What is "Naturalism" in "To Build a Fire"?

Naturalism in "To Build a Fire" involves observing the events of the story as if one were a scientist. There's no real identification with the man as a human being. We simply observe him as an object of study as he struggles to survive in the icy wastes before eventually dying. The man, no less than his dog, is a part of nature, and that's how he's presented.

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One of the most notable aspects of literary naturalism is the way it presents human beings as an intrinsic part of nature. All too often, we like to think of ourselves as standing over against nature, which then becomes nothing more than a world of objects to be measured, observed...

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One of the most notable aspects of literary naturalism is the way it presents human beings as an intrinsic part of nature. All too often, we like to think of ourselves as standing over against nature, which then becomes nothing more than a world of objects to be measured, observed and controlled. Naturalism turns human beings into objects of nature; by using naturalism, authors make their human characters no different from the rocks, trees, plants, and animals surrounding them.

Jack London does precisely this kind of leveling the field with his protagonist in "To Build a Fire." At no point do we establish any kind of human connection with this man. He is an object like any other. Reading the story is rather like watching a nature documentary on TV: we observe the struggles of a particular animal in harsh winter conditions.

The man's battle to survive in the icy wastes of the Yukon is a prime example of what Tennyson famously called "nature red in tooth and claw." It's a kind of struggle most humans seldom undergo. But the ultimately futile struggle with the elements depicted in the story reminds us that, for all our civilization and sophistication, we are fundamentally animals.

London was a notorious believer in the survival of the fittest when it came to human beings. His use of naturalism is appropriate to illustrating his conception of man as a creature simply struggling to survive in a hostile world.

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Naturalism is a great literary movement. It focuses on how nature is essentially unaware of mankind's struggles against nature's dominating presence. If nature is aware, then Naturalism says that nature doesn't care about mankind's efforts. Stephen Crane wrote a wonderful short poem that I think encapsulates Naturalism as a literary movement. The poem is "A Man Said to the Universe."

A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”
Notice that nature has this wonderfully cold indifference to mankind. London's story quite literally explores the cold indifference by having the man struggle against intensely cold conditions. The man fights and fights against the cold and oncoming hypothermia; however, nature doesn't do anything to respond to and encourage the man's efforts. Nature doesn't do anything to discourage the man either. Nature simply exists regardless of human efforts. To drive the point home London has the man die and the dog leave. Perhaps it could be said that the dog's howling is nature lamenting the loss of the man, but the dog definitely isn't willing to share the same fate. The dog fully understands that nature is a coldly indifferent killer.
Then it turned and ran along the trail toward the camp it knew, where there were the other food providers and fire providers.
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The natural setting of the brutal arctic conditions of the Klondike, conditions which are indifferent to the presence of a man, express Naturalism, a literary movement among novelists who viewed people as hapless victims of an immutable and indifferent universe. Naturalism writers portray life exactly as it is, with objectivity and detachment. An example of this is

Naturalism French writer Emile Zola, who described the role of the novelist as that of “a scientist, an analyst, an anatomist” who interprets reality through the application of scientific determinism (eNotes).

Here are elements of Naturalism in "To Build a Fire":

  • The protagonist has no name; he is called "the man" in order to make him representative of all people, the rational being in contrast to the dog, who acts upon natural instinct which often serves him better than man's mental powers. Calling him merely "the man" also mitigates the significance of the protagonist.
  • Nature is indifferent to the man's plight as he begins to become crippled by frostbite. Since man has no control over nature, the man's poor decision to venture out into the severe temperatures leaves him a victim to this indifference:

the mysterious, far-reaching hair-line trail, the absence of sun from the sky, the tremendous cold, and the strangeness and weirdness of it all—made no impression on the man....He was a newcomer in the land.

  • Lacking the experience of the old man and the instincts of the dog, the man also falls victim to the harshness of the Yukon. His causal attitude about his initial frostbite is clearly a mistake. Because he is incapable of shaping his own destiny, he is vulnerable to the elements in a deterministic manner that typifies Naturalism.
  • The frigid environment has reduced the man to an animal, but he cannot survive because he is not adapted to this environment as the furry dog is.
  • As part of nature, the dog instinctively knows not to step where there is water beneath the snow. When the man nears the water, it runs from the man, realizing the danger. Later, when he catches the scent of death, the dog returns to camp, abandoning the man.
  • Symbols and details are used in Naturalism. For instance, the snow, ice, and severe cold are symbolic of the implacable Arctic. Great attention is given to realistic details in this story; for instance, the man is described quite thoroughly and factually.
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