“To Build a Fire” Jack London
The following entry presents criticism on London's short story “To Build a Fire” (1902).
“To Build a Fire” (1902) is one of London's most redoubtable and frequently anthologized short stories. The initial version of the story appeared in Youth's Companion in 1902 but was considered strictly a children's cautionary tale. A revised version of the tale was published in Century in 1908 and collected in London's volume of short fiction entitled Lost Face in 1910. Both versions of the story concern man's struggle for survival in nature, but the latter incarnation of the narrative ends in the death of the protagonist, which signals man's defeat by nature as he freezes to death in the Alaskan wilderness.
Plot and Major Characters
“To Build a Fire” chronicles the peregrination of a young man who ignores the warnings of seasoned prospectors never to travel alone in the Alaskan wilderness during severe cold. Overconfident, he starts his journey to join his partners at their mining camp, approximately a day's hike away. In the first published version of the story, the young man, named Tom Vincent, although alert and careful, breaks through a patch of thin ice and soaks his feet with freezing water. Immediately, Tom builds a small fire to warm his extremities. When the fire extinguishes, he fails in his attempts to build another. Remembering a hunting camp five minutes away, he is devastated to find it empty when he arrives. With desire for life spurring him on, Tom attempts to build another fire. Burning his hands in the process, he finally starts a fire and is able to warm his hands and feet. In the morning Tom limps back to camp, humble and wiser from his experiences. To conclude, Tom resolves to never travel without a companion again. In the later published version, considered the definitive “To Build a Fire,” the unnamed protagonist sets out on his journey accompanied by a half-wild dog. When the protagonist breaks through the ice and soaks his feet, he builds a fire only to have it extinguished by falling snow. He then fails in his attempts to start another fire. Fighting panic, the man loses feeling in his hands and feet. Desperate for warmth, the man considers killing the dog, but is physically unable. Realizing the futility of his situation, he panics and runs on his frozen feet until he falls exhausted into the snow. Eventually, he quiets and accepts his fate. Resigning himself to death, he realizes his hubris in traveling without a companion in the frigid weather. As the man dies in the snow and cold, the dog senses the man's fate, leaves the cadaver, and travels to camp safely.
As with most of London's fiction, the central motif of “To Build a Fire” concerns the struggle of man versus nature. While some critics maintain that the protagonist of the story dies due to a lack of intuition or imagination, unable to conceive of the possibility of his own death, others assert that he dies as a result of panic and the failure of his rational faculties. The protagonist's dangerous expedition—taken against the advice of experienced prospectors—and his superciliousness in assuming he will prevail are regarded as important themes in the story. Some critics assert that London's moral is that by using reason instead of intuition, modern man has allowed his primal instincts to atrophy. The theme of rebirth is also suggested, as the man realizes his mistakes and accepts his death with dignity. The repetitive nature of London's imagery and language functions to create an atmosphere of doom and loneliness. Some commentators suggest that this milieu also signals the inevitable fate of the protagonist, as the young man eventually freezes to death.
Most critics consider the 1908 version of “To Build a Fire” as a masterpiece of naturalist fiction. It is certainly one of most anthologized short stories produced by an American author. Some reviewers have noted that the story exhibits many of the Aristotelian concepts of tragedy. Other critics perceive the protagonist as an Everyman who is punished for his transgression of natural laws and the unwritten code of the wilderness. A few reviewers regard the protagonist and his canine companion as archetypal characters. The dog is viewed as the foil to the young man, as the animal displays the instinct and wisdom that the man lacks. Commentators have analyzed the significance of the symbolism in the setting, particularly the whiteness of the landscape and the absence of sunlight. The story has also been praised for its vivid narrative, its graphic description of physical action, and it dramatic sense of irony.