In Jack London's short story "To Build a Fire," how is the presentation of the unnamed central character relevant to the literary approach known as "naturalism"?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Jack London’s short story “To Build a Fire,” the unnamed central character is relevant to the literary style known as “naturalism” in a number of different ways, including the following:

  • Characters in naturalistic works often behave according to instincts that humans share with animals; the main character in this store is eventually driven primarily by the fundamental instinct to survive. [See eNotes essay on naturalism, cited below, for further explanation of this and other traits of naturalism discussed in the present response.]
  • Characters in naturalistic works are often described in extremely objective, unsentimental, and neutral terms, and certainly those are the ways in which the main character is described in this story.
  • According to the eNotes essay on naturalism (cited below),

Because the focus of Naturalism is human nature, stories [reflecting] this movement are character-driven rather than plot-driven.

The main interest in London’s story is in how this character will deal with the unforgiving situation in which he happens to find himself. The “plot” of the story is extremely simple; the character’s thoughts and feelings are not, however, especially simple, particularly after he realizes that he is facing death.

  • According to the eNotes essay on naturalism, naturalistic writers, following the lead of the French author Emile Zola, often subjected “believable characters and events to experimental conditions.” Certainly this is what happens to the main character in London’s story: he becomes a kind of guinea pig in an experiment designed by London.
  • Naturalistic writers often introduced characters into unfamiliar environments, as happens in this story.
  • Naturalistic writers often emphasized that a person’s fate was determined by the person’s environment, and surely that is quite literally true of the main character in London’s story.
  • Of course, the character in London’s story is not entirely a victim of his circumstances; he makes foolish choices and reacts in foolish ways to the predicament in which he eventually finds himself. Building a fire beneath a tree filled with snow seems, in retrospect, an especially foolish decision, and the character also displays a good deal of pride and naivety, so that he is in various ways partly responsible for his fate. However, the story is fundamentally naturalistic in the quite literal sense that it emphasizes the enormous power of nature to influence and even determine the outcome of any person’s life, and it also emphasizes the relative impotence of humans when confronted with the forces of nature.