Naturalism is often defined as a type of realism that emphasizes the harsher and more brutal aspects of daily life. In Jack London's Yukon stories, and in his fiction in general, we see a raw, unfiltered picture of nature and of men and animals who attempt to survive in...
Naturalism is often defined as a type of realism that emphasizes the harsher and more brutal aspects of daily life. In Jack London's Yukon stories, and in his fiction in general, we see a raw, unfiltered picture of nature and of men and animals who attempt to survive in a state of nature, using both their mental and physical strength in a desperate struggle. "To Build a Fire" pits man against the frozen world of the "Northland" as well as against animals. It's the man's life finally pitted against that of the dog that is crucial; the dog has been the man's servant and companion but rebels when the man tries to kill it in order to preserve his own life. The dog survives and the man perishes in the wilderness of the north.
Though this is as harshly brutal and realistic as a story can get, it differs from the iconic examples of naturalism we normally think of, such as the novels of Emile Zola and Stephen Crane, for two main reasons, in my view.
First, it is an adventure story. There is something romantically extravagant in London's tales that is the antithesis of the man-made world of, say, the New York working-class setting in Crane's Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. In naturalism, the subjects are usually average, unremarkable people—a cross section of humanity containing victims of a starkly unforgiving milieu.
Second, what we generally regard as naturalistic in literature focuses upon the everyday, but often sordid, interactions among human beings. Zola's Nana deals with a Parisian actress who is also a courtesan: a sex worker with a wealthy and well connected clientele. The men who surround her are obnoxious, selfish, and predatory. In La Bête humaine (The Human Beast, often translated The Beast Within), Zola depicts physical abuse against women and sexual desires that are out of control and lead to murder. London deals less with human interaction than other naturalistic writers and relies much more on the thematic connections among man, animals, and nature—as well as the contrast between "civilized" and "natural"—to propel his fiction. It is naturalism in which people are not merely shown in brutal and violent situations, but are forced to take on the characteristics of our remote ancestors of prehistory, in their quest for survival.