in the case of the dog, and you simply must reject the "more commercially accepted" version.  If we are reading Realism, then let's stick with true Realism, for goodness sake!  : )

bullgatortail eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Thank God London kept his final draft of the ending. The lessons learned by the reader would have been negated by the newcomer's survival after ignoring all the good advice he had been given. The entire theme of nature's power would have been shattered with such an ending. The man's death makes the story a memorable one, and one in which the reader comes away knowing that man is insignificant in the presence of nature's fury.

litteacher8 eNotes educator| Certified Educator
In general, I would say that whenever an author changes an ending for commercial reasons, the second ending can be discounted. It's not the author's intended ending. His message is lost. Naturalism was important to London. Nature is cruel. It's a theme found throughout his works. Man cannot tame nature. He often dies trying to win over it. Editors do not seem to understand these things. The same thing happens still.
pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I agree with both of the previous posts.  A happy ending to this story really waters down the message that London is trying to send in this story.  A story in which the man does not die does not have nearly the same emotional impact as one in which he does.  Therefore, it is not nearly as effective in getting London's point across to the reader.

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Jack London wrote for adults.  As a Naturalist, he certainly cannot sugar-coat reality or he loses any credibility.  As the previous post so cogently emphasizes, the entire point of the story is to contrast the natural, instinctive and adapted dog against the unequipped and unadapted human being.  Survival of the fittest....

Read the study guide:
To Build a Fire

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question