Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2927
SOURCE: “The Theme of Jack London's ‘To Build a Fire,’” in American Book Collector, Vol. 17, No. 3, November, 1966, pp. 15–18.
[In the following essay, Peterson discusses the motif of the journey in “To Build a Fire.”]
Judged simply by the number of times it has been selected by the editors of anthologies, “To Build a Fire” is Jack London's most popular and presumably his best short story. What merit editors find in it, I can only speculate; but I imagine that it is admired as a fine example of a suspenseful story with a strong theme presented in vivid, realistic detail. All this, of course, it is; and it is interesting to recall in this connection that, aside from the death of the protagonist, the story treats of precisely the range of experience that London himself had had in the northland. He too, in his relations with cold, dogs, fires, and all the rest of the exotic mise en scène, had never become more than a chechaquo; and writing within that narrow range of experience, he recreated a moment of truth about the Yukon more clearly and credibly than anywhere else in his fiction.
Valid as it is, however, an interpretation which halts at the careful contrivance of suspense, a strong theme—by which is meant, I suppose, the primitive struggle for survival—and precise, realistic details cannot explain the appeal of the story, which, like all serious fiction, hints at a depth and richness of meaning below the level of literal narration. In this paper I wish to discuss this “depth and richness of meaning,” or theme, particularly in terms of the fable and the characters. To put the discussion into context, let me summarize the story even if its great popularity guarantees that most readers are familiar with it.
A man, whose name is not given, is traveling alone, except for an almost wild dog as companion, in the far north in the dead of winter. Although aware of the dangers of the journey, the man is confident. He is alert and careful; but even so he accidentally breaks through the surface of a frozen stream and gets his feet wet. When he fails in his attempts to build a fire to dry himself, he dies. His wolf-dog companion leaves the body to seek food and warmth with the dead man's companions waiting in camp.
The fable unfolds as a journey taken in the face of serious danger in which the conflicts between man and nature and between man and dog provide the drama. But I wish to consider here the journey itself, presented in the first sentence of the story in a passage that is both rhetorically impressive and charged with implication:
Day had broken cold and gray, exceedingly cold and gray, when the man turned aside from the main Yukon trail and climbed the high earthbank, where a dim and little-traveled trail led eastward through the fat spruce timberland.
These details, admirably foreshadowing the events of the story, tell how a man leaves the well-trodden path of the familiar world of men to follow a faint and difficult trail into a world of mysterious (“dim and little-travelled”) but significant (“fat spruce timberland”) experience. The very rhythms of the passage reinforce the meaning. The shifts from the initial iambic rhythm to anapestic and back to iambic follow the movement of the passage from the scene itself (“Day had broken …”) to the first action (“… turned aside …”) and to the second (“… climbed the high earth-bank. …”). The double stress upon “earthbank” emphasizes the...
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boundary between the realms of familiar and unfamiliar.
The journey thus brilliantly announced is, as I have implied, more than a literal journey, although the hard, realistic surface of the narrative may obscure what ought to be obvious. The nameless man (his anonymity is significant) is a modern Everyman who, if not precisely summoned, nevertheless takes a pilgrimage the end of which “he in no wise may escape.” At the realistic level, the direction of the journey is toward camp and safety, a return to the comfortable, sensual world of the known and familiar, but it becomes a journey into the unknown with the possibility of illumination as well as the risk of disaster. Hence another analogue, what Maud Bodkin, after Jung, has termed the archetypal theme of rebirth, suggests itself.
For Miss Bodkin, the rebirth theme consists of a double movement—downward toward disintegration and death and upward toward redintegration and life, but life greatly enriched. Jung terms this latter change “subjective transformation” and the result the “enlargement of personality.” The pattern is similar to what Toynbee calls “withdrawal and return.” “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is a rich and exciting work employing this theme, whether formulated in Jung's or Toynbee's terms; but the theme is a common one in fiction, including London's. “The Story of Jees Uck” (1902), an obvious instance, tells of Neil Bonner, a spoiled young man who is forced by his father to leave the civilization that has corrupted him and to live in the northern wilderness. There he has experiences, including a liaison with Jees Uck, a native girl, which give him new insights and values. These he takes back to civilization where he becomes a prominent member of his society.
“To Build a Fire” is of this general type. The central character—like Neil Bonner and the Ancient Mariner—has a misconception that must be changed, for living in such ignorance is a kind of death. At the beginning of the story we are told “That there should be anything more to it than that [cold as a fact requiring certain simple precautions] was a thought that never entered his head.” Extreme cold is a metaphor for a whole range of experiences beyond the man's awareness, and the point of the story is not that the man freezes to death but that he has been confronted with the inadequacy of his conception of the nature of things.
Neither the analogue of Everyman nor of the archetypal rebirth quite fits, however. The man, unlike Everyman, undergoes no redemption; nor, like Neil Bonner and the Ancient Mariner, does he return to civilization changed by the intensity and significance of his experience. He does not even have a moment of illumination as he dies. He comes nearest to insight when dying, he thinks, “When he got back to the States he could tell the folks what real cold was.” The inadequacy of the vision is indicative; had he been capable of truly comprehending his experience, London implies, he might not have died. Inexact as the analogues are, however, they define the kind of story “To Build a Fire” is and show that its significance lies in something profound and universal in the fable.
Before turning to a discussion of the characters, I must call attention to several details of the setting that seem to me symbolic. The “dark hairline” of the main trail and the “pure snow” on the broad frozen Yukon suggest the narrow limits of the man's rational world compared with the universe beyond his knowledge and comprehension. The whiteness is not the whiteness of innocence but the blankness of the unknown, neither good nor evil but inexplicable, its meaning yet to be discovered. The events of the story take place in a world devoid of sunlight, of daylight, which is also the light of reason and common sense. Thus the absent sun, “that cheerful orb,” represents the dominant qualities of the man which are useless in a sunless world where reason fails and common sense proves unavailing.
Although the man is the central character, it is valid to speak of both the dog and the man as characters. They are equally important to the story, and we know as much about one as the other. All we know of the man is that he is from the civilized land to the south and that he is both unimaginative and unreflective. He is not presented as young, strong, or heroic. The dog, his companion, is almost wild and retains its primitive instincts virtually intact.
London's point, that the man lacks imagination and does not think, would be obscure were it not for the careful contrast with the dog; for the man does think. Or, as London puts it, he is “quick and alert in the things of life.” A common interpretation, I suspect, sees the man as a fool who dies for his folly, but a careful reading will disprove it. He is alert and attentive, and he handles himself well in a dangerous situation; but his thought is always practical and immediate, never looking beneath the surface of things. He reminds us of Peter Bell, for whom “A yellow primrose by a river's brim A yellow primrose was to him, And it was nothing more.” The vastness of the scene London describes so vividly, the unbroken white extending for thousands of miles, means nothing to the man. And yet we realize that his self-confidence is, on the whole, justified, and we cannot dismiss him simply as a fool.
The distinction between the man's thought and the dog's instinct is explicitly made in three places. One passage will serve for example: “The dog did not know anything about thermometers. Possibly in its brain there was no sharp consciousness of a condition of very cold such as was in the man's brain. But the brute had its instinct.” The reiteration of the contrast between man and dog points to the theme. London's Everyman, not civilized in any very significant way, is nevertheless modern, sensual, rational man; and what London is saying is that modern man, in accepting reason as a guide to short-sighted ends, has allowed his primal instincts to atrophy. In exchange for increased authority in dealing with a constantly shrinking range of experience, he has ceased to feel the primitive pulse beat of his own life. His normal world is constricted, London writes, in language which is partly metaphorical, “within certain narrow limits of heat and cold”; and he neither knows nor reflects upon the incredible vastness of things outside that range and outside his control. Confident of his ability to manage within the narrow limits of his world, he does not think beyond to “man's place in the universe.”
The theme, to say all this a little differently, springs from the contrast between our tidy, civilized world and the powerful forces beneath. Modern man reasons his way with false confidence, unaware that he may at any moment break through the shell of his comfortable, rational world into a universe of terrifying dimensions. The man in the story discovers these dimensions and forces, but the moment of illumination London seems to prepare us for never comes. The man dies with only a glimmering of insight.
In the story, breaking through the ice is both a realistic action with serious real consequences and a symbolic action which begins the destruction of the protagonist's confidence in a rationally ordered universe. In a different version of the fable (Crane's “Open Boat,” for example), the protagonist would be plucked from disaster to emerge with an “enlargement of personality.” London's grimmer story implies that man may have gone too far too save himself; and yet, if escape is possible, it may lie in surrendering upon occasion belief in reason and falling back upon the ancient, inarticulate guidance of instinct. The man does not comprehend this, but the reader does when he sees the dog's instincts save it.
A number of motifs occur repeatedly in London's fiction. Two of them, the struggle of man against nature and “love of life,” appear in “To Build a Fire.” Since it is always instructive to see a work of art in a larger context, I should like to comment briefly on two other stories in which these motifs appear and which, together with “To Build a Fire,” comprise an interesting triad.
The first is also called “To Build a Fire,” for London had already used the title for a story he sold to Youth's Companion in 1902. In the earlier story the man has a name, Tom Vincent, but no dog for companion; and he succeeds in building the fire that saves his life. Tom is typical of the triumphant Anglo-Saxons that figure frequently in London's fiction. He is “a strapping young fellow … with faith in himself” who takes pride in “mastering the elements” and who laughs “aloud in sheer strength of life.”
He even imagines that he is stronger than the animals who crawl into hiding in the intense cold, but his confidence is soon shaken. The point London wants to make is simple and straightforward: “In the Klondike, as Tom Vincent found out … a companion is absolutely essential”; and Tom learned his lesson and “limped pitifully” back to camp with an “enlargement of personality,” in Jung's phrase. But the fact that he did survive raises a question about London's thesis. In fact, Tom survived without a companion because “the love of life was strong in him” and would not let him sit down and die. “Love of life” in the story suggests both a tenacious clinging to mere existence and sheer joy in being young and strong; and although the ostensible theme is a practical warning about wilderness travel, a secondary theme celebrates human strength and endurance in opposition to nature.
The phrase “love of life” appealed to London and he used it again as theme and title for a story published in McClure's Magazine in 1905. Two men, this time, are traveling through the perilous northern wilderness in late summer, on their way out with the gold that represents success in civilization. One man, unnamed, sprains his ankle—again the accident that brings ordinary man into direct contact with the dark forces of nature. His partner, Bill, callously deserts him, ironically as events prove, to save his own life. The deserted man, however, staggers and crawls for days. As he goes he sheds the emblems of man, first the useless gold and then the empty rifle and the knife. At the beginning of his journey he shoulders his pack and painfully straightens up “so that he could stand erect as a man should stand”; but the imagery shows his reversion to beast and then to mere living thing. He stalks ptarmigan “as a cat stalks a sparrow,” and he attempts to eat grass “like some bovine animal.” Eventually he reaches the shore of the Arctic Ocean where some members of a scientific expedition find “a strange object on the shore. … They were unable to classify it. … And they saw something that was alive but which could hardly be called a man. It was blind, unconscious. It squirmed along the ground like some monstrous worm.”
Life itself had kept the man alive, “the life in him, unwilling to die,” the fear of dying “that is to life germane and that lies twisted about life's deepest roots.” Life force and body become disassociated: “He was very weary, but it refused to die.” The man survived by jettisoning his human qualities. The point is lightly underscored, for his quondam companion died on the trail, still carrying the sack of gold he would not give up even to save his life.
Whereas in “To Build a Fire” (1902), “love of life” is characteristically human, and specifically characteristic of London's heroic Anglo-Saxon adventurers, “Love of Life” suggests that the naked will to live has little to do with humanity and nothing at all with civilization. “To Build a Fire” (1908) carries the shift of theme a step further. The protagonist does not wish to die, but he lacks the “love of life” that would force him to struggle to the end. We infer that the instinct to cling to life at any cost, like an instinctive awareness of cold or other danger, has decayed in civilization.
The story, however, takes a final twist and ends as tragedy. Denied any significant awareness of his inadequate vision of the universe, the man nevertheless faces up to his own human limitations. The realization that his efforts to stay alive are futile and absurd steels him in “meeting death with dignity,” a response quite impossible to the survivor in “Love of Life,” and he succumbs to a death that is nothing but a “comfortable sleep.”
The three stories are not, I think, random variations upon a theme. Rather they reflect the growth of London's thought and a movement from comic to tragic vision with an accompanying artistic development. The first story sees man and nature in opposition, with man, strong equally in youth and innocence, reaffirming the traditional myth of his dominion over nature. The second story, disillusioned and reflecting London's melancholy pondering of Haeckel and Spencer, places man squarely within a materialistic nature. The third story ambiguously suggests that man has been corrupted from nature and therefore pays occasionally a fearful consequence. Ignorant of his apostasy and unable to see quite where he has gone wrong, man nevertheless is capable of new insights and the tragic vision that both ennobles and conceals his fall from nature. The third story is not better simply because it is better written, for the second story is its equal in style if not, perhaps, in structure, but because it is London's serious, mature treatment of a favorite theme. All of the by now familiar details of his mythic northland gain new vigor from the insight that fuses them into a taut, highly charged, meaningful whole that justly deserves its reputation.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 775
“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.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3768
SOURCE: “Jack London's Twice-Told Tale,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 4, Summer, 1967, pp. 334–41.
[In the following essay, Labor and Hendricks contrast London's two versions of “To Build a Fire,” concluding that the first is “a well-made boys' story; the second version is a classic for all ages.”]
While Jack London's fiction awaits a proper critical assessment, “To Build a Fire,” that “brilliant little sketch whose prose rhythms … are still fresh,” has firmly established itself as a perennial favorite among the world's readers.1 In it London managed to combine those qualities which distinguish his best work: vivid narrative, graphic description of physical action, tension (e.g., human intelligence vs. animal intuition, man's intrepidity vs. cosmic force, vitality vs. death), a poetic modulation of imagery to enhance mood and theme, and—above all—a profound sense of irony. It is therefore hardly surprising that this masterpiece of short fiction is still available in a dozen contemporary anthologies.
What is surprising is that London sold the same title to two magazines. The first sale was made in December, 1901, to The Youth's Companion,2 a Boston weekly whose circulation exceeded a half-million and whose contributors included Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, William Dean Howells, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson. London received fifty dollars for the story. Six years later, after he had become world-famous, Century Magazine paid $400 for “To Build a Fire.” Following publication of the story in August 1908, Century Editor R. W. Gilder discovered that he had paid for, and foisted upon his readers, apparently soiled goods. Understandably indignant, he lost little time in notifying the author of this discovery. London, who had been cruising the South Seas aboard The Snark, sent the following reply:
Sydney, N.S.W., Australia Dec. 22, 1908 Dear Mr. Gilder:—
I have been sick for many weeks now, am just out of the hospital and pretty weak and wabbly, with a mass of correspondence piled up that almost gives me a collapse every time I look at it. Somewhere in that mountain of letters is a bunch of correspondence relating to “To Build a Fire.” I cannot find it, and shall have to go on memory.
A long, long time ago I wrote a story for boys which I sold to the Youth's Companion. It was purely juvenile in treatment; its motif was not only very strong, but very true. Man after man in the Klondike has died alone after getting his feet wet, through failure to build a fire. As years went by, I was worried about the inadequate treatment I had given that motif, and by the fact that I had treated it for boys merely. At last I came to the resolve to take the same motif and handle it for men. I had no access to the boys' version of it, and I wrote it just as though I had never used the motif before. I do not remember anything about the way I handled it for juveniles, but I do know, I am absolutely confident, that beyond the motif itself, there is no similarity of treatment whatever.
I can only say that it never entered my head that there was anything ethically wrong in handling the same motif over again in the way I did, and I can only add that I am of the same opinion now, upon carefully considering the question. Please let me know how you feel about the matter.
The most cursory reading of the two versions of “To Build a Fire” confirms London's defense: despite the similarity of motifs, the stories are radically different. Perhaps the most remarkable thing, in view of the circumstances of composition, is the recurrence of a few similar—and, at times, identical—phrases in both versions. In any case, London's reply would seem to have satisfied Gilder; for the matter was not pursued further.
But we wish to pursue it further here—for several reasons. First, by reprinting the earlier version of “To Build a Fire,”4 unavailable now for more than sixty years, we may relieve the doubts of any scholars who have been puzzled by the story's multiple publication dates. Second, we believe that the first version is significant enough, especially in the light of renewed interest in London,5 to warrant its presentation to SSF readers. Third—and most important—we hope to demonstrate by comparing the two versions, that Jack London was not merely a prolific hack but, contrary to modern critical opinion, an astute craftsman who understood the difference between juvenile fiction and serious literary art. The first “To Build a Fire,” if we will grant the author his donnée, is a well-made boys' story; the second version is a classic for all ages. An appreciation of this distinction should not only enhance London's reputation but also sharpen our own insights into the ontological qualities of the short story as art form—a form whose aesthetic virtues have been too easily ignored by the critics.6
There are a number of interesting features about the first “To Build a Fire.” It was written early in London's career, during a period of financial depression when he was frequently in the depths of despair. Certain autobiographical implications are fairly evident in the story: like its protagonist, London had been a robust “young fellow, big-boned and big-muscled, with faith in himself and in the strength of his head and hands”; also like Tom Vincent, the struggling young writer had found out, “not by precept, but through bitter experience,” that—regardless of one's optimism, vigor, and self-confidence—man cannot travel alone; and London had furthermore, in his extremity, “set to work to save himself [by] heroic measures”—we need only to read his early letters to see how heroic these measures were.7 The “love-of-life” theme, so crucial to Tom Vincent's survival, was equally crucial to Jack London's literary survival. As the Russian scholar Vil Bykov has suggested, for example, it is the “deep belief in man's abilities in the face of overwhelming odds” and the “life-asserting force [of] his writings”—not his socialism—which has made London the most widely read foreign writer in the Soviet Union.8 Ironically, this raw vitality, which many of our own critics find objectionable, has helped to keep London's works in print at home as well as abroad.
Though London may have written the first “To Build a Fire” “for boys merely,” he nevertheless worked his form to perfection. This form, one of the oldest types of short fiction, is the exemplum.9 Because its primary function is moral edification, such structural elements as atmosphere and characterization are subordinated, in the exemplum, to theme; and what E. M. Forster has called the “mystery” of plot is sacrificed for the didactic explicitness of “story.” London adheres closely to the conventions of his form by stating his moral at the outset (“a companion is absolutely essential”) and reemphasizing it at the end (“Never travel alone!”). The narrative action is simple and direct; his “story” is an uncomplicated circle, moving from message through true-to-life illustration back to message. The tale's effectiveness depends upon two major factors: clarity of the statement and vividness of the illustration. Another important, if minor, factor is the attractiveness of his hero; Tom Vincent, notwithstanding his foolishness, is a sympathetic, clean-cut character—an admirable model for young men. The first “To Build a Fire” was, in short, one of the many fictional examples used by the editors of The Youth's Companion to vivify their weekly sermons to America's strenuous young manhood.
The second “To Build a Fire” is, as London himself indicated, an altogether different story. It is, for one thing, considerably longer than the earlier version (7,235 as compared to 2,700 words). Although expansion is of itself no criterion for artistic merit, in this case London obviously used his additional wordage for greater artistic effect, creating a narrative “mystery” and an “atmosphere” lacking in the first version. His awareness of the importance of such elements is revealed in one of his letters to a fellow writer: “Atmosphere stands always for the elimination of the artist, that is to say, the atmosphere is the artist; and when there is no atmosphere and the artist is yet there, it simply means that the machinery is creaking and the reader hears it.”10 Since Wayne Booth has recently explained in his Rhetoric of Fiction that there is really no such thing as “eliminating” the author from the work, perhaps we should paraphrase London's advice as follows: “The effect of certain kinds of fiction—particularly fiction informed by cosmic irony—depends heavily upon the evoking of mood; and mood is most effectively evoked through a skillful manipulation of setting and imagery, rather than through editorial comment by the author. In other words, rather than being ‘told,’ the reader must be made to hear, to see and—above all—to feel.”
Examination of the opening paragraph of the second “To Build a Fire” reveals the devices through which London allows atmosphere to function as commentary:
Day had broken cold and gray, exceedingly cold and gray, when the man turned aside from the main Yukon trail and climbed the high earth-bank, where a dim and little-travelled trail led eastward through the fat spruce timberland. It was a steep bank, and he paused for breath at the top, excusing the act to himself by looking at his watch. It was nine o'clock. There was no sun nor hint of sun, though there was not a cloud in the sky. It was a clear day, and yet there seemed an intangible pall over the face of things, a subtle gloom that made the day dark, and that was due to the absence of sun. This fact did not worry the man. He was used to the lack of sun. It had been days since he had seen the sun, and he knew that a few more days must pass before that cheerful orb, due south, would just peep above the sky line and dip immediately from view.
By varied repetition of a textural motif, London achieves the same kind of hypnotic impact that Hemingway is said to have learned from Gertrude Stein: certain images recur and cluster to produce a mood that is at once somber and sinister (“cold and gray, exceedingly cold and gray … a dim and little-travelled trail … no sun nor hint of sun … intangible pall … a subtle gloom … day dark … absence of sun … lack of the sun … days since he had seen the sun”). The story's dominant symbolism, the polarity of heat (sun-fire-life) and cold (darkness-depression-death), is carefully adumbrated at the outset so that the reader senses the protagonist's imminent doom. We are subtly oppressed by that “intense awareness of human loneliness” that Frank O'Connor has identified with the short story, and we are reminded of that haunting statement from Pascal: “Le silence eternal de ces espaces infinis m'effraie.”11 It is undoubtedly such scenes as this that prompted Maxwell Geismar to remark that “London's typical figure was a voiceless traveler journeying across the ghostly leagues of a dead world.”12
Unlike Tom Vincent, the protagonist of this “To Build a Fire” is nameless. He is the naturalistic version of Everyman: a puny, insignificant mortal confronting the cold mockery of Nature as Antagonist. Yet, though nameless, he is distinguished by certain traits of character: the man is practical, complacent, insensitive, and vain—he must, for example, excuse to himself the impractical human act of pausing for breath; he is unawed by the mysterious other-worldness of his surroundings; caught in this weird Urwelt, he is foolish enough to put his faith in mere clock-time.
What has been hinted in the beginning becomes explicit in the third paragraph, the only place in the story where the author's voice may be detected. The man lacks the one asset that might equalize the odds against him—imagination: “He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances. … Fifty degrees below zero was to him just precisely fifty degrees below zero [actually it is seventy-five below]. That there should be anything more to it than that was a thought that never entered his head.” The scope of his imagination is signified in his one stock comment: “It certainly was cold,” a fatally inept response that recurs with increasing irony as the man's situation deteriorates. It is also in this paragraph that the theme of the story is subtly implanted in the reader's mind: “It [the extreme cold] did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man's frailty in general … and from there on it did not lead him to the conjectural field of immortality and man's place in the universe.” London drops the comment so deftly that it hardly ripples in the reader's consciousness, yet it is this idea precisely that gives the story its final impact: “unaccommodated man” is indeed a frail and pitiable figure when pitted against the awful majesty of cosmic force. London expressed the thought more elaborately in one of his earlier stories:
Nature has many tricks wherewith she convinces man of his finity—the ceaseless flow of the tides, the fury of the storm, the shock of the earthquake, the long roll of heaven's artillery—but the most tremendous, the most stupefying of all, is the passive phase of the White Silence. All movement ceases, the sky clears, the heavens are as brass; the slightest whisper seems sacrilege, and man becomes timid, affrighted at the sound of his own voice. Sole speck of life journeying across the ghostly wastes of a dead world, he trembles at his audacity, realizes that his is a maggot's life, nothing more. Strange thoughts arise unsummoned, and the mystery of all things strives for utterance. And the fear of death, of God, of the universe, comes over him—the hope of the Resurrection and the Life, the yearning for immortality, the vain striving of the imprisoned essence—it is then, if ever, man walks alone with God.13
But the nameless protagonist of “To Build a Fire” is unaware of these deeper implications, as we learn not only from his own behavior but also through the only other animated character in the story, the dog. The inclusion of this ficelle or “reflector” is the masterstroke of London's revised version. By employing the dog as foil, the author has obviated the necessity for further editorial comment. Instead of being told that one needs a companion in the Northland, we are made to see dramatically through his relationship with the animal that the man is a “loner.” Because he lacks imagination, he fails to see, until too late, that a companion—even a dog—might possibly save him in a crisis; more important, he is revealed as a man lacking in essential warmth. There is no place in his cold practical philosophy for affection or for what London called elsewhere “true comradeship.” To this man the dog is only another of “the things” of life, an object to be spoken to with “the sound of whip lashes.” From his relationship to the animal, we may infer a broader relationship—that to mankind. The protagonist is, in other words, a hollow man whose inner coldness correlates with the enveloping outer cold. And there is a grim but poetic justice in his fate.
The dog serves as a foil in the following manner also: his natural wisdom of conduct is juxtaposed against the foolish rationality of his master's behavior. By shifting point of view from man to dog, London provides a subtle counterpointing that enhances both theme and structural tension. For example,
The animal [unlike the man] was depressed by the tremendous cold. It knew [without the convenience of a watch] that it was no time for traveling. … The dog did not know anything about thermometers [which are as useless as watches if one lacks the ability to interpret]. Possibly in its brain there was no sharp consciousness of a condition of very cold such as was in the man's brain [a consciousness vitiated in the latter by stock response]. But the brute had its instinct [a surer gauge than rationality]. It experienced a vague but menacing apprehension [absent in the man, because he is without imagination]. …
And, finally, by using the animal as objective correlative, London has managed to give an extra twist of irony to the conclusion of his story. After the man's last desperate attempt to save himself and after his dying vision of rescue, we shift once more to the dog's point of view:
The brief day drew to a close in a long, slow twilight. There were no signs of a fire to be made, and, besides, never in the dog's experience had it known a man to sit like that in the snow and make no fire. As the twilight drew on, its eager yearning for the fire mastered it, and with a great lifting and shifting of forefeet, it whined softly, then flattened its ears down in anticipation of being chidden by the man. But the man remained silent. Later the dog whined loudly. And still later it crept close to the man and caught the scent of death. This made the animal bristle and back away. A little longer it delayed, howling under the stars that leaped and danced and shone brightly in the cold sky. Then it turned and trotted up the trail in the direction of the camp it knew, where were the other food providers and fire providers.
Through its natural responses the dog conveys the finality of the man's death more forcibly—and more artistically—than any overt statement by the author might do. And in this concluding paragraph all the key elements of London's story—the ironic polarity of life and death, the intransigence of Nature's laws, the cosmic mockery of the White Silence—coalesce to produce a memorable effect. As Frank O'Connor has written, a great story “must have the element of immediacy, the theme must plummet to the bottom of the mind. … It must have a coherent action. When the curtain falls everything must be changed. An iron bar must have been bent and been seen to be bent.”14 Surely, with the firm grasp of the master craftsman, London has “bent his bar” in this concluding scene; and we must applaud his strength.
For more than a half-century now, men—as well as boys—have finished reading “To Build a Fire” with the same profound satisfaction—and a shiver of relief to be among the “food providers and fire providers.” In view of the story's durability, it should be evident that Jack London was thoroughly sensitive to the meaning of the art of short fiction. He recognized moreover, as comparison of the two versions of “To Build a Fire” reveals, the intricate demands of the genre to which he committed most of his literary talent; and he knew the difference between juvenilia and adult fiction. Our critics would do well to exercise an equally fine discrimination in taking his measure as an artist.
The quotation is from Maxwell Geismar, Rebels and Ancestors (Boston, 1953), p. 189. According to our count, “To Build a Fire” has been reprinted in forty-nine anthologies since its publication in 1908; see Jack London: A Bibliography, Hensley C. Woodbridge, John London, and George H. Tweney, eds. (Georgetown, Calif., 1966), pp. 143–149, 235–237. Despite its popularity, almost no serious critical attention has been given the story; a noteworthy exception is the commentary by Franklin Walker in Jack London and the Klondike (San Marino, Calif., 1966), pp. 254–260.
During his life London kept record books of his magazine sales in which he listed the title of the story or essay, the magazines to which the item was submitted, the date (if and when it was accepted), and the fee he received for it. Volumes I and II of the magazine sales record (1898 to early 1903) are now on file at the Utah State University Library; Vols. iii and iv (1903 until his death) are in the Huntington Library. See King Hendricks, Jack London: Master Craftsman of the Short Story (Logan, 1966), pp. 3–9. This version of “To Build a Fire” was one of the few stories that was sold the first time it was submitted.
Letters from Jack London, King Hendricks and Irving Shepard, eds. (New York, 1965), pp. 273–274. London had been suffering from a combination of tropical diseases, including a strange skin disorder which the doctors could neither diagnose nor cure; the affliction, caused as he later discovered by over-exposure to ultra-violet rays, cleared up after he returned home—but his health was never again as good as before his Snark voyage.
For the complete text of the Youth's Companion version of “To Build a Fire,” see appendix to this article.
In addition to the recent publication of London's letters and the London bibliography (perhaps the most extensive ever published on the works by and about an American author), five book-length studies of London's life, including two by Russian scholars, have been issued during the past six years. Also during this period the Bodley Head Press has published four volumes of London's works, under the editorship of Arthur Calder-Marshall, as a part of its series of modern classics; and Harper & Row has included Great Short Works of Jack London in its new Perennial Classics.
See the perceptive essay by Thomas A. Gullason, “The Short Story: An Underrated Art,” SSF, ii (Fall 1964), 13–31. We believe that the neglect of London's fiction is due, in part, to the more general critical neglect of the short story itself.
See, for example, his correspondence with his first great love, Mabel Applegarth, in the Letters, pp. 3–19 passim. Also see his testimony in Jack London's Tales of Adventure, Irving Shepard, ed. (Garden City, 1956), pp. 22–27, 35–39, 49–52.
“Jack London in the Soviet Union,” The Book Club of California Quarterly News Letter, xxiv (Summer 1959), 55.
See Margaret Schlauch, “English Short Fiction in the 15th and 16th Centuries.” SSF, iii (Summer 1966), 399–402; and Henry Seidel Canby, A Study of the Short Story (New York, 1913), pp. 9–10, 22–26. Canby indicates that the exemplum, best known through Chaucer, was also a popular form for such later writers as Addison and Steele—and Dr. Johnson.
To Cloudesley Johns, June 16, 1900, from the Letters, p. 108. Although London wrote few essays on the art of fiction, his letters to Johns reveal the essence of his theory.
“The eternal silence of those infinite spaces terrifies me.” See Frank O'Connor, The Lonely Voice (Cleveland, 1965), p. 19.
Rebels and Ancestors, p. 144.
“The White Silence,” from The Son of the Wolf (Boston, 1900), p. 7.
The Lonely Voice, p. 216.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 173
The Son of the Wolf: Tales of the Far North 1900
The God of His Fathers, and Other Stories 1901
Children of the Frost 1902
The Faith of Men, and Other Stories 1904
Moon-Face, and Other Stories 1906
Love of Life, and Other Stories 1907
Lost Face 1910
South Sea Tales 1911
When God Laughs, and Other Stories 1911
The House of Pride, and Other Tales of Hawaii 1912
Smoke Bellew 1912
A Son of the Sun 1912
The Night-Born 1913
The Strength of the Strong 1914
The Scarlet Plague 1915
The Turtles of Tasman 1916
The Red One 1918
On the Makaloa Mat 1919
Dutch Courage, and Other Stories 1922
A Daughter of the Snows (novel) 1902
The Call of the Wild (novel) 1903
The People of the Abyss (essay) 1903
The Sea-Wolf (novel) 1904
War of the Classes (essays) 1905
White Fang (novel) 1906
Before Adam (novel) 1907
The Road (essays) 1907
The Iron Heel (novel) 1908
Martin Eden (novel) 1909
Revolution, and Other Essays (essays) 1910
The Cruise of the “Snark” (essays) 1911
John Barleycorn (novel) 1913
The Valley of the Moon (novel) 1913
The Mutiny of the “Elsinore” (novel) 1914
The Little Lady of the Big House (novel) 1916
Letters from Jack London (letters) 1965
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4464
SOURCE: “Between Fire and Ice: A Theme in Jack London and Horacio Quiroga,” in Symposium, Vol. XXIV, No. 2, Spring, 1970, pp. 17–26.
[In the following essay, Chapman finds parallels between London's “To Build a Fire” and Horacio Quiroga's “La insolación.”]
Some say the world will end in fire, Some say in ice.
When the strong nations assume that man's only true work is to break through frontiers, they also assume that the courage it takes is the only one that validates existence. Because nature seems to taunt us with our limitations, she must be beaten, and no one but a coward would accept without a struggle the physical restrictions of his planet. Action is the only right response, and we often must go into it alone. The “ultimate frontier” of space now promising an infinite conquest, Man the Conqueror is a role that as far as one can see will endure for all time. In this projection, man identifies his body with all nature, and therefore takes his body as his enemy. Its refusal to obey his commands, in other ages accepted with degrees of patience, now chafes him with greater cruelty than ever, because he thinks he has sharper standards. We long for the efficiency of metals, and envy computers. Among the somatic confinements none is more galling than the thermal boundaries, and no injustice is older than the rule of 98.6 degrees, chaining us to the shoals of prehistoric seas. Still, artificial limbs, organs, and atmospheres will see us through, despite temporary setbacks.
So universal are these beliefs within certain cultures that it may come as a surprise to learn of some dissent there, or to see how far we have all come in six decades. This much granted, it is easier to accept the fact that the literary imagination can cast doubts on man's invincibility, in stories whose theme is the downfall of a man who, exposed to the wilderness, fatally overlooks his body's limitations. In the third paragraph of his classic story “To Build a Fire,” Jack London makes this statement about his protagonist:
Fifty degrees below zero meant eighty-odd degrees of frost. Such fact impressed him as being cold and uncomfortable, and that was all. It did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man's frailty in general, able only to live within certain narrow limits of heat and cold; and from there on it did not lead him to the conjectural field of immortality and man's place in the universe.
This is, of course, the germ of the catastrophe. To be careless about cold is mortal folly. But in stating the man's lack of philosophical breadth London implies his own possession of it, and so raises the possibility of another story in which disregard of heat would be equally calamitous. Such a story was in fact written independently, in another part of the Western hemisphere. This is “La insolación,” by the Uruguayan Horacio Quiroga—a story naturally less known in the United States but as highly regarded in Hispano-America as “To Build a Fire” in Anglo-America.
In artistically achieving their sense of man's limitations, these two storytellers, geographically foreign to one another, often use expressions that are impressively similar. By tracing these I hope to bring common features into relief and so approach a thematic archetype. The parallelism can begin with the single plot line of “To Build a Fire” and an important narrative thread of “La insolación.” In the former, as two generations of readers know, an inexperienced prospector finds himself walking along a Yukon trail during a severe cold snap, gets close to his base camp, before he can reach it falls into a hidden spring, wets his feet and legs, is unable to start and maintain a fire to thaw himself out, and freezes to death. In Quiroga's story, after a day and a half of heat, a cotton planter in the Chaco region starts out on foot in the blaze of a summer day, with a replacement part for a cultivator, realizes too late that he is being overcome, and, within sight of his house, falls dead of sunstroke. Since it is simply one of the possibilities of outdoor fiction, the basic situation would not of itself render juxtaposition particularly meaningful. However, what gives London's and Quiroga's stories an unusual affinity is that the death journey is witnessed by dogs—a single one in “To Build a Fire” and a group of five in “La insolación.” Events and techniques take shape as either analogues or Hegelian opposites.
The similarity of the writers' approach is never more evident than in the technical features, starting with the opening scenes. In both stories an impression of vastness leaps up from details. Whether Yukon Valley or Chaco, a great plain stretches out, not merely featureless but emphasized by repeated dark strokes. “North and south, as far as his eye could see, it was unbroken white, save for a dark hairline that curved and twisted from around the spruce-covered island to the south, and that curved and twisted away into the north, where it disappeared behind another spruce-covered island.” “Veía la monótona llanura del Chaco, con sus alternativas de campo y monte, monte y campo, sin más color que el crema del pasto y el negro del monte.” On this stage, overarched by the big American sky, the human figures are so dwarfed that their fall is only a flutter. And the sky is the ambient of the sun, whose presence or absence determines the outcome. There is too little of it, being below the horizon, in the Klondike story, and too much of it in that of the Chaco. In either case, since the action begins in the morning, eyes are fixed on that spot where the sun could be expected to rise; and in that windless expectation the landscape lies watchful. Later the man's feet cross a horrid desert—snow here, dusty soil there. Through this snakes an evil river bed, whose bubbling snow-traps or bitter dry salts bring the man's doom.
In the main action the authors skillfully link sensation to dramatic tension. It is as though the mind's eye were fixed on a thermometer which as its level rises or falls toward outer limits points to danger. The author can at will regulate fluctuations of heat or cold while imaginatively undergoing the ups and downs of terror. From the comparative comfort of the opening passages, awareness of the uncanny trap slowly emerges—“the strangeness and weirdness of it all.” The cold of outer space presents itself in signs such as the spittle crackling and the cheeks growing numb; or the sun breaks over the horizon to melt sky and blast earth until an apparition of death, like a flicker of heat lightning, appears. Inch by inch a full consciousness of peril comes closer. When it has arrived, London and Quiroga relax pressures. In the Klondike the man builds his first fire, warms himself, and has lunch; in the Chaco night falls, cooling though rife with portents. Then tension grows again to a second and higher crest: the plunge into deadly water and the attempts to make a second fire; or the new day of fire, leading to a second apparition. This is followed by a loosening of anxiety so rapid as to suggest a false climax, too deliberate, perhaps, for subtlety, but effective nevertheless. The second fire is “snapping and crackling and promising life with every dancing flame”; or death seizes a substitute when the horse falls over, and our minds are easy once more. But, quickly now, the third and last ordeal sets in, with the realization that a man's body is irretrievably delivered to destruction. The bitter chill, and the flaming sun, exert their full power as soon as the third sign is given, indicating the true climax: the loss of the third fire, and the third phantom of death. The agony is long in London's story, short in Quiroga's, but in each a naturalistic progression of symptoms, both mental and somatic, records the havoc. Nothing remains but a quick exit of survivors.
Parallelism extends beyond action and into characterization, where the units—victim and observer—are similarly conceived, apart and with respect to one another. The man, to begin with, is Anglo-Saxon. London has no need to say so explicitly, because of his protagonist's appearance and language. This rough figure could only be one of thousands of United States citizens, or less probably Canadians, who rushed to the Klondike in the summer and fall of 1897, and he is so typical that he needs no name. Quiroga, for his part, uses the name Míster Jones, no less indistinctive in South America than here. He is almost certainly British by birth or parentage, given the abundance of Englishmen in the River Plate Area. Also I feel the shadow of that saying about “Mad dogs and Englishmen. …” The point is, in both stories, that he is an intruder, an exploiter of the wilderness. He is also solitary, impatient, and self-indulgent, besides fatally convinced that he can “do it for himself.”
The conception has ethnic overtones, especially if that means a contrast of the human species with others, as well as divergencies within humankind; and it is to some extent based on culture variations. Mr. Jones's mores are not native to the place where he lives, and London's man is a chechaquo, “a newcomer in the land.” Mr. Jones is also something of a literary stereotype, as his counterparts, like him stolidly drinking whiskey, are widely scattered in Spanish-American fiction. All that he lacks of the pattern is mention of blue eyes, and a pipe between his teeth. Nevertheless, putting him beside London's protagonist is enough to broaden the conception and focus on these men's behavior. What they want, in brief, is to dominate the land and force it to produce for them—cotton, gold. They want to possess, and think only of things. Mr. Jones apparently has no pleasure beyond getting drunk in his room; the Klondiker's thoughts are on “those biscuits, each cut open and sopped in bacon grease, and each enclosing a generous slice of fried bacon.”
They are not without intelligence, but their mentality is deficient. As true Anglo-Saxons they are pragmatic, bent on reaching a goal they believe attainable by simple method, but the goal is at once too close and too distant: too close because they cannot see themselves in relation to the universe, and too distant because they overlook the present threat. In either case they refuse to consider themselves human and consequently fragile. They are also hard-headed. “Con toda su lógica nacional” Mr. Jones berates the peon who has overstrained the horse, because orders are orders. The Klondiker thinks in terms of numbers as numbers: degrees of frost, and elapsed time; Mr. Jones in terms of crop schedules, nuts and bolts. All that matters is “getting there.” Because they have no other faith, they scorn those who have adapted to the environment, the natives of the Chaco, who would kill a horse rather than themselves; or the sourdoughs who know better than to go out in a cold snap without a trail mate. What drives these men is the insatiable blind will of which Schopenhauer and Nietzsche write, and as described in the voluntaristic philosophy they allow themselves to be deceived by their intellect.
By placing dogs in the situation, London and Quiroga make it more complex and significant, because the animals are at the same time foil and witness. Man's companion for thousands of years, the dog has been for perhaps all that time an enigmatic reminder of man's ties to the beast. Domesticated, thus partly humanized, the dog trotting at our heels shares hunger, fatigue, and the sexual urge. And yet while the abominations he practices reassure us of our climb from barbarism, we sometimes envy his closeness to earth, and impute to him powers lost by the human race in the evolutionary shuffle, such as weird intuitions and an uncorrupted body. In moments of envy, who has never read mockery in the faithful brown eyes, or thought of Rover as a devil in fur? Perhaps there is also a taint of guilt toward what we have enslaved.
In both the stories the millennial wisdom of the dog heightens, by contrast, the madness of man. It is not so much that the dog has a better body as that when the inborn voice warns him not to abuse it, he obeys. “The animal was depressed by the tremendous cold. It knew that it was not time for travelling. Its instinct told it a truer tale than was told to the man by the man's judgment.” “Los perros lo acompañaron, pero se detuvieron a la sombra del primer algarrobo: hacía demasiado calor.” The beautiful, compact simplicity of this knowledge makes the opaque, warped drive of the man the more monstrous.
Having unclouded vision, the dog serves well as an observer. His testimony has the impact of nearly pure impression—a tale not told by an idiot, even in a Faulknerian sense, but by a truth-telling primitive. If dogs could only talk, we feel, from their mouths would issue honesty, and the emperor would be seen naked. Quiroga's dogs do, in fact, talk to one another, but their discourse is carefully held to the verbalization of low-level perception. For London's solitary dog, the omniscient author's words are required, to give account of rude psychological events.
As far as the men are concerned, the canine watcher is mute; from this circumstance flows dramatic irony. Possessing the potentially lifesaving insight, the dog would be powerless to utter an intelligible warning even if he wanted to (and London's dog “made no effort to communicate its apprehension to the man” because it was not his friend). It is a device that solves a narrative problem as no authorial presence could, since as we read with mounting horror our impulse to shout across the absurd gulf of print reduces us to an inarticulate and therefore somewhat animal impotence, in which it is natural to empathize with a dog. More overtly conceived in the shape of a Greek tragedy, “La insolación” elaborates the dog-witness into a chorus, which provides a running commentary, often in unison, and occasionally pierced by Euripidean howls.
There are other differences between London's dogs and Quiroga's, important but with no substantial effect on the present theme. London's is “a big native husky, the proper wolf dog, gray-coated and without any visible or temperamental difference from its brother the wild wolf.” Quiroga's are fox terriers, and while he describes them very little the difference in breed is obvious. The contrast increases our understanding of both London's concern with the survival mechanism of the extraordinary individual and Quiroga's interest in societal relationships. And since the terriers are not native, only precariously adapted to the Chaco, they have more at stake in the death of their master than the wolf dog does. Their relative helplessness makes a bond with the peons who toil in the background.
Not alone by kind but also by role the dog differs from one story to the other. In London's it is not the dog's point of view but the man's that predominates, while in Quiroga's it is the other way around. Narrowed still further, the standpoint in “La insolación” is that of one dog, the puppy ironically named Old; and the theme is the high price of education as, ingenuous at first but instructed piecemeal by his elders, the puppy learns two lessons essential to dogs: namely, that their second sight perceives death, and that to lose a master, even a careless one, is bad. Thus Old is initiated and ejected from infancy. The fact that London had already treated the canine Bildungsroman, in The Call of the Wild and White Fang, is an overtone in “To Build a Fire,” however.
When one steps back from the stories to consider their relation to the life and times of their authors, one encounters a number of coincidences which while not obliterating deep disparities remain provocative of further thought. There is, for instance, the matter of chronology. “To Build a Fire” first appeared in Century magazine in August, 1908; “La insolación” in the Buenos Aires magazine Caras y Caretas for March 7, 1908. From information given by Franklin Walker in Jack London and the Klondike (San Marino, 1966), I am aware that London first used the title in 1902, kept it alive in his workbook, and attached it to the present final version, the first in which the dog-spectator is included, on its completion in May, 1907. But while such data are lacking for the process of “La insolación,” it is known that only in 1906 did Quiroga start to make literary capital of his 1904–05 stay in the Chaco; and given the usual lead time for magazine publication, the story may well have been finished at about the same time London was finishing his at Pearl Harbor. In the middle of 1907 London was thirty-one, Quiroga twenty-eight.
The middle of this century's first decade furnished men of London's and Quiroga's sensitivity with many examples of how Western man, particularly the Nordic and the Anglo-Saxon, was attempting to force the limits of his physical world—and taking dogs with him, many times. In 1906 the Norwegian Roald Amundsen navigated the long-sought Northwest Passage; and in 1907, while Amundsen was still being heaped with honors in Europe and America, a rush to be first at the North Pole became feverish. There were Scottish and Anglo-American expeditions; men like Bartlett, Bruce, Harrison, Kinnear, and Peary were the leaders. At the other tip of the globe, the British Antarctic expedition began its operations in 1907, and Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton took up his post as leader at the beginning of 1908. These were names in the daily news dispatches, and the world speculated on the breed of men that would voluntarily exchange comfort for the rigors of a wild at the edge of human endurance. Kipling had already popularized the idea that they did it to open a white man's exploitative empire.1
To our two American writers an understanding of the frontiersmen came at once, to be developed by their imagination, because of their cravings. London was stocky and blue-eyed and born in San Francisco, California; Horacio Quiroga was slight and dark-eyed and born in Salto, Uruguay; but they had in common a demonic restlessness that drove them in a constant attempt to find themselves. Writing seemed the only way of survival, and for this they studied the craft. They tried other livelihoods, but their business ventures failed. London earned more and lost more, but this is only a matter of degree. They could not or would not provide themselves with that kind of security. They longed to fulfill themselves sexually; they went after women and fell in love terrifyingly, but there was difficulty, and the marriages broke. Part of the trouble was their absurd dream of taking a mate away, out of a sickening civilization, into a wilderness home. London had a fantasy of a hearthside in the Valley of the Moon, Quiroga of a cottage in San Ignacio; but neither attained the domestic bliss. It would have been hard for any woman to share—even if she had understood—these writers' fascination with the wild. Savage nature had made them writers; they had been galvanized by their first encounter with it, London in 1897 on the Klondike, Quiroga in 1903 on the Paraná. Thence had sprung their first good writing because sight of cataclysmic outer forces had made them understand, fear, and placate their inner energies, identifying the body with the rest of nature. From then on each had a measure by which to test the work of his imagination. Quiroga went back to Misiones Province and lived on the frontier when he could; London returned to the Klondike only in memory; but in either case it was in response to an obsession. And it never was a matter of mere contemplation but rather a harsh engagement of the body—hands, legs, eyes—at grips with the physical world. Quiroga, like London, was one to manipulate things. He built the bungalow with his own hands, and raised his own food, just as London sailed a boat or built a cabin or raised cattle. They were keen in sports, like hunting and cycling, in which they could drive the body to obey the will. Therefore they easily accepted the Darwinian idea of survival, by which success or failure of the body was a valid criterion, perhaps the only one. And when each man came to a point when his body no longer supported the wild race of vitality, he put an end to life. They both died from self-administered doses of chemical compounds—London by morphine in 1917, Quiroga by cyanide in 1937. There is some doubt as to whether London's act was conscious suicide, none as to Quiroga's.
A final comparison of motives would have to wait at least for a thoroughly documented biography of Quiroga, which we do not yet have; but I believe there is already evidence to suggest that their behavior was conditioned by another coincidence: the fact that both were deprived of blood fathers early in life. London never knew who his real father was, despite the trouble he took to find out, and his mild stepfather was not an adequate substitute. Quiroga's father was accidentally killed when the boy was a year old, and a stepfather, whom he liked, shot himself when the boy was thirteen. In this way an almost classic psychological pattern is established: the fatherless boy raised by a mother who is courageous, strong, and capable. He is thereafter ambivalent toward women, and eternally strives to recover the father in order to round out his own personality. In this quest masculinity is the goal, mastery of the physical world, the means.
For these reasons I believe that the two stories here joined hold key positions in the life and thought of their authors, arising out of deep, perennial crisis. The Anglo-Saxon intruder is a vital part of Quiroga and London; he embodies the pragmatic, extroverted, outward-directed will, necessary for the continuance of the crippled personality within a culture where domination of the environment is a received value. But both feared that the striving was unnatural, that the intruder would be expelled like a foreign body from healthy tissue. The soma of author and protagonist is hostile, leagued with the heat-cold barriers of the cosmos. At his side the dog, half human and half animal, domesticated but still feral, becomes a witness, aloof but at least affording the boon of a recording consciousness.
It is hardly necessary to add that London and Quiroga did not always have this vision, although Quiroga departed remarkably little from it. London wrote a great deal of fiction in which the striving stranger triumphs in the wilderness, sometimes because his body is strong enough to guard the spark of lie, as in “Love of Life” or one dire episode of Burning Daylight, but more often because he has imagination, meaning foresight and a grasp of relativity with the universe. Then he adapts and lives, rewarded with material gain or dignity. But in Quiroga, if the individual has imagination—which for him would signify intuition and empathy with all natural life forms—the best he can hope for is an animal-like existence, as in the story “Los mensú,” a modus vivendi in which dignity has no part. Quiroga is skeptical about man's intrusion of science, technology, and commerce into the wild. When meddled with, nature strikes back, even against the comparatively innocent. She grinds him with fevers and smothers him with leaves, as in “Gloria tropical” (whose title is ironically anti-romantic). In Quiroga's stories there are no Elam Harnishes, nor Wolf Larsens; but neither are there any Bucks or, particularly, White Fangs, and Quiroga would never be accused of “nature faking” as London was by Theodore Roosevelt, since Quiroga experienced no need, while reacting against the white man's forcible entries, to make nature out any better than it was, that is, a Darwinian battleground, cruel but magnificent in the fulfillment of its savage law. Quiroga's favorite animal is not the dog, masculine and tainted, but Anaconda, the giant female boa constrictor, daughter of the jungles, violent and murderous when necessary, but a primeval mother, who before being shot by a man has perpetuated her species by laying her eggs in the rotting corpse of another man. When man dies, he leaves only a temporary disarray, while plants and animals take care of their species, rounding out the eternal cycle.
But at the moment when “La insolación” and “To Build a Fire” were finished, the beliefs of Quiroga and London coincided to a noteworthy degree. Then they keenly felt themselves participants in the huge American drama, where the sons and grandsons of Europe flung themselves against the last virgin lands, not with the uncontemplative vigor of the first white settlers nor with the soft backward glances of the later republics, but with the desperation of men who, alienated from the dying villages and coagulating cities, went alone into the wilderness, to face another rejection and death. Mr. Jones and the Klondiker thought they could break through and win, but they were trapped and crushed between fire and ice.2
Kipling has often been linked with London and Quiroga separately, most ostensibly because of his Jungle Books, which created a worldwide sanction for animals in serious fiction. The Chilean critic Ernesto Montenegro went a step further in an article for the New York Times Book Review for October 25, 1925, joining all three writers. It is a stimulating trio. Still, Montenegro's suggestion that Quiroga might be imagined as “a literary descendant” of both the others could best apply to the later Quiroga, because in 1907 it is questionable whether he was acquainted with either Kipling or London.
In “Los fabricantes de carbón” Quiroga was later to resume the pattern of thermal boundaries, now adding the lower dimension we found in London. Quiroga expresses the heat element in two forms, a scientifically superheated charcoal burner, and a little girl's raging fever; the cold element is a record-breaking frost in Misiones. The three phenomena are simultaneous. The furnace goes out of control and burns up; the frost kills vegetation, a disaster; but the girl recovers. On a rare optimistic note Quiroga makes us see, as the father kisses his daughter, the exquisite, irreplaceable beauty of that temperate warmth which is the attribute of the healthy human body and love.
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SOURCE: “Jack London's ‘To Build a Fire’: Epistemology and the White Wilderness,” in Western American Literature, Vol. 5, No. 4, Winter, 1971, pp. 287–89.
[In the following essay, Bowen delineates some critical misconceptions associated with “To Build a Fire.”]
Common misconception has it that the dog's survival in “To Build a Fire” metaphorically demonstrates London's belief that man should, upon occasion, rely on his intuitive truths rather than follow his rational thought processes.1 The story is not all that simple, for London, even with his reverence for the canine, would not advocate a total giving over to primordial urges under any circumstances. Indeed, he knew that a regression of this kind would never lead to the Nietzschean superman he so often portrays in his most dynamic characters. Moreover, to accept an overly simplified exegesis denies London at his artistically complex best. For should London endorse such an epistemological position, he would necessarily have to create two equally endowed representatives, confronting a common phenomenological concern. This London does not do; in fact, he devotes the entire third paragraph of his story to an assessment of the chechaquo's rational limitations. Although a somewhat observant man, he is a man who does not penetrate beyond the obvious. And, as London emphasizes, he does not possess the ability to connect isolated phenomena, an essential act for valid inference:
The trouble with him was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances. Fifty degrees below zero meant eighty-odd degrees of frost. Such fact impressed him as being cold and uncomfortable, and that was all. It did not lead him to meditate upon his fraility in general, able only to live within certain narrow limits of heat and cold; and from there on it did not lead him to the conjectural field of immortality and man's place in the universe. Fifty degrees below zero stood for a bite of frost that hurt and that must be guarded against by the use of mittens, ear flaps, warm mocassins, and thick socks. Fifty degrees below zero was to him just precisely fifty degrees below zero. That there should be anything more to it than that was a thought that never entered his head.2
Moreover, he is a man who does not think a great deal. For example, right before lunch, London establishes this condition in terms which leave nothing to doubt: “He was not much given to thinking, and just then particularly he had nothing to think about save that he would eat lunch at the forks and that at six o'clock he would be in camp with the boys.” (129) This mental deficiency is coupled with and most likely responsible for the traveller's forgetfulness. Not only does he forget the minor detail of starting a lunch fire in order to thaw out the “ice muzzle” which formed across his mouth so that he may eat his biscuits, he forgets to build his life-preserving fire out in the open:
It was his own fault, or, rather, his mistake. He should not have built the fire under the spruce tree. He should have built it in the open. But it had been easier to pull the twigs from the brush and drop them directly on the fire … High up in the tree one bough capsized its load of snow. This fell on the boughs beneath, capsizing them. This process continued, spreading out and involving the whole tree. It grew like an avalanche, and it descended without warning upon the man and the fire, and the fire was blotted out! Where it had burned was a mantle of fresh and disordered snow.
What we have with the traveller, then—and there is really no kind way to put it—is a man who is not mentally quick at all, let alone an adequate adversary for the keenly instinctual dog.
That he is not a worthy opponent for the dog, however, is not to suggest that man qua man should surrender his rational persuasions to his emotional tendencies. To see the story in this way misses the subtle irony of “To Build a Fire.” Indeed, rather than signaling a victory for strong instinct over weak reason, London offers a third alternative as a model for human survival: the old-timer from Sulphur Creek.
Ironically, the traveller believes at one time during his journey that he has successfully gone against the old-timer's advice and has survived his solo journey through the white wilderness:
He remembered the advice of the old-timer on Sulphur Creek; and smiled. The old-timer had been very serious in laying down the law that no man must travel alone in the Klondike after fifty below. Well, here he was; he had had the accident; he was alone; and he had saved himself. Those old-timers were rather womanish, some of them, he thought. All a man had to do was to keep his head, and he was alright. Any man who was a man could travel alone. But it was surprising, the rapidity with which his cheeks and nose were freezing. And he had not thought his fingers could go lifeless in so short a time.
The tone and nature of this passage, however, do not reach their full ironic impact until right before the traveller slips into his dead sleep. At the end of his life he recognizes the validity of the old sourdough's position: “You were right, old hoss; you were right,' the man mumbled to the old-timer from Sulphur Creek.” (146) And, indeed, the “old hoss” was right; his survival over many harsh winters in the frozen North attests to the fact that he did not violate the unwritten code of the wilderness, and, significantly, to the womanish, intuitive portion of his nature. Unlike the short-sighted and rationally limited traveller, he would not have walked without a companion, and he most certainly would have built a fire in the correct way.
What London seems to be suggesting, then, in “To Build a Fire,” is not any kind of animalistic return for man to a presymbolic state of existence in order to survive; on the contrary, he seems to strongly imply that animals survive through instinct; men of limited mental capacity fail; and that human beings who exercise good judgment, tempered with emotional insights are the human beings who win out over a hostile environment.
See, for example, Clell Peterson. “The Theme of Jack London's ‘To Build a Fire.’” ABC, XVII (November, 1966), 15–18. “London's grimer story implies that man may have gone too far to save himself; and, yet, if escape is possible it may lie in surrendering upon occasion belief in reason and falling back upon the ancient, inarticulate guidance of instinct. The man does not comprehend this, but the reader does when he sees the dog's instincts save it.” (17)
Jack London, The Sun-Dog Trail and Other Stories (New York, 1951), pp. 126–127. Subsequent references will appear in parentheses following quotations.
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Sherman, Joan R. Jack London: A Reference Guide. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1977, 323 p.
Primary and annotated secondary bibliography.
Tavernier-Courbin, Jacqueline. Critical Essays on Jack London. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1983, 298 p.
Includes an updated bibliography of secondary works on London.
McClintock, James I. “Alaskan Nightmare and Artistic Success: 1898–1908.” In Jack London's Strong Truths, pp. 116–19. East Lansing, Mich.: Michigan State University Press, 1997.
Regards “To Build a Fire” as London's “most mature expression of his pessimism.”
Additional coverage of London's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 13; Authors in the News, Vol. 2; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 2; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vols. 4, 13; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1865–1917; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 89–92, 110, 119, 126; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 25, 73, 85; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 8, 12, 78, 212; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors, Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Exploring Short Stories; Junior DISCovering Authors; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 3; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Novels for Students, Vol. 8; Reference Guide to American Literature; Reference Guide to Short Fiction; St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers;St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 7; Something about the Author, Vol. 18; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vols. 9, 15, 39; Twentieth-Century Western Writers, Vol. 2; and World Literature Criticism.
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SOURCE: “‘To Build a Fire’: Physical Fiction and Metaphysical Critics,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 15, 1978, pp. 19–24.
[In the following essay, May questions the critical perceptions of “To Build a Fire” as a metaphysical fiction.]
Ten years ago Earle Labor and King Hendricks, perhaps the most avid partisans of Jack London, reproved critics for not giving London's fiction its “proper critical assessment” and urged that a “fine discrimination,” equal to London's own, be exercised in taking his measure as an artist.1 Labor's new book in the Twayne American Author Series and a recent Modern Fiction Studies special issue devoted to London may then be seen as steps toward reevaluating and rescuing a writer who has been considered too minor to merit serious attention. I have no major contribution to make toward this reassessment of London's fiction, but I do wish to express some reservations about the “discrimination” made in the last ten years in regard to London's best-known piece of short fiction, which Labor calls “a masterpiece” and says is one of the most widely anthologized works ever written by an American author.2
A common method of critics who wish to rescue a work that has not been highly valued is to subject it to a critical category that is highly valued. If the work “fits,” even in the coarsest fashion, with physiognomy effaced and limbs lopped off, it is declared to have value because the category does. In especially difficult cases, not only must the work be reduced to an indistinguishable torso, but the Procrustean bed itself must be altered. Because the categorical bed of “naturalism” on which London has previously been laid seems to have laid him permanently to rest, more fashionable categories have been applied to disinter him. However, in applying universal terms to “To Build a Fire,” the critics have so ignored Wittgenstein's exhortation to “look and see” that they have not only failed to tell us anything helpful about the story, they have applied the terms so uncritically that the categories themselves are in danger of losing their heuristic value in telling us anything helpful about literature at all. Three such categories that have been applied to London's story to claim it is both thematically and structurally more significant than heretofore realized are: the short story as a generic form, the archetypal theme of rebirth, and the structure and theme of classical tragedy.
Labor and Hendricks' argument that “To Build a Fire” is a “masterpiece of short fiction” is based primarily on a comparison of the story with an earlier juvenile version by the same name. The superiority of the adult story over the juvenile one is a result of three basic artistic improvements. First of all, London adds “atmosphere” to adumbrate the story's dominant symbolism of “the polarity of heat (sun-fire-life) and cold (darkness-depression-death).” Consequently, we are “subtly oppressed by that ‘intense awareness of human loneliness’ that Frank O'Connor has identified with the short story.” Secondly, the protagonist in the juvenile story, a likeable and sympathetically identifiable young man named Tom Vincent has been changed to a nameless “naturalistic version of Everyman,” representative of “unaccommodated man … pitted against the awful majesty of cosmic forces.” Finally, the “masterstroke” of the adult version is the addition of the dog as a ficelle, an addition that not only makes us see dramatically by the man's harsh treatment of the animal that the protagonist is a “hollow man whose inner coldness correlates with the enveloping outer cold,” but that also creates by “subtle counterpointing” the structural and thematic tension between the dog's “natural wisdom” and the man's “foolish rationality.”3
The archetypal rebirth category applied to the story by Clell T. Peterson can be summarized quickly. The man's journey is that well-known symbolic movement into the unknown, first downward toward death and then upward toward a more enriched life; his physical and spiritual survival depends on his growing awareness of the metaphysical significance of his experience. Built on a contrast between the inadequacy of reason and the superiority of primal instincts, the story “implies that man may have gone too far to save himself; and, yet, if escape is possible it may lie in surrendering upon occasion belief in reason and falling back upon the ancient, inarticulate guidance of instinct. The man does not comprehend this, but the reader does when he sees the dog's instincts save it.”4
The claim that “To Build a Fire” is a tragedy in the Aristotelian sense has been made both by James M. Mellard and by Earle Labor in his recent book-length study of London. Mellard uses Clyde Kluckhohn's definition of ritual—“a symbolic dramatization of the fundamental needs of society, whether economic, biological, social, or sexual”—to suggest that the story is primarily concerned with just such an “obsessive repetitive activity,” and thus it takes on the “shape of tragic drama.” He also uses Francis Fergusson's borrowing of the Moscow Art Theater's concept of the infinitive phrase to sum up the action of a dramatic plot. The action of “to build a fire” is similar to the action of “to find the culprit” in Oedipus. Mellard also urges that we see the traditional tragic structure in the three fire-building scenes until the final effort which results in the “severest reversal of all, death itself.” He says the theme of the story focuses on the “traditionally tragic distance between man and nature,” and the protagonist is guilty of the flaw of pride or hubris in his “mistaken conviction that one is capable of handling destructive situations more easily than he has a right to believe.” Finally, Mellard says that the most important tragic theme to emerge from the story develops from the protagonist's stoic, resolute facing of death.5 Earle Labor also uses Aristotle's Poetics to note the parallels between the story and Greek tragedy and suggests that the story is great because it articulates the mystery that animates the plays of Sophocles, Aeschylus, and all the great tragedians; that is, the common mystery of that “simple fact”—man must die.
I suspect that most, if not all, of these grandiose claims are based on this “simple fact” which is the central fact of the story—the protagonist dies. The basic critical fallacy of the various interpretations of the story is that the critics insist that the man's death has significance not because of any significance attributed to that death within the story, but rather because of the significance of death in the critical categories they have applied to the story. The man's death is significant because it symbolizes the frailty of unaccommodated man against cosmic forces, because it leads to psychic rebirth, because it is the tragic result of a tragic flaw and is confronted with “dignity.” It should not have to be pointed out that the “significance” of a death in a piece of fiction depends not upon the imagination of the critics of that fiction, but rather upon the imagination of the author. And the “simple fact” of death is nothing but a simple fact if nothing is at stake but the “mere” loss of biological life, if the character who dies is nothing but a physical body killed to illustrate this “simple fact.”
Labor and Hendricks inadvertently suggest the nature of the critical problem by calling the protagonist in the adult story a “naturalistic version of Everyman.” The convention of the Everyman character in the sixteenth-century morality play from which the term comes, as well as in other allegories such as The Faerie Queene and Pilgrim's Progress, depends on the Everyman figure representing the soul, or, more narrowly, some specific moral or psychological aspect of man. The assumption of Naturalism, however, is that man is primarily a biological living body in a natural world of objects and forces. Thus, it follows that a naturalistic version of Everyman is simply Everyman as a body. And this is precisely what the protagonist is in London's story, and it is why the story has physical significance only, not the metaphysical significance the critics have attributed to it.
For Jack London, and consequently for the reader, the man in the story is simply a living body and the cold is simply a physical fact. To insist that the story is a symbolic dramatization adumbrated in a symbolic polarity between fire as life and cold as death is to run the risk of saying that the symbolic protagonist's symbolic failure to build the symbolic fire results in his symbolic death. Of course, such a statement is true in the sense that every art work can be said to “symbolize” or “mediate” a reality that is not identical with the verbal construct of the work itself. But such a statement tells us nothing about Jack London's story. Surely Labor and Hendricks realize that both Frank O'Connor and Pascal in their references to human loneliness and the terror of infinite spaces meant something more than the simple fear of being physical alone or losing physical life. Moreover, Labor and Hendricks' reaching for the inference that the man's treatment of the dog is an indication of his hollowness confuses the man's “inhumanity” as a naturalistic given of the story with a symbolic character flaw that leads to the “poetic justice” of his death.
London's central comment about the protagonist in the story itself clearly indicates the “naturalistic” nature of his Everyman: “The trouble with him was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances.” London says that the cold was a simple fact for the man. “It did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man's frailty in general, able only to live within certain narrow limits of heat and cold; and from there it did not lead him to the conjectural field of immortality and man's place in the universe.” If this comment “hardly ripples in the reader's consciousness,” as Labor and Hendricks suggest, it is not because it is dropped so “deftly,” but rather because London, like his protagonist, is without imagination in this story, because he too is concerned here only with the things of life and not with their significance. The reader may be led to meditate upon the physical limits of man's ability to live in extreme cold, but nothing in the story leads him to the metaphysical conjectural field of immortality and man's place in the universe.
James Mellard's claim that the obsessive repetitive activity in the story automatically makes it a symbolic ritual assumes that the man's repetitive activity “to build a fire” in order to preserve bodily life is equivalent to Oedipus's repetitive activity to “find the culprit” in order to find his very identity. An activity that dramatizes a biological need should not be confused with an activity that dramatizes a psychological need. And to equate the physical limitations of being unable to survive a temperature of 75 degrees below zero with the psychic limitations suggested by the Greek hamartia is to confuse physics with metaphysics. Moreover, to call the man's final attitude toward death, which he himself thinks of as no longer “running around like a chicken with its head cut off,” an heroic facing of his fate similar to the recognition and dignity of Oedipus's final gesture is to equate heroic resolution with a simple acceptance of the inevitable.
A close look at the story itself without the lenses of a priori categories reveals that the most significant repetitive motif London uses to chart the man's progressive movement toward death is the gradual loss of contact between the life force of the body and the parts of the body: “The cold of space smote the unprotected tip of the planet, and he, being on that unprotected tip, received the full force of the blow. The blood of his body recoiled before it. The blood was alive, like the dog, and like the dog it wanted to hide away and cover itself up from the fearful cold. … The extremities were the first to feel its absence.” The man realizes this more forcibly when he finds it difficult to use his fingers: “they seemed remote from his body and from him. When he touched a twig, he had to look and see whether or not he had hold of it.” The separation is further emphasized when he burns the flesh of his hands without feeling the pain and when he stands and must look down to see if he is really standing. When he realizes that he is physically unable to kill the dog, he is surprised to find that he must use his eyes to find out where his hands are.
Finally, realizing that the frozen portions of his body are extending, he has a vision of himself that the story has been moving toward, a vision of the self as totally frozen body, not only without psychic life, but without physical life as well. Picturing the boys finding his body the next day, “he found himself with them, coming along the trail and looking for himself. And, still with them, he came around a turn in the trail and found himself lying in the snow. He did not belong with himself any more, for even then he was out of himself, standing with the boys and looking at himself in the snow.” The discovery of self in London's story is not the significant psychic discovery of Oedipus or the Ancient Mariner, but rather the simple physical discovery that the self is body only.
Anyone who sees this purely physical fiction as a story with metaphysical significance does so not as a result of the imagination of Jack London, but as a result of the imagination of his critics. One can grant that the bare situation of the story has metaphysical potential without granting that London actualizes it, gives it validity. It is possible that the great white silence in the story could have had the significance it has in Moby Dick, that the cold of space could have had the significance it has in Crane's “The Blue Hotel,” that the “nothingness” that kills the man could have had the significance it has in “Bartleby the Scrivner” or Hemingway's “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” It is even possible that the obsessive concern with immediate detail could have had the significance it has in “Big Two-Hearted River.” But without going into what makes such elements metaphysically significant in these true “masterpieces,” it is sufficient to say that there is more in the context of these works to encourage such symbolic readings than in London's “To Build a Fire.”
“Jack London's Twice-Told Tale,” Studies in Short Fiction, 4 (Summer 1967), 334–341.
Jack London (New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1974), pp. 63, 150. Labor neglects to mention that the story is most often anthologized in high school and junior high school textbooks.
The logical fallacy of the argument is obvious. The fact that London's adult story is more carefully crafted than the juvenile version does not automatically mean that London understands the “intricate demands” of the short story genre, or that this particular story is a “masterpiece.” Furthermore, an analysis of the craftsmanship of the work alone will do nothing either to enhance London's reputation or “sharpen our own insights into the ontological qualities of the short story as an art form.” Anyone familiar with the history of short story criticism in America knows the kind of damage done to the reputation of the form by just this kind of craftsmanship criticism that proliferated in the handbooks and manuals during the very period when London was writing.
“The Theme of Jack London's ‘To Build a Fire,’” American Book Collector, 17 (November 1966), 15–18. See also James K. Bowen, “Jack London's ‘To Build a Fire’: Epistemology and the White Wilderness,” Western American Literature, 5 (Winter 1971), 287–289, who argues that Peterson's exegesis is an oversimplification of London's more complex epistemological position. As is often the case, one critic's claim for metaphysical significance in a work leads another critic to try to do him one better.
Four Modes: A Rhetoric of Modern Fiction (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1973), pp. 260–264.
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SOURCE: “Journeying across the Ghostly Wastes of a Dead World,” in Solitary Comrade: Jack London and His Work, The University of North Carolina Press, 1982, pp. 48–55.
[In the following essay, Hedrick compares London's “The White Silence,” “In a Far Country,” and “To Build a Fire.”]
His purse exhausted after a year at the University of California, in 1897 London joined the second wave of fortune-hunters in the Klondike. He returned with little more than a case of scurvy to show for his efforts, but the stories he wrote from his Alaskan experience established his literary career. In them we can see the lineaments of a hero who would never appear in London's “civilized” fictions. He represents the most fully mature and human character London was to imagine. The aloneness of this Alaskan hero is different from the aloneness of London's romantic heroes. Martin Eden's aloneness grows out of a syndrome of self-abasement and self-exaltation like that which was operating in London's consciousness as he entered the middle class. The Alaskan hero's aloneness is based on a more realistic assessment of his strengths and weaknesses. He understands that there is something stronger than he—Death. Death is the ultimate equalizer, and in this awareness London wrote a handful of stories that imply the need for human solidarity.
In Jack London and the Klondike, Franklin Walker provides a carefully researched account of London's day-by-day adventures, against which he parallels his use of similar experiences in his fictions. Walker contributes significantly to our knowledge of London's sources and artistic techniques, but he does not analyze the more subtle movements that occurred in London's inner life, as he internalized the white landscapes of Alaska. For this, one must turn to James McClintock's White Logic. McClintock traces the movement of London's consciousness from the affirmation, in the early Malemute Kid stories, of the individual's ability to master the universe, to an awareness of “a more complex view of reality” in which “limited protagonists … [reach] an accommodation with a hostile, chaotic cosmos by living by an imposed code,” to a loss of faith in the ability of the code to order the universe. Then the cycle begins over again, as London “turns to race identification” to provide the illusion of mastery that the individual hero could not sustain.1 McClintock's ground-breaking analysis of London's Northland stories is the starting point for this [essay], and his work makes it unnecessary to dwell in detail on London's Alaskan fictions. It is sufficient to point out the pattern that emerges from a comparison of three stories: “The White Silence,” “In a Far Country,” and “To Build a Fire.”
The first story is about three people (plus one unborn) traveling in mutual comradeship; the second is about two men who are together but who are not bound by comradely ties; in the third story “the man,” as he is designated, insists on defying sourdough wisdom and traveling alone. Death enters each story. “In a Far Country” and “To Build a Fire” deal with unnecessary death—death that could have been avoided had the protagonists the imagination to perceive their finitude and their need to rely on others for mutual support and protection. The relationship between Cuthfert and Weatherbee in “In a Far Country” hinges on mutual fear and suspicion. Together in a cabin for the duration of the Alaskan winter, their distrust of each other encourages waste of food and fuel rather than the economy that is necessary for mutual survival. In the end they kill each other over a cache of sugar. The man in “To Build a Fire” believes that “a man who is a man” travels alone. He reads no message in the vast Alaskan landscape, nor does he understand, in human, mortal terms, the significance of sixty-five degrees below zero. When he breaks through the ice and wets himself to his knees, his limbs begin to freeze before he can get a fire started to dry himself out. Only when death is upon him does he realize his own mortality.
These deaths were avoidable, and the way to avoid them is clearly through human solidarity. But if solidarity can prevent some unnecessary deaths, it cannot, of course, undo the inevitability of death. That is the reality London faces in “The White Silence.” The Malemute Kid is traveling with Mason, his close companion of five years, and Mason's Indian wife, Ruth. London establishes the odds early in the story. They have two hundred miles to travel and only enough food for six days. The reader may expect a tale of struggle and sacrifice in which—perhaps—the trio united can cope with nature's odds against them. But this is not, London hints in the following passage, simply a tale of heroic struggle. It is a tale of human finitude:
The afternoon wore on, and with the awe, born of the White Silence, the voiceless travellers bent to their work. Nature has many tricks wherewith she convinces man of his finity,—the ceaseless flow of the tides, the fury of the storm, the shock of the earthquake, the long roll of heaven's artillery,—but the most tremendous, the most stupefying of all, is the passive phase of the White Silence. All movement ceases, the sky clears, the heavens are as brass; the slightest whisper seems sacrilege, and man becomes timid, affrighted at the sound of his own voice. Sole speck of life journeying across the ghostly wastes of a dead world, he trembles at his audacity, realizes that his is a maggot's life, nothing more. Strange thoughts arise unsummoned, and the mystery of all things strives for utterance. And the fear of death, of God, of the universe, comes over him,—the hope of the Resurrection and the Life, the yearning for immortality, the vain striving of the imprisoned essence,—it is then, if ever, man walks alone with God.2
Death comes unexpectedly, from an unexpected quarter. There is still food, and in the three travelers, warmth and energy. But an old pine, “burdened with its weight of years and of snow,” falls and crushes Mason. He is half-paralyzed but not dead. He urges the Malemute Kid to go on with his wife and the unborn child she carries—urges him to save his family and leave him to his inevitable death. He only asks that he not have to face death alone. “‘Just a shot, one pull on the trigger,’” he asks of the Kid before they leave. The Kid is reluctant to part with his traveling companion of five years with whom, “shoulder to shoulder, on the rivers and trails, in the camps and mines, facing death by field and flood and famine,” he had “knitted the bonds of … comradeship.”3 He asks that they wait with Mason for three days, hoping for a change of luck. Mason agrees to a one-day wait. The Kid's request for a delay turns out to be costly. He is unable to kill a moose, and, when he returns to camp, he finds the dogs have broken into their food cache. They now have “perhaps five pounds of flour to tide them over two hundred miles of wilderness.” But fear of death is not, in this story, as great as the fear of aloneness.
The Kid sends Ruth on ahead, and then sits by Mason's side, hoping that he will die so that he will not be obliged to shoot him. Mason is in pain and knows he is dying, but his torment is not as acute as the Kid's. Mason places his hopes in the continuation of life through his wife and the child (“flesh of my flesh”) she will bear. During his last day his mind wanders euphorically back to scenes of his early manhood in Tennessee. Although Mason bears some resemblance to London's description of his ideal Man-Comrade, who, he wrote, should be both “delicate and tender, brave and game,” and “who, knowing the frailties and weaknesses of life, could look with frank and fearless eyes upon them,” he also has traces of the “smallness or meanness” that was explicitly not a part of London's conception.4 For, earlier in the story, Mason—over the Kid's gentle protest—brutally whipped a dog who was unfortunate enough to fall in the traces. The weakened dog is subsequently devoured by her teammates. Mason is very much an ordinary man, loving his wife, loving life, having no grand philosophy but only a realistic practicality that says life must go on. He does not appear an idealized Man-Comrade but only a garrulous traveling companion, full of stories and gab. Indeed, the extent to which his rambling monologues fill up the story makes all the more awesome his death—marked by a sharp report, followed by silence.
In this story London portrays death as an event with a human character that quickly yields to a nonhuman force—the White Silence, which “seem[s] to sneer” in the moment before the Kid performs his last act of comradeship. Death is clearly harder for the survivor than for the dying. It is easier for Mason to die than for the Kid to live with the knowledge of death. He has been forced to participate in a ritual confirmation of death's power and man's finitude. Worse, he has had, in the name of comradeship, to break the bond that makes death human, that made death bearable for Mason. He is now alone. In terror, he lashes the dogs across the waste of land.
Unlike the man in “To Build a Fire,” the Malemute Kid has the imagination to perceive in the vast silences of the Northland the message of his finitude. He knows the value of comradeship. But neither his imagination nor his sensitivity can protect him from the pain of loss, the pain of experiencing death before death through the death of another to whom he is bound. Written within months after London learned of John London's death (he died while Jack was in Alaska), this story probably draws on the emotions of that loss. In one stroke London lost a father, a comrade, and a model of male working-class identity. In “The White Silence” the Kid is almost in the role of a redeemer: he takes the suffering of Mason on himself; by acquiescing in Mason's request that he not be left to die alone, the Kid takes that aloneness on himself. He redeems Mason's death and renders it human. But the unspoken question hanging in the silence, the question that fills the Kid with fear, is this: Who will redeem his own death?
As McClintock writes, this story ends in an ambiguous balance between human significance and human futility.5 The Kid has shown himself to be a true comrade. It remains to be seen whether or not someone will yet be a true comrade to him. This future, which is beyond the scope of the story, depends on whether or not the Kid can be open and trusting of others, whether or not he can be passively receptive to the significance that others might invest in his life; whether or not, in religious terms, he can leave his salvation up to others. If he cannot, then it is hard to escape the conclusion that, by severing the bond between himself and Mason, he has condemned himself to a living death.
“In a Far Country,” written probably a few months after “The White Silence,” suggests that death may also come in nonredemptive ways. Cuthfert and Weatherbee are bound together by their situations, but, not being bound emotionally, they engage in a ghastly inversion of comradely rituals. They are united not in life-giving rituals like washing and eating, but in their mutual disregard for cleanliness, order, and economy. London suggests that the reasons for their mutual suspicion are their class differences. Weatherbee is a lower-class clerk, Cuthfert a Master of Arts who writes and paints. Both think of themselves as gentlemen but, London pointedly remarks, “a man can be a gentleman without possessing the first instinct of true comradeship.” Master of Arts Cuthfert “deemed the clerk a filthy, uncultured brute, whose place was in the muck with the swine, and told him so.” The sensuous, adventure-loving clerk calls the Master of Arts “a milk-and-water sissy and a cad.”6 They perceive each other through class stereotypes, and the mechanical nature of their togetherness is like the articulation of classes and occupations in a capitalist society in which a physical interdependence of parts is accompanied by emotional anomie. Having killed each other, they die in each other's arms. Like the “devil dog” and his cruel master, LeClerc, in London's story “Bâtard,” like Hawthorne's Dimmesdale and Chillingworth, they are bound not by love but by a dark necessity.
The stories in which London writes of such false comradeship tend to dwell on a materialistic, positivistic view of man.7 The inevitable degeneration of the characters in these stories is rendered in laboratory detail as if all that were at stake were a piece of flesh. Thus in “Love of Life,” which looks at the struggle of a man who has been abandoned by his traveling mate, although the protagonist survives, he is described as an “it,” a squirming mass of cells.8 This is the positivistic view of man that Wolf Larsen propounds to Van Weyden in The Sea-Wolf. The loss of human significance in these stories of comradeship betrayed make survival a sorry boon.
In “To Build a Fire,” written after that period of disillusionment he called the “long sickness,” London takes the next logical step. If comradeship inevitably will be betrayed, one might as well travel alone. When the man in this story finally realizes that he is going to die, he “entertained in his mind the conception of meeting death with dignity.” But what sort of dignity is available to him? It was possible for Mason in “The White Silence” to meet death with dignity without cutting his emotional ties to life—because of his comradeship with the Kid and his biological link through Ruth to the next generation. But when one travels alone, death holds all the cards. The only way to meet it with dignity is to surrender oneself totally to it. The man in “To Build a Fire” gives himself drowsily to these thoughts. “Well, he was bound to freeze anyway, and he might as well take it decently. With this new-found peace of mind came the first glimmerings of drowsiness. A good idea, he thought, to sleep off to death. It was like taking an anaesthetic. Freezing was not so bad as people thought. There were lots worse ways to die.”9 Several years later London described Martin Eden's attempt to drown himself: “He breathed in the water deeply, deliberately, after the manner of a man taking an anaesthetic” (ME, 380). Unable to take charge of the life-forces, the characters who travel alone maintain a modicum of dignity by giving themselves willingly to their deaths.
“To Build a Fire” and “In a Far Country” plot a retreat from the comradeship of “The White Silence.” The solace of comradeship is supplanted in “To Build a Fire” by the whispers of a dreamless sleep. The fire has gone out, and along with it, all hope of campfire fellowship. If we are to judge from “The White Silence,” London's reason for retreating from the bonds of comradeship is not simply that his comrade failed him. Mason may have differed with the Kid, but as he lay dying he apologized for his mistreatment of the dog. The only way in which Mason betrayed his comradeship was in the very act of death itself, when of mortal necessity he left the Kid behind. Perhaps this “betrayal” was more than the Kid could bear. It brought him up against the irrefragable aloneness of each human being. He was afraid. The delicate ecological balance London achieves in “The White Silence” between the forces of life and the forces of death is perhaps all that human beings should hope for in their living and dying. For London, it was not enough.
Like so many American writers, Jack London early in his career realized a vision that he could not sustain. The decline of artistry in his later fictions paralleled his retreat from the knowledge apprehended in “The White Silence.” It was a retreat from death, from limitation, from aloneness. In his search for a way out of the human condition, London did, in a measure, deny himself humanity. By retreating from all that life has to offer in the way of human solidarity, London exiled himself. Like Hawthorne's Wakefield, he was an “outcast of the universe.” Just as Wakefield, by leaving his marriage partner, lost his “place” in human society, so London, by leaving the lower class, found himself with no niche, no place to rest himself. The decline of London's writing career in many ways parallels that of Nathaniel Hawthorne's. Both men began their careers with short stories of superior quality, followed by a novel that became a classic. For London this was not his first novel, A Daughter of the Snows, but his second, The Call of the Wild. London followed with novels of mixed quality, like The Sea-Wolf, just as Hawthorne followed The Scarlet Letter with the less forceful The House of the Seven Gables, and then succumbed to the repressed sexuality of The Blithedale Romance and the tortured symbolism of The Marble Faun. But the real similarities are in their choices of theme and in their modes of retreat from the primary truth of their earlier work. Both write about characters who suffer from their aloneness. Hawthorne was able to distinguish between an aloneness that is human and necessary, indeed, inescapable, and an aloneness that is inflicted on oneself out of overweening pride, that is to say, between the aloneness of the modern hero, Hester Prynne, and that of the romantic hero, Arthur Dimmesdale. Both London and Hawthorne attempted to retreat from aloneness through the sentimental Victorian strategy of love and marriage. What neither of them fully understood was that, in using a platitudinous domesticity to shield them from the terror of aloneness, what they were seeking was not a comrade, a mate, a wife, but something altogether different: a mother.
The fire of the Victorian hearth did not burn as brightly as the Alaskan campfire. It replaced intimacy with sentiment and comradeship with courtship. For a relationship between equals, struggling against mutual dangers, it substituted a relationship between a boy-man and a girl-woman who played at being grown-ups. This ploy enabled London to come out of the long sickness and to resume life, but it vitiated his art and provided only a stay of execution for his life.
McClintock, White Logic, p. 97.
Jack London, The Son of the Wolf, pp. 6–7.
Ibid., p. 16.
For London's description of his great “Man-Comrade,” see Charmian London, Book of Jack London, 2:82.
McClintock, White Logic, p. 77.
Jack London, Great Short Works of Jack London, pp. 308, 309.
See chap. 4 for more on London's materialist philosophy.
McClintock, White Logic, p. 114.
Jack London, Great Short Works, p. 299.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9610
SOURCE: “‘Keeping His Head’: Repetition and Responsibility in London's ‘To Build a Fire,’” in Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 13, No. 1, March, 1986, pp. 76–96.
[In the following essay, Mitchell provides a stylistic analysis of London's “To Build a Fire.”]
Even enthusiasts cringe at naturalism's style. Given excesses so plain and a motion so plodding, sensible critics have simply dropped the subject. And perhaps the greatest embarrassment has been caused by Jack London, whose flat prose seems especially open to criticism. His very methods of composition prompt a certain skepticism; the speed with which he wrote, his suspiciously childish plots, perhaps even his self-advertising pronouncements have all convinced readers to ignore the technical aspects of his fiction.
Yet good manners seem misplaced once we grant that literature need not appear a certain way, since it is difficult to see then what it might mean to reject a work's style as inappropriate. Indeed, the very strangeness of naturalism's vision emerges so vividly in its prose that wrenched stylistic maneuvers soon seem to the point. As we have come to acknowledge with cubist perspectives, metaphysics shapes style, not maladroitness. Once admit certain large claims about time and character, and naturalism appears less inadequate to conventional criteria than at last merely inaccessible to them. Or vice-versa, allow the contorted styles of naturalism to achieve their effect, and customary assumptions about time and character all of a sudden begin to erode. Such writing clearly testifies to what is for most an alien vision of experience and, therefore, almost by definition veers from realist standards. But it is far from inept.
Still, all of this risks too much too soon by linking the varied styles of naturalism to individual author's control. What we need to do here is merely to loosen our critical categories and to agree that while metaphysics may not disprove maladroitness, at least maladroitness can be approached as a kind of after-the-fact metaphysic. Postponing for the moment, that is, the question of London's ultimate purpose, we can simply describe what happens in one seemingly rough-hewn work—his short story, “To Build a Fire” (1906).
As good a place as any to begin is with the story's concluding paragraph, where the style's very strengths appear most dramatically to be little more than flaws. The unnamed man who has repeatedly failed to ward off the Arctic cold at last slips into frozen sleep, watched over by a gradually bewildered dog:
Later the dog whined loudly. And still later it crept close to the man and caught the scent of death. This made the animal bristle and back away. A little longer it delayed, howling under the stars that leaped and danced and shone brightly in the cold sky. Then it turned and trotted up the trail in the direction of the camp it knew, where were the other food providers and fire providers.1
These lines seem a bit abrupt and lend a halting rhythm to the story's “sense of an ending,” but we cannot merely ascribe their oddity to London's personal quirkiness. For whatever his intentions, there is no denying that this is a self-consciously structured prose, evident specifically in the paragraph's minor transgressions. London refuses to subordinate clauses, for instance, though the more natural form of description invites such a pattern. And as if even greater formality were desired, phrases are self-consciously inverted (“a little longer it delayed,” for example, and “the camp it knew, where were the other food providers”).
Yet the more convincing evidence of stylistic control appears in the paragraph's most striking feature: its multiple repetitions. Just as alliteration echoes a series of “l”s, “c”s, “b”s, and “t”s through to the final clause's “f-p”s, so syntax compounds that phonic stutter by trusting almost exclusively to the copulative—seven times in five relatively short sentences. Prepositional phrases emerge additively instead of in the usual subordinated pattern (as when the dog trots “up the trail in the direction of the camp”); one phrase merely rewords, that is, rather than extends another. Even the shifters repeat, crosshatching the whole through identical words and sounds (“Later” “later”; “still” “little later”). And although it may first seem that this gives events a certain progressive sequence, that effect is countered by the passage's reliance on the simple past tense, as if it were avoiding the very temporal elaborations that might otherwise reflect a controlling narrative consciousness. Throughout, each sentence and sometimes each clause offers itself autonomously—as units only loosely interconnected. Phonemic and syntactic repetitions, in other words, reveal not an interdependent world larger than the sum of its grammatical parts, but the very absence of an organizing grammar to the text.
The paragraph's verbal echoes remind us that the plot itself reiterates a few basic events. On a single day, an unnamed man walks in seventy-five-below-zero temperature, stops to build a fire and eat lunch, resumes walking, falls into an icy spring, builds another fire that is obliterated by snow from a tree, then fails to build a third fire before finally freezing to death. Banal as these events are one by one, they repeat themselves into an eerie significance, as the man attempts over and over to enact the story's titular infinitive. In turn, everything that somehow contributes to those attempts is doubled and redoubled, iterated and reiterated, leaving nothing to occur only once. Just as verbal repetition disrupts a normal grammatical progression by breaking phrases into autonomous units, so the recurrence of things themselves has a curiously disruptive narrative effect. By disconnecting things from each other, repetition instills a certain static quality to the story's motion. Moreover, the reiterated concentration on the material lends a paralyzing quality to the story's events, which gradually draws into question the very notion of plot as onward narrative progress.
Its unsettling effect in “To Build a Fire” is nicely illustrated in the repetitions of this passage:
Once, coming around a bend, he shied abruptly, like a startled horse. … The creek he knew was frozen clear to the bottom—no creek could contain water in that arctic winter—but he knew also that there were springs that bubbled out from the hillsides and ran along under the snow and on top the ice of the creek. He knew that the coldest snaps never froze these springs, and he knew likewise their danger. They were traps. They hid pools of water under the snow that might be three inches deep, or three feet. Sometimes a skin of ice half an inch thick covered them, and in turn was covered by the snow. Sometimes there were alternate layers of water and ice skin, so that when one broke through he kept on breaking through for a while, sometimes wetting himself to the waist.
That was why he had shied in such a panic.
Whatever it lacks as exposition, the passage clearly shows that what might have seemed one paragraph's idiosyncracies actually integrates the story. The subject—some form of H2O—is repeated over and over, whether “creek,” “water,” “snow,” and “ice” three times apiece, or “springs” and “skin” twice, or the implied referent of “froze,” “frozen,” “bubbled,” and “wetting.” For both man and dog, that alternating substance forms a series of fatal “traps” that are themselves phonemically reiterated in the cold “snaps” which never quite freeze the springs. Other internal sentence rhymes reverberate through the text, as does an alliteration that extends from the hard “c”s in the second sentence.2 Sentence structures themselves repeat, whether resuming from similar subjects and adverbs (“They were …” “They hid …”; “Sometimes …” “Sometimes …”);3 or dividing in the middle (“Three inches deep, or three feet”; “he knew … but he knew”; “He knew … and he knew”); or turning on chiasmus (“Sometimes a skin of ice half an inch thick covered them, and in turn was covered by the snow”). Finally, the grammatical whole binds together with the repeated claim that the man “shied” away.
As in the earlier paragraph, multiple repetitions return us back to where we began and tend in the process to drain whatever suspense we might otherwise have felt in the action. Narrative progression seems denied through the very stylistic recurrences that integrate the passage. Or rather, to be more precise, the text's very doubleness belies the singularity asserted at the opening—“Once, coming around a bend. …” Through multiform repetitions of phoneme and syntax, the implied danger of the scene is rendered commonplace. And that effect is compounded by the passage's overarching shift in preterite, from the simple opening tense of “he shied abruptly” to the closing perfect of “he had shied,” all of which is subtly divided by a series of past participial constructions. Instead of spurring expectation onward, repetition and tense forestall action in a tableau of ever-recurring, never-changing elements.
Repetition establishes a compelling pattern in London's Arctic for reasons that are neither simple nor straightforward.4 Most obviously, however, its effect is entropic, reducing the man to the purely physical by depriving him initially of a will, then of desires, and at last of life itself. The process of repetition, moreover, again first appears at a verbal level—and notably with the word most often repeated. “Cold” occurs in the first half of this short story more than twenty-five times, with an effect that is altogether predictable. For as the narrative's focus on the physically immediate contributes to a paralyzing “tyranny of things,” so the repetition of a thermal absence gradually seems to lower the textual temperature.5 Or rather, it is the emphasis on intense cold—no more, after all, than molecular inactivity—that exposes an irreducible corporeality to the very air itself.
The “tyranny of things” that develops from a repetitive concentration on the material world tends, as we have seen, to break down characteristic connections between both objects and events. Yet repetition itself implies a more ontological stasis in terms of the story's hero, exercising its power most fully by isolating not event from event, but event from actor. The repetition of things and events creates an environment that seems to resist human intention—one in which desires fail over and over to be able to shape results. Consequence ever falls short of anticipation, and the narrative gradually separates the man from his world by exposing the ineffectiveness of his will—not merely to reach camp by six o'clock, but to avoid various “traps,” then to build a fire, and finally to forestall the Arctic's numbing effects. The “tyranny of things” prevails over the man first by depleting his physical resources, and then more importantly by separating him as agent from an environment in which deliberate actions might have determinate consequences.
As repetition of things makes the conditions they form seem somehow fixed and determined, its effect on ephemeral states of being similarly drops them to lower levels of possibility. And as plot recurrences seem to diminish the capacity for personal control, so verbal reiterations more generally foreclose the prospects we normally assume in experience. When the man carefully builds a second fire, for instance, the warning implied by the repetitions offsets the description's calm understatement.
This served for a foundation and prevented the young flame from drowning itself in the snow it otherwise would melt. The flame he got by touching a match to a small shred of birch bark that he took from his pocket. This burned more readily than paper. Placing it on the foundation, he fed the young flame with wisps of dry grass and with the tiniest dry twigs.
He worked slowly and carefully, keenly aware of his danger. Gradually, as the flame grew stronger, he increased the size of the twigs with which he fed it. He squatted in the snow, pulling the twigs out from their entanglement in the brush and feeding directly to the flame. He knew there must be no failure.
(79; emphases added)
The very invocation of “flame” five times in seven sentences ensures not the prospect of fiery success, but rather ephemeral hope—an effect that seems even more fully confirmed by the fricatives that proliferate through the passage. Likewise, the reiteration shortly thereafter of the confident claim that “he was safe” establishes instead a mood of imminent peril. By translating the singular into a set, doubled language subverts linguistic authority, in the process replacing routine assurance with a series of lingering doubts.
This verbal effect is especially clear with words that unlike “flame” refer to capacities, not conditions. And it is hardly surprising in a story devoted to the consequences of low temperature that the privileged capacity should be a knowledge of how to forestall them—or that the word “know” should occur nearly as often as does “cold.” Keep in mind that “know” is a special kind of word, invoking possibilities of certainty as well as consciousness, and thereby suggesting capacities for deliberation and choice. By extension, it implies control of contingency, since knowledge of the past can help mediate the present and in turn directly shape the future. Huck and Jim “knowed” all sorts of signs, just as Lord Mark knows why Kate Croy rejects him, and the terms of knowledge in both cases dictate how consequent action is to be understood. That possibility is jeopardized in “To Build a Fire” and finally precluded by repetition, as the man's alleged knowledge, increasingly invoked, comes to seem first inadequate, then simply irrelevant. Having thoroughly subverted the effectiveness of knowledge, repetition at last lapses into silence.
Compounding the effect of these verbal echoes is the repetitive syntactic pattern of the story. Indeed, its paratactic flatness creates a world where everything appears somehow already ordered, constraining a single fixed character in a narratively static, seemingly timeless world. The implications of London's simple, disconnected sentences can be appreciated only through illustrative contrast, and perhaps no more obvious one could be found than Henry James's late style. That style, it hardly needs stating, reflects a wholly different conception of character, since James valued individuals less for adapting to the unalterable than for imaginatively altering experience itself. The way clauses tumble out of grammatical thickets, or characters complete (only to distort) each other's claims, or shifting perspectives illumine prospects for action: these narrative patterns seem to confirm James's philosophical pragmatism. Instead of perspectives on the world, his late novels elaborate perspectives that create the different worlds in which his characters as well as his readers live.
The pattern of London's prose itself suggests a vision radically at odds with this epistemological model. Avoiding narrative contingency, his syntax denies what James everywhere celebrates: the authority of individual perspective. Clauses rest on an equal footing instead of linking in dependent structures, with the effect that experience seems already fixed and thoroughly unalterable. James's flexible grammar and tentative tone reveal experience as ever open-ended, ever to be reshaped by the power of language. London's regular, flat sentences have the contrary effect of denying any shaping power: “everything must happen as it does happen, it could not be otherwise, and there is no need for explanatory connectives.”6 Erich Auerbach does not mean in this famous definition that parataxis defies rules of causation or consequence; rather, it is the absence of clausal subordination that encourages us to read plots as if they lacked alternatives. While James's hypotactic texts seem to encourage characters to order life idiosyncratically, London's prose instead enforces a single causal order and instills a sense of certitude by returning again and again to the same stylistic place.
Yet the syntactic repetitions of parataxis have a further effect worthy of attention—one much like that of repeated words, but best illustrated in spatial terms. Just as the close doubling of physical objects blurs distinctions between this and that, here and there (or rather, this and this, here and here), so the repetition of something in time dissolves the edges between then and now. Something that happens once—a jar placed in Tennessee, say—not only enables, but seems to encourage a mapping of fixed coordinates. By contrast, something exactly repeated tends to confuse a single determinate order. Seeing double, like hearing exact echoes, disorients precisely by not allowing a fixed priority, and until sequence can be asserted, that unsettling effect remains. One of the results of the momentary disorientation produced by this kind of repetition is that time itself seems suspended. In the same way, paratactical repetitions structure a narrative that more generally denies its own temporality and, in the process, creates an aura of timelessness. Such an effect seems unlikely in a story that opens at 9 o'clock, pauses at 10, stops for lunch at 12:30, and ends at dusk, and in which a variety of shifters abound (such as “when,” “before,” “after,” “at last,” and “once in a while”). But this very specificity, when coupled with an absence of singular events, effectively elides the passage of time that it pretends to demarcate.
In the central sequence, for example, the man starts a fire to thaw his freezing legs and is just about to cut free his moccasin lacings:
But before he could cut the strings, it happened. It was his own fault or, rather, his mistake. He should not have built the fire under the spruce tree. He should have built it in the open. But it had been easier to pull the twigs from the bush and drop them directly on the fire. Now the tree under which he had done this carried a weight of snow on its boughs. No wind had blown for weeks, and each bough was fully freighted. Each time he had pulled a twig he had communicated a slight agitation to the tree—an imperceptible agitation, so far as he was concerned, but an agitation sufficient to bring about the disaster. High up in the tree one bough capsized its load of snow. This fell on the boughs beneath, capsizing them. This process continued, spreading out and involving the whole tree. It grew like an avalanche, and it descended without warning upon the man and the fire, and the fire was blotted out! Where it had burned was a mantle of fresh and disordered snow.
Without plotting multiple repetitions once again, we should not fail to notice that “it happened” echoes the earlier disaster when the man fell into the spring water (“And then it happened”). As there, the two words contain the experience. Yet more to the point, we never confuse the versatile “it” that floats through the passage and that bobs up so variously in each of the first four and last two sentences. The very shifting of referents under the pronoun paradoxically clarifies the scene, as one completed, timeless event unfolds from a basic paratactic structure.
The real clincher, however, is the curiously immediate “Now”: “Now the tree under which he had done this carried a weight of snow. …” While the word seems at first to recover us to time by breaking the text's completed pattern, the “Now” serves here not as adverb but expletive. Indeed, by merely marking time, it reinforces the narrative's pervasive timelessness. As well, the overly simple syntax, the pronounced lack of subordinate clauses, the subject references and verbs that each atomize the scene—all work as do repetition and tense. The whole resists normal sequence from the initial “it” onwards and simply elaborates an experience that seems already completed. Here as elsewhere, the text links sections by stylistic rather than narrative causality—by a pattern of grammatical signifieds, not narrative signifiers. Actions prompt not other actions, sentences contingent sentences, so much as each turns back on itself, in the process fostering the impression of temporal collapse.
Perhaps the best way to understand this effect is by turning to London's earlier, one-page version of the story. There the man has a name, builds a fire, and survives, toeless but with the hard-learned moral, “Never travel alone!” Clearly, the stories define different experiences, a difference nowhere better exemplified than in their central paragraphs:
But at the moment he was adding the first thick twigs to the fire a grievous thing happened. The pine boughs above his head were burdened with a four months' snowfall, and so finely adjusted were the burdens that his slight movements in collecting the twigs had been sufficient to disturb the balance.
The snow from the topmost bough was the first to fall, striking and dislodging the snow on the boughs beneath. And all this snow, accumulating as it fell, smote Tom Vincent's head and shoulders and blotted out his fire.7
Exactly half as many words (92 vs. 183) appear in only a third as many sentences (4 vs. 13). Though brief, in other words, the passage links compound sentences with a leisured ease that assumes narrative contingency. Events can be anticipated and intentionally avoided, and therefore responsibility can be affirmed. By contrast, the later version avoids participial constructions. Simple repeated sentences only serve to confirm the response presaged by the ominous “it happened”: all has been already enacted, and the human will can have no effect. As explanatory connectives help to authorize the didactic force of the early version, so the repetitive, tableau-like style of the latter shapes a narrative world free of contingency—as free in the future as in the past, and therefore as inevitable as determinism requires.
It will not do, however, simply to note the language's tendency to undermine its own meaning, or even to unravel the stylistic features that influence us to read the narrative deterministically. And no matter how often the word “know” is repeated (and thereby, like other words, shorn of significance), the problem of knowledge nonetheless persists, along with related issues of negligence and responsibility. We need now, in other words, to turn to thematics in order to see if plot aligns with style in shaping a response more complex than first glances allow. Having rejected the old-timer's counsel before the story begins, the man can only continue to regret having decided to walk alone after fifty below. From the opening sentence, when he leaves the main trail for one that is “dim and little-travelled,” we tend to see him as independent yet remiss—of chilling implications in the temperature as in the thin ice across which he walks, of the consequences of not building a fire as well as of building one under a spruce. His mishaps are certainly unfortunate, then, but since a “close call” encourages no greater caution, he seems at least partially responsible for his condition. Or is he?
The philosopher Thomas Nagel would argue not, claiming that only our paradoxical views about human action mislead us into conflating negligence, intention, and responsibility. Nagel points out that this paradox results in our willingness to blame someone for what is not his fault, a willingness that he characterizes in terms of the phenomenon of “moral luck.” “Where a significant aspect of what someone does depends on factors beyond his control, yet we continue to treat him in that respect as an object of moral judgment, it can be called moral luck.”8 The example that Nagel offers is of a driver accidentally running over a child:
If the driver was guilty of even a minor degree of negligence—failing to have his brakes checked recently, for example—then if that negligence contributes to the death of the child, he … will blame himself for the death. And what makes this an example of moral luck is that he would have to blame himself only slightly for the negligence itself if no situation arose which required him to brake suddenly and violently to avoid hitting a child. Yet the negligence is the same in both cases, and the driver has no control over whether a child will run into his path.
Ensuing effects, in other words, shape our sense of antecedent causes, just as consequence powerfully alters our understanding of prior action.9 This is not, of course, to claim that future events somehow lead to past conditions, but it is true, so Nagel claims, that “results influence culpability” fully enough for the usual terms of responsibility to begin to seem absurd.
“To Build a Fire” nicely illustrates Nagel's discussion, since we tend to hold the man culpable for having made an error of judgment. And notably, it is ignorance that characterizes his status as a chechaquo, “a newcomer in the land” who has been out before in only “two cold snaps.” Though he might well have complied with the old-timer's advice, as the narrator indeed continues to stress, the same narrator also significantly admits that “he was without imagination.” Yet even could the man have imagined the implications of so low a temperature, or considered what it means to travel in this region without a partner, or somehow anticipated the treacherous spring, consequences would not necessarily have altered for the better. Nagel's driver might likewise have taken another route. The point in either case is not that different actions might have led to better consequences, but that the possible consequences of any action are always to some extent unforeseen. We customarily assume that since reasonable degrees of knowledge and caution sometimes avert disaster, that therefore even greater degrees must decrease the potential hazards of action. Yet the situations of both men illustrate the fallacy of any such logic. Only retrospectively can ignorance be seen to have led to disaster, and questions of responsibility are dramatically excluded by the stress on unanticipated events. The unnamed man's impetuous pride may seem to compound the effects of ignorance, and we may therefore assume for the moment that greater caution might have saved him. Yet from a broader perspective, forbearance, judiciousness, and circumspection seem somehow simply irrelevant when we can so readily imagine the man's negligence leading instead to different consequences—say, his second fire not being obliterated by snow, or as in the earlier version, his third attempt succeeding.
Just as the repeated stress on what the man allegedly knows unsettles our faith in his wilderness lore, so the narrator's similar overemphasis has the effect of drawing all knowledge into question. Both grammatically and narratively, the text questions any causal pattern to the intersection of action, event, and will, and the reader is left no better able than the man to anticipate accidents. As it happens, we perceive no mistake in the five long paragraphs that detail the fire's careful construction, and we too are led to assume that in this instance the cold will be forestalled. Only when consequence clarifies error are we likewise pinned to a universe of “moral luck,” likewise surprised after the fact by far less than sin. The narrator's attempt to fix responsibility thus depends on a retrospective moralizing that is everywhere exposed as factitious, and even the man's own profession of those values is given little narrative support. Indeed, we are encouraged to identify with him against his own self-critical judgments and made to realize that the implications of his being “without imagination” are less striking than the narrator didactically asserts. Rather, as the text shows, responsibility must always seem misplaced in a world where knowledge proves to be as irrelevant as the will is ineffective.
For the unnamed man, as for Nagel's driver, the issue is not one of character, but circumstance—not a case of “if he were different, it wouldn't have happened,” but of “it needn't have happened, however he acted.” Grant that neither the man nor the driver responds passively to conditions; even grant that each one actively causes his separate catastrophe; it remains nonetheless true that what each man does depends largely on conditions that neither has created. Significantly, we never learn whether the Arctic trekker happens to forget or in fact never knew that it is safer to build fires in the open. Knowledge appears in some radical sense not to matter in this kind of a world, and by denying the possibility of prospective choice, the text exposes the inappropriateness of retrospective regret. Since obedience to one wilderness law hardly ensures keeping a host of others, the man's self-censure and the narrator's stern moralizing only seem misplaced.
The narrative reinforces this emphasis on unknowable consequence by seeming not merely to taunt the man's desire, but to thwart his will in a process that only succeeds in exculpating the man. No occasion at first occurs for such treatment, since before noon desire and event match seamlessly: the man keeps the pace he wants. But near mid-day, his assurance first gives way to doubt, and the rhythm of contingency shifts: “If he kept it up, he would certainly be with the boys by six.” Now, conditions and the conditional begin to prevail, as both man and reader are shifted back and forth: “… if his feet are wet. If his feet are dry …”; “but now it ebbed away”; “But he was safe”; “If he had only had a trailmate; “Even if he succeeded”; “Yet he was no better off”; “but the birch bark was alight”; “but … his shivering got away with him”; “But it was all he could do”; “But no sensation was aroused.” This clotting of “ifs” and “buts” occurs almost exclusively in the narrative's middle third, as confidence shifts from doubt to despair. At those extremes of the emotional spectrum, as at the beginning and end of the story, it is irrelevant whether desire happens to align with experience. But the central section—where “things go wrong” and desire is for the first time denied—foregrounds vain hopes and dire contingencies. The altered use of conditional and conjunction itself signals the shift; after the story's midpoint, the “ifs” and “buts” stress only prospects inimical to the man, elaborating all he will never achieve. By voicing his desire in the subjective, against a diminishing set of possibilities, the narrative accentuates the immutable shape that consequence invariably gives to event.
In the subfreezing Arctic, moreover, that shape tends to be a frozen one. The life-draining cold slowly enervates the man, leaving him bemused at the mechanical in the natural that makes his body seem somehow other: “When he touched a twig, he had to look and see whether or not he had hold of it. The wires were pretty well down between him and his finger ends.” And later, “it struck him as curious that one should have to use his eyes in order to find out where his hands were.” The very pronominal disjunction here (between “him,” “one,” and “his”) marks a growing split between personal and impersonal.10 With his body now a thing apart, subjective and objective begin to diverge—as he beats his limbs savagely to restore circulation, or strikes matches with his teeth only to cough out the flame, or endures the stench of seared hands in a final fire-building attempt. It may sometimes be true that “all a man had to do was to keep his head”; but when at first his limbs, then his torso follow frozen toes, his body becomes essentially decapitated. “Keeping his head” had otherwise seemed a matter of figurative self-composure, but the story nicely turns on the profound implications of what it is that physically composes a self, as the seemingly inessential grows inanimate and consciousness slowly disintegrates.
The narrative separates the man from his desire at an even more radical, grammatical level, transforming the personal into the impersonal by wrenching language and affronting conventional usage. Although by the end his desire may be as strong as at the beginning, neither his body nor his actions are any longer his own. Not only does the cold dismantle him physically, but syntax itself presents him in a fixed paratactic environment. Through a series of deadening maneuvers, the narrative exposes him to a textual frostbite that progressively numbs and immobilizes. Instead of being ascribed to a “self,” actions are synecdochically assigned to parts of his body—his walk, for instance, a mere “eager nose that thrust itself aggressively into the frosty air.” Elsewhere, he appears only by extension—“At the man's heels trotted a dog.” And throughout, he is denied grammatical presence by a sequence of negative formulations; thoughts “did not worry the man,” or “never entered his head,” while experiences “made no impression.” When emotional, even automatic physiological responses are represented, the text offers them externally, as apart from and happening to him. Thoughts, when he has them, no longer “occurred,” but entered “into his head”; or sat with an almost physical weight “in his consciousness”; or “reiterated” themselves. Instead of his consciously withdrawing from the cold, his “blood” autonomously “recoiled.”11 Long before the cold penetrates, the text incapacitates the man by denying our projected sense of him as a coherent, identifiable self.
It is clear that “To Build a Fire” offers no simple, single point of view—and indeed, that the very tension between various perspectives contributes to much of the story's power. The man's increasingly panicked consciousness is set against a narrative omniscience that alternates between fierce moralizing and cold impersonality.12 Yet while no single point of view controls the text, each one nonetheless seems to compete for that control:
He was sure to frost his cheeks; he knew that, and experienced a pang of regret that he had not devised a nose strap of the sort Bud wore in cold snaps. Such a strap passed across the cheeks, as well, and saved them. But it didn't matter much, after all. What were frosted cheeks? A bit painful, that was all; they were never serious.
Empty as the man's mind was of thoughts, he was keenly observant. …
This characteristically abrupt transition between paragraphs, from one voice to another, provokes a series of questions: Why give vivid impressions only so soon to dismiss them as intellectually limited? What is gained by a narrator who unexpectedly shifts into the man's awareness and then as abruptly out? And why does he elsewhere deny the man's claims with “in reality,” or peremptorily refute his knowledge, or inveigh against his utter lack of imagination, curiosity, even intelligence—“The trouble with him …”? To concur with these judgments leads to the didactic conclusion that the man simply fails according to wilderness standards; as in the early version, he supposedly illustrates a cruel moral to Yukon travel. Yet such an interpretation fails to account for too much of the story, sacrificing all that we have seen of stylistic and thematic complexity to the rough plot correspondence with an earlier version.
The man's perspective itself, moreover, injects an urgency into the narrative that only further exposes the superficiality of such moralizing. After all, we too fail to anticipate his mistakes and are as surprised as he by the turn of events. The evocation of his premature assessments, his frustrated desires, and growing agitation pulls the reader into the text. Distant as we otherwise feel from someone who lacks either imagination or knowledge, our sympathies align with his at those points where our wills too are denied and our own sense of foreclosure heightened. The text's powerful, persistent, repetitive rhythm affects us as it does the man, progressively alienating both of us from customary assumptions by absorbing us into the narrative's determinism. A curious result of this diminished sense of control is that the narrator's critique turns back on itself; his censure of the man calls its own terms into question. Recall the central paragraph of the fire's disastrous obliteration (quoted above, p. 83). Despite subsequent observations of what might have been done, the narrator shifts the terms of responsibility by qualifying his claim that it was the man's “own fault or, rather, his mistake.” His very hesitancy has the effect of translating guilt into mere inaccuracy. Even the admitted possibility that these self-exculpating tones are the man's own, and that the prose is therefore in free indirect discourse, only helps to confirm what has been clear all along: that in sharing the narrator's weak moral assumptions, the man cannot escape a spurious self-indictment that compounds his self-alienation.
“To Build a Fire,” then, subverts our expectations about negligence and the will by presenting events happening to and, as it were, at the man. Left at the end as at the beginning, he forms nothing more than a meeting of forces—nameless, selfless, a place for events to happen—and the story comes to seem less a process of reducing him than a revelation of how little there was all along. In much the same way as the narrative thwarts the man's desire to ward off the cold, moreover, it also foils the narrator's impulse to hang moral tags on experience. Much as both character and narrator are made to seem incapable of knowledgable control, however, both still continue to exist as lively presences in the text. Responsibility may no longer be at issue and the possibility of a coherent self may have therefore disappeared, but something nonetheless remains. To understand what that presence might be, and more generally how it contributes to naturalism's revision of realism, we must now return to Nagel.
Approaching his paradox of moral luck from an angle different than the one quoted above, Nagel points to a fundamental clash:
… between the view of action from inside and any view of it from outside. Any external view of an act as something that happens, with or without causal antecedents, seems to omit the doing of it.
Even if an action is described in terms of motives, reasons, abilities, absence of impediments or coercion, this description does not capture the agent's own idea of himself as its source. His actions appear to him different from other things that happen in the world, but not merely a different kind of happening, with different causes or none at all. They seem in some indescribable way not to happen at all (unless they are quite out of his control), though things happen when he does them. And if he sees others as agents too, their actions will seem to have the same quality.
Or as he had earlier concluded, “a person can be morally responsible only for what he does; but what he does results from a great deal that he does not do; therefore he is not morally responsible for what he is and is not responsible for. (This is not a contradiction, but it is a paradox).”13 Nagel's point in distinguishing between the “responsible” and the “morally responsible” is to clarify that what someone actually does need not coincide with that person's sense of his actions. For as the perspectives differ, so do the categories, however frequently we confuse them. The latter, which corresponds to what we think of as the “self,” seems considerably larger than the former category, which might more simply be labeled “character.”14 And it seems so because our feelings about the “self”—our own as well as others'—are grafted onto our sense of the “character” that finds itself acting in the world.
In other words, we construct a sense of the subjective self from something more than the actions we perform, which makes it relatively easy to believe that the self stands largely free of circumstance. The realists, in fact, called to moral account those whose actions seemed only contingently their own. Yet the naturalists so fully denied the possibility of any release from circumstance that they effectively excluded the very category of the self; and in the process, they made all questions of intention and subjectivity seem irrelevant to an examination of character and action. They may not have rejected the realists' concern with how a person felt about what he did, but they accorded those feelings no particular significance. For them, one person's anguished moral dilemma differed little from another's craving for prunes, since all they needed to define a person was a particular sequence of actions. Naturalism, that is, reminded realism that our reasons for believing in a self are of a different order from our reasons for believing in character. And when persons are looked at in this latter way, the issue of responsibility becomes merely a part of the subjective language of the self. In the objective language of character, it exists only as the paradox of moral luck.
The reason the issue of the self seems so compelling in “To Build a Fire” is precisely because man and narrator both assume the category must somehow exist—this, despite clear contrary evidence. Which raises the larger issue of how assumptions dictate accounts, both more and less deterministic. The relation of self to character, in other words, matches the connection that exists between our most basic assumptions and our contrasting recognition of what is logically necessary—connections like those obtaining between causality and contingency, or between plots and events. No matter, for example, that the recognition was old long before Hume dismissed causality as mere custom; we keep being surprised by the need to derive consequence from contingency. When we attempt to read narrative as mere chronicle of events, we are forced to the realization that “sequence goes nowhere without [its] doppelganger, or shadow, causality.”15 Thus to recall Forster's sentence, “The king died, and then the queen died of grief,” we assume that the two are married to each other and that her grief was due to his death.16 That the conclusions are neither stated nor necessary is less striking than the sheer power of our interpretive impulse, which suggests how texts can encourage some interpretations more readily than they do others—whether of plots, causality, or even of selves.
Insofar as people are largely disposed against those whose deliberations seem unrelated to their behavior, the naturalists began with a handicap very few other writers have been willing to accept. That may explain why the corridors of literary history are jammed with characters acting in accord with their wills, while only a handful wander through who inhabit deterministic universes. We habitually extend to others capacities we have assumed for ourselves and imagine for them similar autonomous selves able to choose, then act responsibly.17 Yet the naturalists' metaphysics compelled them to deny any such free-standing possibility and, in the process, to dismiss both intention and subjectivity as irrelevant to either character or event. That radical dismissal continues to defy the expectations of most readers, who project undetermined selves onto almost any kind of fictional character. And it was precisely to forestall so habitual an impulse that the naturalists devised such contorted fictive strategies.
Superficial characteristics aside, then, we can now see how radically naturalism differs from realism—and see it most dramatically at their critical junctures. Given the assumption that choices and actions do lead to self-definition, it is understandable that realist crises should come in scenes of deliberation, in a weighing of alternative actions and consequences. Huck's decision to “go to hell,” for example, or Silas Lapham's night-long struggle, or Isabel Archer's vigil before the dying fire: these famous moments in American realism define the self in terms of choice and responsibility. Yet action does not immediately follow from the choices that are made in these scenes, suggesting that responsible choice might better be conceived in terms of restraint from action.18 After all, naturalist characters also act out of a full constellation of motives and desires; they differ from realist characters only in being unable to refrain when everything required for a given action is present. They lack wills, in other words, that might serve to constrain their conflicting emotional energies. Sister Carrie resists impulse no more than Henry Fleming or S. Behrman, and McTeague hovering over Trina in the dentist's chair or Hurstwood fumbling at the safe door only exemplifies this inability to deflect desire. Burning one's hands for a fire suggests panic, not volition, as London's unnamed man responds automatically to the simple opposition of seared hands, frozen body. His inability even to conceive of the possibility of calm restraint undercuts any sense of agency we might have. The very compulsion to act predictably prevents us from attributing a self to him, since any “self” as traditionally understood never simply reacts to inner or outer constraints.
This absolute responsiveness to the external world also suggests why our interest in naturalist characters ends with the text. In James's The Portrait of a Lady, for example, we continue to ask some form of the question with which we began: “What will she do?” Or rather, we wonder how Isabel will do whatever it is she happens to decide, knowing that as her actions have throughout, it will both change and confirm her. If we cannot imagine the same of Norris' Vandover, or Dreiser's Carrie, or Crane's journalist in “The Open Boat,” it is because naturalism ever subverts such interest. Our attention turns to the fictional worlds into which characters are absorbed, not to selves that stand somehow independent of those worlds. The ending of “To Build a Fire” illustrates this nicely, as the man drifts into a sleep of death: “He did not belong with himself any more, for even then he was out of himself, standing with the boys and looking at himself in the snow. It certainly was cold, was his thought” (97). At that moment of release, the categories of both character and self are exploded, along with such subsidiary considerations as negligence and responsibility. Refuting the customary realist conflation of the body with the will, London finally decenters the self; he dissipates it through divisions between “he”s, “himself”s, and “his” and thereby at last displaces desire fully into the world. Of course, actually to free oneself from desire is possible only by release from the physical body, which necessarily results in death.
Among other things, then, naturalism reveals that the conflict between determinism and free will is part of an ongoing tension in our views about human behavior. Both views seem true, yet mutually exclusive, since causal necessity can only explain events by tending to explain away the self. Free will has the effect, that is, of rescuing the self from the events it engages; conversely, determinism absorbs agency into the world, making any distinction between the self and circumstance seem to disappear. If neither concept can dislodge the other, they nonetheless offer a structure for the nineteenth-century novel's changing claims, by allowing us to see the shift from Romance through Realism to Naturalism as a transition between the two views: that is, from the supreme empowering of an uncircumscribed self, to its gradual dissolution into realms of sheer event.19 Or to consider literary history representatively, in terms of its major characters: Manfred, Ahab, and Hollingsworth evolved into Dorothea Brooke, Isabel Archer, and Silas Lapham, who in turn were supplanted by Gervaise Coupeau, White Fang, and Jennie Gerhardt. Characters who had been imagined as relatively unconstrained by social ties and class knots were gradually bound down through the century, Gulliver-like among the Lilliputians.
The naturalists themselves would probably not have recognized so abstract a definition of their handling of character, and certainly few showed any interest in the possibilities of systematic philosophy.20 Yet they constructed tight determinist models and succeeded iconoclastically, by inverting the strategies implicit in realism's structuring of the self. They uniformly rejected Howells' smiling average, of course, but their revolt entailed far more than simply the introduction into fiction of stupider characters, or more squalid subjects, or less optimistic plots. Such commonplaces of literary history ignore the more radical reversals that determinism generated and thereby suggest that naturalism was little other than a tedious rehearsal of realist possibilities. On the contrary, the movement evinced a remarkable variety from its singular premise—a variety that belies any single set of principles, whether thematic, structural, or stylistic.
Indeed, that forms part of the problem, since any characteristic claims for a naturalist mode must fail to reveal the idiosyncracies that make particular narratives naturalistic. At least some criticisms, however, now clearly seem misguided—those attacking mechanical characters, say, or excessive repetition, or disjunctive syntax. Far from liabilities, these actively generate the narrative power of “To Build a Fire,” unsettling our conceptions of agency by distorting customary linguistic usage.21 What might otherwise have appeared problematic—in the case of London's story, negligence excused repetitiously—emerges as intricately connected with these assumptions. Trapping a man physically, linguistically, and textually, the story succeeds finally in ensnaring the reader.
London, of course, no more than other naturalists realized the extent to which words ultimately trap us, shaping interpretations and thereby creating events. Yet by inverting his predecessors' vision of the self, he showed what determinism might specifically involve, and what living in such a world might actually mean. Isaiah Berlin once claimed that, even if we wanted to, we could not escape the illusion of free will: “I do not here wish to say that determinism is necessarily false, only that we neither speak nor think as if it could be true, and that it is difficult, and perhaps impossible, to conceive what our picture of the world would be if we seriously believed it.”22 Difficult, maybe. But if Berlin had read London, he might have agreed, not impossible.
Jack London, “To Build a Fire,” in Lost Face (Macmillan, 1910), p. 98. All subsequent references are to this edition and appear directly in the text.
One complexly patterned rhyme occurs later, with the “tingling” and “stinging ache” that is “excruciating” (86). And while this passage happens to lack many examples, alliteration occurs nearly as frequently throughout as at its conclusion. A small, random sample of such instances includes “day dark” (63), “spat speculating” (65), “numb nose” (67), “warm-whiskered” (67), “dropped down” (69), “first faraway signals of sensation” (85–86), “fetched forth” (86), “freezing feet” (86), and “day drew” (97).
Another notable instance occurs on pp. 74–75, where in one paragraph, each sentence, sometimes each phrase, begins with the formulation “He [transitive verb]. …”
Kierkegaard was certainly not the first to observe that “all life is a repetition,” or that “recollection and repetition are the same movement, except in opposite directions.” But most subsequent studies have been influenced by his Repetition (1843), trans. and ed. Howard V. and Edna H. Hong. Vol. VI of Kierkegaard's Writings (Princeton University Press, 1983), p. 131. Mircea Eliade's discussion of the relation between repetition and timelessness in prehistory has provocative implications for my reading of London. See The Myth of the Eternal Return: or, Cosmos and History, trans. Willard R. Trask, Bollingen Series 46 (Princeton University Press, 1954), esp. pp. 34–36, 85–90, 123. E. K. Brown first recognized repetition as “the dominant device” of the novel, though many of his ideas have been superceded. See Rhythm in the Novel (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1950).
Of recent writers on repetition, see especially Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (Basic Books, 1981); Peter Brooks, Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative (Alfred A. Knopf, 1984); John Irwin, Doubling and Incest/Repetition and Revenge: A Speculative Reading of Faulkner (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975); Bruce F. Kawin, Telling It Again and Again: Repetition in Literature and Film (Cornell University Press, 1972); and J. Hillis Miller, Fiction and Repetition (Harvard University Press, 1982).
The phrase is Harry Levin's, who aptly invoked it to define the materially importunate worlds of realism, Part of my argument, however, will be that naturalism defines a distinct literary mode and that in naturalistic texts the illusion of things matters enough for absence to be thematized directly; it dictates behavior with as straightforwardly “tyrannous” an effect as presence. See “Society as Its Own Historian,” in Contexts of Criticism (Harvard University Press, 1957), p. 186; also, “What Is Realism?,” pp. 67–75; and “On the Dissemination of Realism,” in Grounds for Comparison (Harvard University Press, 1972), pp. 244–61.
Erich Auerbach makes this claim for French epic in Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, trans. Willard R. Trask (1946; rpt. Princeton University Press, 1968), p. 101. London hardly offers an epic vision, but his Yukon does share one stylistic assumption: that the already ordered world resists individual perceptions and desires.
Jack London, “To Build a Fire,” The Youth's Companion, LXXVI (May 29, 1902), 275.
Thomas Nagel, Mortal Questions (Cambridge University Press, 1979), p. 26. All subsequent references appear directly in the text and are to this edition of his essays—in particular, to “Moral Luck” (1976), pp. 24–38, and to “Subjective and Objective” (1979), pp. 196–213.
Or as he asserts of a list of historical figures notable for their decisive actions: “It is tempting in all such cases to feel that some decision must be possible, in the light of what is known at the time, which will make reproach unsuitable no matter how things turn out. But this is not true; when someone acts in such ways he takes his life, or his moral position, into his hands, because how things turn out determines what he has done” (29–30).
This pronominal division occurs earlier and to similar effect. See, for instance, the last sentence in the paragraph quoted above, on p. 78.
The passage reads: “The blood of his body recoiled before it. The blood was alive, like the dog, and like the dog it wanted to hide away and cover itself up from the fearful cold” (80). See also p. 89.
The free indirect discourse accorded the dog forms a third voice that appears less obviously—at the end of the story, for example, in the concluding paragraph first quoted above. At other times, it renders the man's “throat sounds” and uncharacteristically threatening movements from the uncomprehending, instinct-ridden perspective of the animal (note pp. 76–77, 90). But this third voice is less critical to the story's development than the other two.
See pp. 34–36. Paradox or not, Nagel finally retreats from this conclusion, troubled precisely by the inexorable logic of its limited terms: “We cannot simply take an external evaluative view of ourselves, of what we most essentially are and what we do. And this remains true even when we have seen that we are not responsible for our own existence, or our nature, or the choices we have to make, or the circumstances that give our acts the consequences they have. Those acts remain ours and we remain ourselves, despite the persuasiveness of the reasons that seem to argue us out of existence. It is this internal view that we extend to others in moral judgment” (37). We must live as if possessed of free will, since only the assumption defines us as fully human. And we adopt it not because it may be true, but because any alternative view of ourselves as affected by “moral luck” incapacitates, indeed annihilates us: “it leaves us with no one to be” (38).
Amelie Oksenberg Rorty provides a useful taxonomy of such terms in “A Literary Postscript: Characters, Persons, Selves, Individuals,” in Amelie O. Rorty, ed., The Identities of Persons (University of California Press, 1976), pp. 301–23. Rorty claims that “personhood” is one step shy of “selfhood” and that “The idea of a person is the idea of a unified center of choice and action, the unit of legal and theological responsibility. Having chosen, a person acts, and so is actionable, liable.” On the other hand, “Since they choose from their natures or are chosen by their stories, neither characters nor figures need to be equipped with a will, not to mention a free will” (309).
Frank Kermode, “Secrets and Narrative Sequence,” Critical Inquiry, VII (1980), 83–84. For a fuller discussion, see his The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction (Oxford University Press, 1967), p. 139. See also pp. 18, 30, 48–51, 63–64, 89.
E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel (1927; rpt. Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1955), p. 86. Seymour Chatman has explored these issues lucidly in both Story and Discourse and in “Toward a Theory of Narrative,” New Literary History, VI (1974), 306.
This idea has also been developed by Nagel, pp. 37–38.
My point here is not that actions fail to ensue from these realist crises of conscience, but that as crises, they take dramatic form through the rejection of specific actions. Which is to say that each character refuses the course of action he or she has contemplated (that is, wills not to do), a refusal that itself confirms their moral worth. Catherine Belsey inadvertently offers a negative formulation by which to approach naturalism in her claim that “Classic realism tends to offer as the ‘obvious’ basis of its intelligibility the assumption that character, unified and coherent, is the source of action. Subjectivity is a major—perhaps the major—theme of classic realism.” See Critical Practice (London: Methuen Press, 1980), p. 73.
Whether or not either concept happens to persuade (or could do), our continuing interest lies in the cash value of one or the other: What is achieved by those so inclined? Without being convinced by either realists or naturalists, we need to understand how their convictions derived from a nexus of expectations—personal, institutional, historical, and cultural. And that might lead us to ask why the realists, proclaiming the mid-nineteenth century as their own, placed such a premium on individual responsibility, on the issue of deliberate choice, and considered action in communities that were seen increasingly to constrain possibility. Or again, why did their successors, the naturalists, foreclose such possibilities altogether? Important as such large scholarly questions are, however, they start game in other brush than we are beating.
Few American naturalists, certainly, had more than a nodding acquaintance with formal metaphysics, and their rare excursions into those strange seas evidence landlubberly enthusiasm too often at the expense of logic.
This is not meant to suggest that “To Build a Fire” is a “representative” naturalist text, although other examples may well share its patterns and tropes. They too may offer characters whose wills are voided through the circumstances of their worlds, whose selves are absorbed into a textual language. Think, for instance, of the unnamed characters in Crane's “The Open Boat” and The Red Badge of Courage, the Carries and Solon Barnes, the Swede in Nebraska, and wheat farmers in central California.
Isaiah Berlin, Historical Inevitability, The Auguste Comte Memorial Trust Lecture, May 12, 1953 (London: Oxford University Press, 1954), p. 33.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2148
SOURCE: “Jack London's ‘To Build a Fire’: A Mythic Reading,” in Jack London Newsletter, Vol. 20, 1987, pp. 48–51.
[In the following essay, Clasby maintains that in “To Build a Fire” London's “unquestioned myth-making ability has produced an extreme expression of a common archetype.”]
D.H. Lawrence observed, in his Studies in Classic American Literature, that the quintessential American hero is a divided person. Natty Bumpo of the Leatherstocking Tales stands first in the line of these dual heroes, paired with his dark companion, Chingachgook. Ishmael and Queequeeg, Huck and Jim follow in a succession leading to such twentieth century pop-culture icons as Batman and Robin. Lawrence theorizes that the excessively dualistic quality of the American male psyche required that the emotional, instinctive aspects of the self, which is perceived as “feminine,” be projected onto a dark, devalued alter-ego. The primary persona remains detached. In Lawrence's words, the “essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer.”
The protagonist in “To Build a Fire”1 is all of these things. In fact, Jack London has created, in this story, an extreme example of what Lawrence sees as the American Hero myth. The protagonist wanders through a hostile wilderness, alone except for a single companion. The companion is not, however, an indian or a loyal savage. It is, in fact, a “big native husky, the proper wolf dog.” Yet this animal plays the archetypal role of the dark companion so familiar in American literature. By using the dog, London represents the instinctual side of the divided psyche in a uniquely degraded way. In “To Build a Fire,” London's unquestioned myth-making ability has produced an extreme expression of a common archetype.
Critical interest in London's use of archetypal themes is well established. Maxwell Geismal2 pointed out the resemblances between the ritualistic combat scenes in The Call of the Wild and J.G. Frazier's accounts in The Golden Bough of the rites used by primitive peoples in connection with the succession of kingship. James McClintock's3 article on the influence of Carl Jung's work on London's last short stories is an illuminating study of London's conscious, and sometimes awkward, application of mythic structures. Charles Watson's4 reappraisal of London's novels does an excellent job of tracing Freudian/Jungian motifs through a complex development of themes leading to the resolution of opposites. All this is simply to say that London's imagination created strikingly expressive forms for the dilemma of dualism which has preoccupied so many modern writers.
The setting of “To Build a Fire” is the Yukon in mid-winter. Like the mythic wasteland, it is a sterile, formless desert. An “intangible pall” hangs over the frozen, undulating hills. The landscape exemplifies what McClintock calls the “White logic (the antithesis of life)”5 which functions as a continuing metaphor in London's work. The blank whiteness of the terrain suggests the un-meaning of Melville's “colorless all-colour of atheism.”6 Across the wasteland, a “dark hairline trail” stretches toward the island of life represented by the camp on the left fork of Henderson Creek. The nameless protagonist and his dog are the only living things in the landscape.
A new-comer to the Yukon, the man is described as being “quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances.” He is one of the class of entrepreneurs who have come to the Klondike for gold and timber, and who are insensitive to its complexities. Lacking imagination, he cannot respond fully even to the intensity of the cold. It is so cold that when he spits, the spittle crackles, frozen in the air before it reaches the snow. Yet in spite of the extremities of nature, nothing in the wilderness leads him “to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man's frailty in general.”
The dog who trots at his heels is “depressed by the tremendous cold.” A creature of instinct, it is in tune with nature and senses the terrible danger they are in. “This man did not know cold. Possibly all the generations of his ancestry had been ignorant of cold, of real cold, of cold one hundred and seven degrees below freezing point. But the dog knew; all its ancestry knew, and it had inherited the knowledge.” Although the two travel together, and share an essentially symbiotic relationship, there is “no keen intimacy between the dog and the man.” The protagonist treats the dog as his “toil slave,” and the “only caresses it had ever received were the caresses of the whip lash.” Therefore, the dog makes no effort to warn the man of the fatal danger he faces. Early in the story, the man forces the animal to walk ahead of him in a dangerous area of snow-covered springs. The dog falls through the thin ice, but is able to recover. “Warm and secure in its natural covering,” the dog is in harmony with the vast forces of life and death represented by nature. The man envies and despises him.
Although the protagonist has potential for being at one with nature (His “blood was alive, like the dog”), he lives entirely in the mind, separated from the reality of his body, which is gradually turning numb from the cold. He seeks to dominate and control the primitive forces by relying on his whip, and on fire, the spark of the divine presence which science has given him. He is a fire-maker, and he faces the darkness with all confidence in his ability to dispel the cold and blackness with his meager box of matches.
Initially, all goes well. He successfully makes a fire at lunch time, eats, and presses on toward the camp. Then, in midafternoon, he breaks through the ice and soaks his feet and legs. If he is to survive, he must make a fire and dry out his footgear. He is shaken, and recalls the advice given him by the old-timer on Sulpher Creek. “No man,” said he, “must travel alone in the Klondike after fifty below.” For the first time, the protagonist's alienation fills him with a sense of dread. He controls himself, however, and succeeds, after great effort, in building a fire. Drying out before it, he expresses the essential hubris which drives him: “He had saved himself. Those old-timers were rather womanish, some of them, he thought.” His scornful reference to the old wise-men as “womanish” reveals his enmity toward the feminine aspect of reality and of his own psyche. The heart-wisdom of the old man associates him with such mythic figures as Tiresias, the aged prophet, half man and half woman. Tiresias's androgyny is symbolic of his capacity to synthesize the feminine, instinctive aspects of the psyche with the rational, masculine side.7 The prophet's knowledge could save the protagonist, but he rejects this wisdom, and tells himself, “All a man had to do was to keep his head and he was all right.”
His celebration is short-lived. The fire loosens the snow in the Spruce tree, and it tumbles down onto the fire, extinguishing it. The man realizes that it is “as though he had just heard his own sentence of death.” He tries frantically to build another fire, but it is beyond him. The flames will not catch, and his growing numbness makes his every clumsy effort fail. In a scene of mounting horror, he pulls off his gloves, and clutching the entire bunch of matches with the heels of his hands, he strikes a fire, and holds it to a bit of birch bark. “As he so held it, he became aware of sensation in his hand. His flesh was burning. He could smell it. Deep down below the surface he could feel it.” The pain intensifies; it is the fear of death finally penetrating through the frozen layers of his ego to the living core. Still the fire will not take hold.
In a scene of great horror, he recalls a story in which a man, “caught in a blizzard … killed a steer and crawled inside the carcass, and so was saved.” He resolves to kill the dog, split open its bowels, and “bury his hands in the warm body until the numbness went out of them.” The dog comes when called, and the man seizes it. It is too late, however. His hands are so stiff that he can neither throttle the dog, nor draw his sheath knife to stab it. Sitting in the snow, his arms encircling the animal, he is a figure of terrible irony. The man can no longer dominate and use the numinous aspects of nature and the psyche which the dog represents. His murderous embrace is impotent, and his victim ultimately eludes him.
With his remaining strength, he runs blindly toward the distant camp. As he runs on his frozen feet, he seems to himself “to skim along above the surface, and to have no connection with the earth.” He remembers a picture of winged Mercury and wonders if the god “felt as he felt when skimming over the earth.” The reference again suggests the hubris of a man who dares, like the gods, to place himself above the sphere of the earth. His penalty is to freeze to death, a process which London depicts as involving a gradual isolation from the self. The man has a vision of himself standing aside, looking at his own body in the snow. This increasing alienation and petrifaction is often associated with death in the mythic wasteland. Just as Satan lies locked in ice at the heart of Dante's inferno, so London's character dies immobile, unfeeling and alone.
All the humble, yet life-giving aspects of the maternal earth are focused in the subhuman figure of the dog. As D.H. Lawrence noted, classic American fiction characteristically projected the feminine aspects of instinct, emotion and sensuality onto a devalued figure. But in the many stories dealing with the hero and his “faithful Indian companion,” some dignity, some parity, is retained for the shadow figure. Natty Bumpo of the Deerslayer asserts his “white gifts,” but he also follows “the bias of his feelings.” Chingachgook is built on the same heroic scale as Natty and is inseparable from him. Natty, the white hunter, is a killer, yet he maintains a fundamental respect for the natural forces the Indian embodies. Ishmael, who, in Moby Dick, stands between the isolated, murderous Ahab, and Queequeeg, the “soothing savage,” is saved because he clings to his darker companion.
In London's vision, both aspects of the divided personality are drawn in extreme terms. The man is, as we have seen, completely unfeeling. He lives by shielding himself from natural forces (snow, cold) and exploiting natural creatures (timber, dog). Lacking imagination, he exists on the most literal plane. Everything, even the cold that will take his life, is reified, quantified. “Fifty degrees below zero was to him just precisely fifty degrees below zero. That there should be anything more to it than that was a thought that never entered his head.”
The dog is presented as the man's dialectical opposite. “Its instinct told it a truer tale” than the man's literal mind could construct. Since it is associated with the forces of nature, and is the man's intended victim, the dog wins our sympathy. Yet its wolf-like qualities are emphasized. At the end of “To Build a Fire,” the dog sits, facing the dying man, and waiting. It wants the man to make a fire. When, at last, it catches the scent of death, it bristles and leaps back. For a short time it howls under the cold stars, then it turns and trots “up the trail in the direction of the camp it knew, where there were other food providers and fire providers.”
The dog is presented here as being a party to a relationship of mutual use, rather than of shared life. Its needs are for food and fire, and it will turn to anyone who provides them. Both figures, the man and the dog, are degraded archetypes of the masculine and the feminine aspects of the psyche which they respectively represent. The image of the man's thwarted but murderous embrace of the dog recapitulates the meaning of London's savage portrait of a distorted sensibility.
First published in 1908, and collected in Lost Face, (1910).
Maxwell Geismar, Rebels and Ancestors: The American Novel, 1890–1955 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1953) p. 150.
James McClintock, “Jack London's use of Carl Jung's Psychology of the Unconscious,” American Literature, 42 (1970), 336–47. See also Chapter 6 of McClintock's White Logic: Jack London's Short Stories (Wolf House Books, Grand Rapids, Mich.) 1975.
Charles N. Watson, Jr. The Novels of Jack London: A Reappraisal (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press) 1983.
McClintock, p. 336.
See Watson, pp. 45–46 on Melvillean whiteness in The Call of the Wild, and Earle Labor, Jack London, 1974, pp 59–62 on “The White Silence.”
Cf. Clarice Stasz, “Andogyny in the Novels of Jack London,” Western American Literature II (1976), 121–33.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9216
SOURCE: “Imposing (on) Events in London's ‘To Build a Fire,’” in Determined Fictions: American Literary Naturalism, Columbia University Press, 1989, pp. 34–54.
[In the following essay, Mitchell explores London's narrative techniques in “To Build a Fire,” particularly the use of repetitive language and images.]
More than other naturalist authors, Jack London has been considered an embarrassment, a writer whose prodigious output simply confirms his lack of craft. His flat prose seems to offer an immediate, easy target of criticism, and our skepticism only grows with knowledge of his slipshod methods of composition. Given the speed with which he tossed off stories that appear suspiciously childish, most readers have simply agreed to ignore the technical aspects of his fiction. Even admirers balk at treating so inconsistent a self-proclaimed theorist as if he were nonetheless on the whole a self-consistent artist. Publicly committed to a super-race and yet to an utterly classless society, for instance, London affirmed the radical individualism of Nietzsche's will-to-power even as he was given to signing letters to Marxist friends, “Yours for the revolution!” Understandably, critics upset with the stylistic excesses of naturalism have seized upon him, out of frustration with his muddled thought, his evident artlessness, and his unabated worldwide popularity.1
London therefore offers a perfect test case for my introductory claim that the styles of naturalism, however various, are all part of a determinist mode. The very extent to which his stories defy conventional criteria suggests how irrelevant some traditional categories are to the naturalist enterprise. This is hardly to claim, of course, that metaphysics always disproves maladroitness, even if maladroitness can sometimes be approached as a kind of after-the-fact metaphysics. To adopt that approach, however, we need to postpone for the moment any claims for London's literary status or his ultimate purpose, since such claims simply reinstall the categories brought into question by a determinist philosophy. Instead, we need to restrict ourselves to describing what happens in a fictional text—how it moves, both verbally and grammatically, and what those moves suggest about the constraints upon action and agency. The best place to begin such analysis is London's most popular story—“To Build a Fire” (1906)—especially since its strengths appear at first to be no more than inadvertent stylistic flaws.
Too often, stylistic analyses are shaped by thematic assumptions drawn from the text, and the best guarantee against invoking thematics as a guide to style is to turn first to the story's concluding paragraph. It may not even be necessary to know that an unnamed man who has repeatedly failed to ward off the Arctic cold at last slips into frozen sleep, watched over by a gradually bewildered dog:
Later the dog whined loudly. And still later it crept close to the man and caught the scent of death. This made the animal bristle and back away. A little longer it delayed, howling under the stars that leaped and danced and shone brightly in the cold sky. Then it turned and trotted up the trail in the direction of the camp it knew, where were the other food providers and fire providers.2
If these lines lend a halting rhythm to the story's “sense of an ending,” it is already clear that we cannot merely ascribe their odd abruptness to London's personal quirkiness. For whatever his intentions may have been, there is no denying that this is a self-consciously structured prose, evident specifically in the paragraph's minor transgressions. London adamantly refuses here to subordinate clauses to one another, for instance, even though the more natural form of description clearly invites such a pattern. And as if he desired to impart to the passage a tone of even greater formality, he inverts a number of phrases with what would seem a certain self-conscious flair (“a little longer it delayed,” and “where were the other food providers”).
The even more convincing evidence of stylistic control appears in the paragraph's most striking feature: its multiple repetitions. Alliteration echoes a series of “l”s, “c”s, “b”s, and “t”s through to the final clause's “f-p”s, while syntax compounds that phonic stammer by trusting almost exclusively to the copulative—seven times in five short sentences. Prepositional phrases emerge additively instead of in the usual subordinated pattern (as when the dog trots “up the trail in the direction of the camp”); one phrase merely rewords, that is, rather than extending or developing another. Even the adverbial shifters repeat, cross-hatching the whole through a series of identical words and similar sounds (“Later”/“later”; “still”/“little longer”). Although events may thus at first appear to be given a progressive sequence, the effect is thwarted by the constant recurrence in the passage to the simple past tense—as though London deliberately wanted to avoid those temporal elaborations that would otherwise reflect a controlling narrative consciousness. Throughout, each sentence and sometimes each clause presents itself autonomously, as a single unit that announces itself only loosely dependent upon any other. Far from being a world that presents itself bound together syntactically—as equivalent, that is, to more than the sum of occasional grammatical parts—this passage confirms through its verbal and even phonemic repetitions the utter absence of any grammar at all.
We will want to pay similar attention to the texture of the rest of London's story, but other questions raised by this paragraph need to be addressed in other terms than the purely stylistic. After all, the point of listening so closely to the particulars of naturalist language is to discover how much our direct experience of it alters the assumptions we unthinkingly make about action and event. Perhaps the most obvious effect of the paragraph's verbal echoes, therefore, is to remind us that the plot itself consists of only a few basic events reiterated over and over. On a single day, an unnamed man walks in 75-below-zero temperature, stops to build a fire and eat lunch, resumes walking, falls into an icy spring, builds another fire that is obliterated by snow from a tree, then fails to build a third fire before finally freezing to death. Banal as these events are one by one, they repeat themselves into an eerie significance as the man attempts again and again to enact the story's titular infinitive. In turn, everything that somehow contributes to those attempts is doubled and redoubled, iterated and reiterated, leaving almost nothing in the narrative to occur only once.
Moreover, just as verbal repetition succeeds in disrupting a normal grammatical progression by breaking phrases into a series of autonomous units, so the recurrence of physical things has a curiously disruptive narrative effect. Disconnecting objects from one another, repetition tends to instill a static quality to individual scenes—and by extension, to the Arctic world of which they form a part. The story not only keeps resorting to a description of certain similar things—the man's body, the dog, the condition of the trail—but does so as if they lacked any ongoing relation to one another. The textual world is broken up into discrete material objects, the reiterated reference to which lends a paralyzing quality to the story's events. Gradually, the very notion of plot as an onward narrative progression is drawn into question.
The unsettling effect that repetition has in “To Build a Fire” is perhaps best illustrated in a passage of near-fatal crisis:
Once, coming around a bend, he shied abruptly, like a startled horse … The creek he knew was frozen clear to the bottom—no creek could contain water in that arctic winter—but he knew also that there were springs that bubbled out from the hillsides and ran along under the snow and on top the ice of the creek. He knew that the coldest snaps never froze these springs, and he knew likewise their danger. They were traps. They hid pools of water under the snow that might be three inches deep, or three feet. Sometimes a skin of ice half an inch thick covered them, and in turn was covered by the snow. Sometimes there were alternate layers of water and ice skin, so that when one broke through he kept on breaking through for awhile, sometimes wetting himself to the waist.
That was why he had shied in such panic.
Much as it lacks in the way of exposition, the passage clearly shows that what might have seemed one paragraph's idiosyncracies actually integrates the story. The subject—some form of H2O—is repeated over and over, whether it occurs as “creek,” “water,” “snow,” and “ice” fully three times apiece; or only twice as “springs” and “skin”; or simply remains the implied referent of “froze,” “frozen,” “bubbled,” and “wetting.” For both the man and the dog, that alternating substance forms a series of “traps” themselves phonemically reiterated in the cold “snaps” that never quite freeze the springs, and thereby render them fatal. Other internal rhymes reverberate strikingly throughout the text, as does an alliteration that extends onward from the hard “c”s in the second sentence (suggesting a certain crisp, chilled, possibly shivering stutter).3 Sentences themselves repeat their structure, whether resuming from similar subjects and adverbs (“They were …” “They hid …”; “Sometimes …” “Sometimes …”);4 or dividing in the middle (“three inches deep, or three feet”; “he knew … but he knew”; “He knew … and he knew”); or turning on chiasmus (“Sometimes a skin of ice half an inch thick covered them, and in turn was covered by the snow”). The whole experience is then summarily recapitulated in the final claim that the man had “shied” away.
That one-word reiteration of the opening description has a curious effect, confirmed more fully by the complex pattern of repetitions that structure the overall passage. As in the paragraph cited earlier, such a pattern returns us to where we began, and tends to drain in the process any suspense we might otherwise have felt in the action. The very stylistic recurrences that integrate the passage deny any narrative progression. Or, perhaps more precisely, the text's very doubleness belies the singularity asserted at the opening—“Once, coming around a bend …” Whatever danger the scene might otherwise imply is rendered commonplace through the multiform repetitions of phoneme, word, and syntax. By precluding contingency and declaring that all that is happening will only happen again (or has itself already occurred), these repetitions evoke a realm in which human control seems irrelevant. Nothing can now be altered because everything has been so firmly set in place. Further confirming this sense that everything has already been settled beforehand is the temporal pattern suggested by the passage's overarching shift in preterite. That shift, which subtly divides the simple opening tense of “he shied abruptly” from the closing perfect of “he had shied,” takes place through a persistent concentration on past participial constructions. The predicate structure simply reinforces the sense of closure apparent from the beginning. Instead of spurring expectation onward, repetition and tense forestall action in a tableau of ever-recurring, never-changing elements.
REPETITION'S NARRATIVE EFFECTS
Repetition establishes a compelling pattern in London's Arctic for reasons that are neither simple nor straightforward. Most obviously, its material effect is entropic, reducing the man to the purely physical by depriving him initially of a will, then of desires, and at last of life altogether. Yet it is already clear that the process manifests itself at first not in a material realm (the realm of actions involuntarily repeated) but at a verbal level. And it does so, notably, with the word most often reiterated. “Cold” occurs in the first half of this short story more than twenty-five times with a chillingly predictable effect. For just as the narrative's focus on the physically immediate contributes to a paralyzing “tyranny of things,” so the repetition of a thermal absence gradually lowers the textual temperature.5 Or rather, the persistent emphasis on intense cold—which is no more, after all, than molecular inactivity—exposes an irreducible corporeality to the very air itself. Empty space becomes a thing.
The “tyranny of things” that develops from a repetitive concentration on the material world tends, as we have seen, to break down characteristic connections among objects as well as events. Yet repetition itself implies a more ontological stasis in terms of the story's hero, exercising its power most fully by isolating not event from event, but event from actor. The repetition of things and events creates an environment that seems to resist human intention, one in which desires fail over and over to shape results. Consequence ever falls short of anticipation, and the narrative gradually divides the man from his world by exposing the ineffectiveness of his will—not merely to reach the safety of camp by his planned time of six o'clock, but to avoid the hidden “traps” of water, then to build a warming fire, and finally to forestall the Arctic's numbing effects. The “tyranny of things” prevails over the man at first by depleting his physical resources, and at last by excluding the very possibility that he might possess any agency. As his body numbs and slowly freezes into a thing like any other thing, he apprehends in growing panic how little effect he can have on the environment. And as this occurs, we come to realize what it means for deliberate actions not to have the results we intend.6
In much the same way that recurrences of plot seem to diminish a capacity for personal control (by suggesting the workings of involuntary repetition), so verbal reiterations more generally foreclose the prospects we normally assume in experience. When the man carefully builds a second fire, for instance, the warning implied by the repetitions offsets the description's calm understatement.
This served for a foundation and prevented the young flame from drowning itself in the snow it otherwise would melt. The flame he got by touching a match to a small shred of birch bark that he took from his pocket. This burned even more readily than paper. Placing it on the foundation, he fed the young flame with wisps of dry grass and with the tiniest dry twigs.
He worked slowly and carefully, keenly aware of his danger. Gradually, as the flame grew stronger, he increased the size of the twigs with which he fed it. He squatted in the snow, pulling the twigs out from their entanglement in the brush and feeding directly to the flame. He knew there must be no failure.
(79; emphases added)
At a purely descriptive level, the flame's repeated animation (“young flame,” “flame grew stronger”) lends it a life and a will of its own that refuses to be controlled by the man. Yet at a more pervasive if somewhat paradoxical verbal level, the very invocation of “flame” five times in seven sentences ensures not the prospect of fiery success but rather the ephemerality of any hope. More fully confirming that effect are the fricatives proliferating through the passage, as if in partial echo of the “flame” and its predictable demise. Likewise, the reiteration shortly thereafter of the confident claim that “he was safe” establishes not the man's security but a mood of imminent peril. By translating the singular into a set, doubled language subverts linguistic authority, in the process replacing routine assurance with a mood of lingering doubt.
This verbal effect is more pronounced with words that unlike “flame” refer to capacities, not conditions. For while the narrative repetition of things makes conditions seem somehow fixed and determined, the effect of repetition on emotions and other ephemeral states of being is erosive, apparently reducing them to lower levels of possibility. Agitation or happiness or lust—simply by virtue of being redescribed in the same words—appears not simply as if less spontaneous but finally as if less real. The initial assertion, that is, seems to be denied by its own reiteration. In a story devoted to the fatal consequences of all too frigid conditions, it should hardly come as a surprise that the capacity privileged above all others is a knowledge of how to forestall them—or that the word “know” occurs nearly as often as “cold.” Keep in mind that “know” forms a special kind of word in everyday usage: connotations of certainty as well as of consciousness seem invoked by it, suggesting powers not only of deliberation but also of choice. By extension, it implies at least some limited control of contingency, since we commonly assume that knowledge of the past can help mediate the present and in turn shape the future. Huck and Jim “knowed” all sorts of signs in Huckleberry Finn, just as Lord Mark knows without being told why Kate Croy rejects him in James' Wings of the Dove. Claims for knowledge dictate how action is to be understood in both novels, confirming the moral considerations by which readers and characters are meant to judge narrative consequences. In “To Build a Fire,” that possibility is gradually jeopardized and finally precluded by the process of repetition. Precisely because the man's knowledge is alleged with increasing frequency, it seems at first simply inadequate and then altogether irrelevant. And having in the story's first half subverted the effectiveness of knowledge, the narrative lapses from repetition into silence about what the man knows.
Compounding the effect of these singular verbal echoes is the story's repetitive syntax. Indeed, its paratactic flatness creates a world where everything is already ordered, immuring a single character not merely in a frozen Arctic environment, but in the very sentences that present him. It is as if the lack of syntactic contingency by which each sentence stands free of its neighbor reflected a more metaphysical absence of contingency whereby the future is as fixed as the past. In the process of denying its own temporality, moreover, the narrative creates an aura of timelessness. Such an effect may seem unlikely in a story that opens at 9 o'clock, pauses at 10, stops for lunch at 12:30, and ends at dusk, and in which a variety of shifters abound (such as “when,” “before,” “after,” “at last,” and “once in a while”). But this temporal precision in itself, when coupled with an absence of singular events, effectively elides the passage of time that it pretends to demarcate.
In the story's central sequence, for example, the man starts a fire to thaw his freezing legs, and is just about to cut free his moccasin lacings:
But before he could cut the strings, it happened. It was his own fault or, rather, his mistake. He should not have built the fire under the spruce tree. He should have built it in the open. But it had been easier to pull the twigs from the brush and drop them directly on the fire. Now the tree under which he had done this carried a weight of snow on its boughs. No wind had blown for weeks, and each bough was fully freighted. Each time he had pulled a twig he had communicated a slight agitation to the tree—an imperceptible agitation, so far as he was concerned, but an agitation sufficient to bring about the disaster. High up in the tree one bough capsized its load of snow. This fell on the boughs beneath, capsizing them. This process continued, spreading out and involving the whole tree. It grew like an avalanche, and it descended without warning upon the man and the fire, and the fire was blotted out! Where it had burned was a mantle of fresh and disordered snow.
There is no need once again to plot the multiple repetitions of this passage, but we should not fail to notice that “it happened” echoes the earlier disaster when the man fell into the spring (“And then it happened”). As there, the two words contain the experience. More to the point, we are never confused by the versatile “it” that floats through the passage and that bobs up so variously in each of the first four and last two sentences. Paradoxically, the very shifting of referents under the pronoun clarifies the scene, as one completed, timeless event unfolds from a basic paratactic structure.
The real clincher, however, is the curiously immediate “Now”: “Now the tree under which he had done this carried a weight of snow …” Breaking the text's completed pattern, the word seems at first to recover us from the preterite to the immediate present. Yet the “Now” here serves not as adverb but expletive, affixed to the sentence for no other reason than to ease its syntactical rhythm. Instead of moving us forward in time, it merely serves to mark time and in doing so contributes to the narrative's pervasive timelessness. The entire grammatical shape of the passage—including the overly simple syntax, the pronounced lack of subordinate clauses, and the subject references and verbs which effectively atomize the scene—all contribute to this atemporal effect as much as do repetition and tense. The whole resists a normal sequence from the initial “it” onwards, simply elaborating an experience that seems to us already fully completed. Here as elsewhere, the text links sections by stylistic rather than narrative causality—by a pattern of grammatical signifieds, not narrative signifiers. Actions prompt not other actions, sentences contingent sentences, so much as each doubles back on itself, in the process fostering the impression of temporal collapse.
Perhaps the best way to understand this effect is by turning to London's earlier, one-page version of the story. There the man not only has a name, but builds a fire and survives, toeless but with the hard-learned moral that one should “Never travel alone!” Clearly, the stories represent experiences that are altogether different, a difference nowhere better exemplified than in their central paragraphs:
But at the moment he was adding the first thick twigs to the fire a grievous thing happened. The pine boughs above his head were burdened with a four months' snowfall, and so finely adjusted were the burdens that his slight movements in collecting the twigs had been sufficient to disturb the balance.
The snow from the topmost bough was the first to fall, striking and dislodging the snow on the boughs beneath. And all this snow, accumulating as it fell, smote Tom Vincent's head and shoulders and blotted out his fire.7
Half as many words (92 vs. 183) appear in less than a third as many sentences (4 vs. 13), and yet this earlier version links compound sentences easily, reinforcing our customary sense of narrative control. Because events can be anticipated—not simply in the Arctic world but in the interdependent prose that describes what happens—contingency can be narratively controlled, the imagined effects of negligence forestalled, and responsibility affirmed as a compelling textual assumption.
By contrast, London's later version avoids participial constructions and thereby quietly erodes the basis for any such assumption. Indeed, the repetition of simple sentences only serves to corroborate the response presaged by the ominous “it happened,” as if the scene had already been fully enacted in those two words. Nothing the man can do will change an order of things fixed in such language or avert the harrowing implications of this unforeseen contingency. The explanatory connectives that authorize the didactic force of the earlier version have disappeared, replaced by a tableau-like style that excludes any hope of human agency. Zola's claim that the naturalist mode would lay bare an iron logic to events is achieved through the skewed perspective London offers on behavior, revealing how little an individual can alter causes described in a determining language.8
CHARACTER AND RESPONSIBILITY
It will not do, however, simply to note the tendency of language in the story to undermine its own meaning, or even to unravel stylistic features that influence us to read deterministically. Moreover, no matter how often the word “know” is repeated (and thereby, like other words, shorn of significance), the problem of knowledge still persists, along with related issues of negligence and responsibility. We need now, in other words, to pursue more traditional questions of character in order to see how the plot also shapes a response less straightforward than first glances allow. Having rejected the old-timer's counsel before the story begins, the man can only continue to regret having decided to walk alone after fifty below. From the opening sentence, when he leaves the main trail for one that is “dim and little-travelled,” we see him as he sees himself, independent-minded yet remiss—of chilling implications in the temperature as in the thin ice across which he walks, of the consequences of not building a fire as well as of building one under a spruce.9 His mishaps are certainly unfortunate, then, but since a “close call” prompts no greater caution, we also treat him as in part responsible for the circumstances that finally destroy him. Is it fair, however, to judge him this way? And if so, why do we balk at so doing?10
These questions clearly drive to the heart of any determinist vision, especially given the difficulties in separating our view of the man from what happens to him. More clearly than other naturalist texts, the story draws attention to the arbitrary ties by which we associate knowledge with control, deliberation with agency. As I described in the Introduction, we project responsibility into fictional texts whether or not the capacity is warranted, and we do so much as we do in life, paradoxically holding characters to account for what simply happens to happen to them. “To Build a Fire” forms a particularly vivid illustration of “moral luck,” since we assume the man is culpable for having made an error of judgment (i.e., if circumstances had somehow confirmed his judgment, as they might easily have done, he would not have seemed to us to be at fault—although nothing he had thought, intended, or done would have been in the event any different). Notably, moreover, it is ignorance that characterizes his status as a chechaquo, “a newcomer in the land” who has been out before in only “two cold snaps.” He ought, as he later acknowledges, to have complied with the advice of the old-timer at Sulphur Creek, “that no man must travel alone in the Klondike after fifty below.” Yet although the narrator continues to stress this injunction in chiding tones, he is also forced to admit that the man was “without imagination,” unable to appreciate the cold's “significance” or to anticipate the consequences of his actions. Indeed, the terms of responsibility slip from the narrator's very description, when he asserts that it was the man's “own fault or, rather, his mistake.” First advancing, then withdrawing a flat statement of blame, the narrator seems compelled for accuracy's sake to translate guilt into mere inaccuracy.
Our own sense of the man's responsibility also diminishes through the story as we come to see that nothing can avert the disaster or otherwise alter events, events that result from so forceful a conjunction of character and circumstance. At the same time, our conventional conceptions of both these categories come to seem problematic. Like the narrator, we begin by wishing the man would just behave differently or show more restraint, only to realize he would literally have to be constituted differently for such a change to occur. If he were smarter, say, or stronger, or less impetuous, or followed advice: if any of these were so, we assume, he might well have been able to save his life. What his presentation makes clear, however, is that these could only be so by making him someone other than the man depicted in the story. Contrary to our normal expectation that people can always act differently than they do—that they can refrain from one activity and choose to do another instead—the unnamed man acts as he must. He is, in other words, exactly the sum of the events he enacts, no more or less, exemplifying the determinist premise that character is revealed through events, not in contrast to them. By assuming that changes in personality might somehow have altered the chain of events, we simply deny the man is who he is.11
Yet firmly fixed as the man's character appears to be, the circumstances of London's story seem somehow even less mutable, in large part because any knowledge of them has so little effect on what happens. Significantly, we never learn if the man forgot or did not know in the first place that it was hazardous to build a fire under a snow-laden tree. No matter whether he knew or not, so the narrative logic goes, the results of his trek would have been the same. The problem with such a logic is that it seems counter-intuitive, since knowledge appears to be the most determining constraint on activity, not the least. What we know or do not know would seem to dictate any possibility for action, either determined or free. Counter-intuitive or not, however, that logic corresponds to the sense of impotence we think we would feel in a deterministic world.
Or consider again a change in the man's capacities, this time from another perspective. What if he had been able in fact to imagine what the temperature meant, or had somehow anticipated the treacherous spring, or had considered the risks of traveling without a partner in this region; the story suggests that his trip would have turned out no better, even so. Judiciousness, forbearance, and circumspection all seem irrelevant when we can so readily imagine negligence leading to quite different consequences—say, the man's second fire not being obliterated by snow, or (as in the earlier version) his third attempt actually succeeding. Vice versa (but according to the same premise), Nagel's hapless driver might well have taken another route and still hit a child. The point is less that similar actions might have led the man to different consequences, or even that different actions could just as easily have led the driver to similar consequences, than that any consequences are always to some extent unforeseen. Our common mistake is in assuming that, since circumspection can avert disaster, greater caution will somehow decrease the hazards still further. But this ignores how much of what happens can be seen to lie outside our control, how little in fact our knowledge commands, and therefore how fully we always live in a state of unexpected contingency.
Unable to accept this condition, the narrator can only harp on the value of knowledge in the Arctic world. And much as a stress on what the man knows unsettles our faith in his wilderness lore, the narrator's larger claims have the more radical effect of drawing all knowledge into question. Grammatically as well as narratively, the text belies the assumption that causal patterns link actions with one's will, leaving the reader no better ready than the man to anticipate when accidents will occur. Most dramatically, we remain unaware of any mistake in the five long paragraphs that detail the fire's careful construction under a tree. We too rush to assume that the cold will be at last forestalled in this instance, and when suddenly consequences clarify the error, we too are pinned as tightly as the man to a universe of “moral luck,” likewise surprised only after the fact by what turns out to be something less than sin. The narrator's persistent effort to affix responsibility thus depends on a retrospective moralizing that is exposed as completely factitious.
Since knowledge appears to matter so little, regret seems altogether inappropriate, a response as irrelevant to events after the fact as the the uncertain feeling of choice is beforehand. Nor are we convinced by the man's own earnest profession of those values, which simply means that he is as fully mistaken as the narrator. Indeed, the narrative encourages us to identify with him against his own judgments, and to deny his fierce self-criticisms—if only because we recognize that his being “without imagination” has far less striking implications than the narrator didactically asserts. What we gradually realize instead is that responsibility must always seem misplaced in a world where knowledge proves so irrelevant and the will so unable to effect any change.
The sheer unknowability of consequence, which drains responsibility from the story, is reinforced by frequent references to all that the man is unable to achieve. No occasion at first occurs for such descriptions, even hypothetically, since before noon the man's desires and external events match somehow seamlessly; simply put, he keeps the pace he wants. But near mid-day, his self-assurance first gives way to doubt, and as that begins to happen the rhythm of contingency alters: “If he kept it up, he would certainly be with the boys by six.” Now, conditions and the conditional begin to prevail, shifting both the man and the reader back and forth: “… if his feet are wet. If his feet are dry …”; “but now it ebbed away”; “But he was safe”; “If he had only had a trailmate”; “Even if he succeeded”; “Yet he was no better off”; “but the birch bark was alight”; “but … his shivering got away with him”; “But it was all he could do”; “But no sensation was aroused.” This clotting of “if”s and “but”s occurs almost exclusively in the narrative's middle third, as the man's initial confidence turns first to doubt, then hopelessness.
At the extremes of the emotional spectrum between full certainty and utter despair, as at the beginning and end of the story, it is irrelevant whether desire happens to align with experience. But the central section—where “things go wrong” and desire is for the first time denied—foregrounds both the man's vain hopes and what seem to him to be dire contingencies. The altered use of conditional and conjunction itself signals the shift in mood; after the story's mid-point, the sequence of “if”s and “but”s stress only prospects inimical to the man. By voicing his desire in the subjunctive, against a diminishing set of possibilities, the narrative accentuates the immutable shape that consequences give to events.
In the subfreezing Arctic, moreover, that shape is predictably a frozen one. The life-denying cold slowly enervates the man, leaving him at first bemused at the mechanical in the natural that makes his body seem somehow other: “When he touched a twig, he had to look and see whether or not he had hold of it. The wires were pretty well down between him and his finger ends.” Later, “it struck him as curious that one should have to use his eyes in order to find out where his hands were.” With his physical body now so clearly having become a thing apart, subjective and objective points of view begin to diverge, and to do so visibly—as he savagely beats his limbs to restore their circulation, or uses his teeth to strike matches only to cough out the flame he so painfully lights, or endures the stench of seared hands in a final fire-building attempt. However true it may sometimes be that “all a man had to do was to keep his head,” that adage takes on an ironically literal significance when first the man's limbs and then his torso follow frozen toes, leaving him effectively decapitated.
His desires continue to press at the story's end as strongly as at the beginning, but by that time neither body nor actions can any longer be called his own. Or rather, he now more obviously exists in a condition that has been true of him all along: as a mere meeting of forces, more or less vital, more or less coherent. The plot, that is, at last enacts on the man's physical body a process completed long before by his narrative presentation—one in which attention is directed so fully at the world that absorbs him that no room appears to exist for a free-standing self. “Keeping his head” had otherwise seemed a matter of mere figurative self-composure, but the story turns on the profound implications of what physically is needed to compose a self, as the apparently inessential grows inanimate and consciousness slowly disintegrates.
This conclusion is nicely illustrated at the very end of the story, as the man drifts into a sleep of death: “He did not belong with himself any more, for even then he was out of himself, standing with the boys and looking at himself in the snow. It certainly was cold, was his thought” (97). At that moment of physical release, the categories of both character and self are exploded, along with such subsidiary considerations as negligence and responsibility.12 Refuting the customary realist conflation of the body with the will, London finally decenters the self, dissipating it through divisions between “he”s, “himself”s, and “his” and thereby displacing desire into the world. Of course, actually to free oneself from desire is possible only through release from the physical body, which necessarily results in death.13
At the grammatical level as well, London removes the man from his desires and transforms the personal into the impersonal by wrenching language and affronting usage. In the sentence quoted above (“it struck him as curious that one should have to use his eyes in order to find out where his hands were”), the pronominal disjunction between “him,” “one,” and “his” that otherwise suggests mere sloppy prose in this case marks the growing split between the man and himself.14 Much as the cold dismantles him physically, the deadening maneuvers of syntax immure him in an environment that is all but paratactically fixed. Yet other aspects of his presentation likewise expose him to a textual frostbite that progressively numbs and immobilizes. Instead of actions being ascribed by the narrator to a coherent, identifiable “self,” for instance, they are synecdochically assigned to parts of the man's body. At one point, his walk is described as a mere “eager nose that thrust itself aggressively into the frosty air,” and at another he appears only by extension, as an ambulatory pied-à-terre—“At the man's heels trotted a dog.”
Throughout the story, the man is defined by a sequence of negative formulations, as if he existed in little more than the tension derived through the contrast with what he is not; thoughts either “did not worry the man” or otherwise “never entered his head,” while experience in general is asserted as having “made no impression.” At those times when emotional, even automatic physiological responses are represented, the text offers them externally, as if they were occurring apart from and somehow happening to the man. Excluding him even more radically as a grammatical presence itself are a series of dead spatial metaphors. When he has them, for example, thoughts no longer “occurred” but entered “into his head,” or sat with an almost physical weight “in his consciousness,” or “reiterated” themselves. Instead of his consciously making an effort to withdraw from the cold, it is his “blood” that is described as having autonomously “recoiled.”15 Long before the cold penetrates, however, the text incapacitates the man by denying our projected sense of him as a coherent, identifiable self.
It should be clear by now that the narrative strategy of “To Build a Fire” depends upon more than a single point of view. What may be less clear, however, is that the tension between two main perspectives alters through the story and thereby itself transforms our understanding of what ensues. On the one hand, the man's limited consciousness is represented through a free indirect discourse, and as he becomes more and more panicked, the textual rhythms grow less assured. On the other hand, posed against that increasingly hysterical voice is an omniscient narrator who alternates between fiercely moralizing tones and cold impersonality. Indeed, the narrator takes an unusual tack toward his own story, and not merely because he occasionally sneers at the man's capacities or taunts his desires. As we have seen, he apparently thwarts the man's will more actively and persistently, by describing all those possibilities that can never be achieved. It is almost as if, in depicting closed options, he were delighting in the man's predicament.16
The fact that neither voice succeeds in finally controlling the text is less important, however, than that each persists in competing so fiercely for that control. Or so, at least, it seems in such passages as the following:
He was sure to frost his cheeks; he knew that, and experienced a pang of regret that he had not devised a nose strap of the sort Bud wore in cold snaps. Such a strap passed across the cheeks, as well, and saved them. But it didn't matter much, after all. What were frosted cheeks? A bit painful, that was all; they were never serious.
Empty as the man's mind was of thoughts, he was keenly observant …
This characteristically abrupt transition from one paragraph to the next, one voice to another, provokes a series of questions: Why allow the man's vivid impressions to be given only to dismiss them so soon as intellectually limited? What is gained by unexpectedly adopting his pragmatic perspective and then as abruptly abandoning it? And why does the narrator elsewhere deny the man's claims with “in reality,” or peremptorily refute his knowledge, or inveigh against his utter lack of imagination, curiosity, even intelligence—“The trouble with him …”? Were we to concur with these narratorial judgments, it would lead to the simple didactic conclusion that the man fails according to a clear set of wilderness standards; supposedly, as in the early version, he illustrates no more than a cruel moral to travel in the Yukon. Yet such an interpretation flattens out far too much in the story, and sacrifices all that we have seen of its stylistic and thematic complexity to the rough plot correspondence with an earlier version.
Part of what exposes the superficiality of so moralizing an interpretation is the very immediacy of the man's perspective, which lends an urgency to the narrative that has crucial repercussions. We as readers, after all, fail as well to anticipate the mistakes he will make and are just as surprised as he by the turn that events happen to take. Evoking his premature assessments, his frustrated desires and growing agitation, the narrative succeeds in gradually aligning the reader with the man, and thereby helps to immerse us in a deterministic universe. Distant as we may otherwise feel from someone who lacks either imagination or knowledge, we sympathize with him at those points where our wills are also denied, our own sense of foreclosure heightened. The text's persistent, repetitive rhythm affects us much as it does the man, progressively alienating us as well from our customary assumptions by absorbing us into the determinist patterns established by the text.
A curious result of the diminished sense of control that we feel along with the man is that the narrator's unrelenting critique begins to turn back on itself. Gradually, we become aware that the censure of the man calls its own terms into question—in part because it does so on occasion quite explicitly. Recall the central paragraph of the fire's disastrous obliteration, when the narrator qualifies his claim that it was the man's “own fault or, rather, his mistake.” Despite the initial moralizing impulse, which recurs in subsequent observations about the man's responsibility for his plight, the hesitant retraction acknowledges how little agency in fact really matters. Even the possibility that the prose is in free indirect discourse—and that these self-exculpating tones are the man's, not the narrator's—only helps to confirm what has been clear all along: that in subscribing to the weak moral assumptions maintained by the narrator, the man cannot escape a spurious self-indictment that only has the effect of compounding his self-alienation.
However much they may differ or share, the conflicting narrative voices are finally unable to disguise how little it is that consciousness can effect, at least in this story. “To Build a Fire” most radically subverts our expectations about the will, then, by shifting attention from thoughts to events, and in particular by presenting events as if they were happening to, even “at” the man. Left near the end as at the beginning, he forms nothing so much as a mere meeting of forces—nameless, selfless, little more than a place for things to happen—and the story comes at last to seem less a painful dismantling of an integrated ego than a revelation of how little there has been all along. At nearly every point, he finds his desire to ward off the cold is thwarted, and thwarted as much by the narrator's hectoring mode as by physical events. Yet the fact that the narrator is foiled as well—most prominently, in his repeated endeavor to hang moral tags on experience—points to what seems like a curiously unresolved tension in the story. Neither the man nor the narrator seems able to offer accurate interpretations of events or to exert control over the experience they happen to observe. In much the same way that the man's concerted efforts fail to alter the course of events, the narrator's broken syntax suggests the inadequacies of his descriptive role, revealing how little credit he can take for shaping the narrative he reports.
Still, both voices do exist as likely presences in the text and reinforce separate identities by the very resistance they offer to each other. It is as if their actual status was finally a matter of little or no concern. The fact that the man in particular lacks so many of the features we associate with identity comes to seem less important than that he continues to exist in the text at all. Agency may no longer be at issue, and the prospect of a coherent self has vanished, but something distinctly remains in our reading of the story, even so. What that something is has been clarified by the discussion of Strawson and Nagel, and involves the irrepressible “self” we impose on almost any narrative sequence. That “self” is not a function, then, of only familiar textual structures—of the grammatical and narrative forms so characteristic of literary realism that evoke for us the model of responsible personhood. Indeed, London's story stands as an exemplary instance of how we arbitrarily reinsert a responsible “self” into human relations, even in the absence of enabling structures. More than simply a process of anthropomorphizing the unknown, we attribute to fictional figures capacities that cannot ever be proved and yet that far exceed the sum of particular traits or psychological processes.
Precisely because responsibility is entirely stripped from this fictional world, “To Build a Fire” forms a narrative site on which we can clearly see ourselves project habitual assumptions about moral agency. The moral category keeps reappearing, reinscribing itself through the very conflict that arises between the two narrative voices. The effect of this is to make the man seem transformed from simply a “character” to a “self”—from someone who acts as desires dictate into someone capable of restraining himself, of deciding the kinds of desires he wants, and even of choosing the type of person he thinks he would like to be. The reason the category of the self keeps reinserting itself into the text—this, despite all the narrative forces that freeze it out from so fierce an Arctic world—is that both the man and the narrator agree that the category must somehow exist. With absolutely no evidence from experience, and much to the contrary to suggest that the man is essentially powerless, they both assume (as does the reader) that he can make decisions, then act or not act directly because of them.
Of course, this paradoxical process is by no means peculiar to London's story, however differently that process occurs in other texts, as the next chapters show. Characters who at first glance seem to be flawed but nonetheless full, card-carrying “persons” appear upon closer examination to lack an array of essential attributes. The question that arises has little to do with the power of that initial illusion, since in any event we have seen how central it is to our constitutional makeup. Rather, the issue becomes a matter of distinguishing case by case how we as readers are persuaded temporarily to sacrifice such an illusion, to forego the comforting premise that others are agents as well as ourselves. What additional forms of repetition, say, or patterns of narrative voice, or syntactical maneuvers, or constructions of character, help subvert our normal projective impulses? What, in short, are the textual strategies adopted by different authors in texts more elaborate and comprehensive than London's? As importantly, how might determinism be depicted as a psychological rather than a physical issue—as a problem not of contending accounts about a character's alleged negligence but of the psychic construction of an independent “self”? That question moves us from the natural world to a set of far stranger inner landscapes, from the philosophy of knowledge to the psychology of desire, and from matters distinctively stylistic to those more clearly behavioral. As well, the question seems constructed for the very novel often considered the triumph of American naturalism: Theodore Dreiser's American Tragedy.
For an informative, if controversial, biography that confirms the fears even admirers have about London, see Irving Stone, Jack London, Sailor on Horseback: A Biographical Novel (1938; rpt. New York: Signet, 1969). Carolyn Wilson assesses his confusions in “‘Rattling the Bones’: Jack London, Socialist Evangelist,” Western American Literature (August 1976), 11:135–48.
Jack London, “To Build a Fire,” in Lost Face (New York: Macmillan, 1910), p. 98. Subsequent references to this edition appear directly in the text.
One complexly patterned rhyme occurs later, with the “tingling” and “stinging ache” that is “excrutiating” (86). And while this passage happens to lack many examples, alliteration occurs nearly as frequently throughout as at its conclusion. A small, random sample of such instances includes “day dark” (63), “spat speculating” (65), “numb nose” (67), “warm-whiskered” (67), “dropped down” (69), “first faraway signals of sensation” (85–86), “fetched forth” (86), “freezing feet” (86), and “day drew” (97).
Another notable instance occurs on pp. 74–75, where in one paragraph, each sentence, sometimes each phrase, begins with the formulation “He [transitive verb] …”
The phrase is Harry Levin's, who aptly invoked it to define the materially importunate worlds of realism. Part of my argument, however, is that in naturalist texts the illusion of things matters enough for absence to be thematized directly; it dictates behavior with as straightforwardly “tyrannous” an effect as presence. See “Society as Its Own Historian,” in Contexts of Criticism (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1957), p. 186; also, “What Is Realism?” pp. 67–75; and “On the Dissemination of Realism,” in Grounds for Comparison (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1972), pp. 244–61.
It bears repeating that this is not philosophically necessary, but merely narratively persuasive. Harry G. Frankfurt has cogently argued that one need not be able to effect one's will to be morally responsible. See “Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility,” Journal of Philosophy (1969), pp. 829–39.
Jack London, “To Build a Fire,” The Youth's Companion (May 29, 1902), 76:275. Susan Ward has observed that London's style was considered innovative by contemporaries, and that he moved to a shorter, simpler style in the decade from 1899 to 1910. See “Toward a Simpler Style: Jack London's Stylistic Development,” Jack London Newsletter (1978), 11:71–80.
For Zola's views, see the essays collected in George J. Becker, ed., Documents of Modern Literary Realism (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1963), esp. pp. 159–229.
Earle Labor provocatively asserts that the story's opening sentence already suggests the man's doom, in Jack London (New York: Twayne, 1974), p. 63.
Joan D. Hedrick, at least, thinks so, claiming that this and another story deal with “unnecessary death—death that could have been avoided had the protagonists the imagination to perceive their finitude and their need to rely on others for mutual support and protection.” Solitary Comrade: Jack London and His Work (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1982), p. 49. On the other hand, Earle Labor regards the man as a “tragic hero,” who finally “achieves true heroic stature” (Jack London, pp. 65–66). James I. McClintock, in White Logic: Jack London's Short Stories (Cedar Springs, Mich.: Wolf House Books, 1976), takes an alternative view that the story “is London's most mature expression of his pessimism,” and that “man is inherently too limited to explore life's mysteries and live” (116).
Thomas Nagel has also asserted that since we are not responsible for creating ourselves, we cannot be held liable for what our constitutions lead us to do. Conversely, one cannot praise as virtuous a person who refrains from immoral action if the person is so constructed as not to be attracted to such an act. Not getting angry in provocative circumstances is not a moral virtue if a person happens not to be an easily angered person. Mortal Questions (New York: Cambridge UP, 1979), pp. 32–33.
For a radically different reading of the man's death and its significance for the story, see Charles E. May, “‘To Build a Fire’: Physical Fiction and Metaphysical Critics,” Studies in Short Fiction (Winter 1978), 15:19–24.
Bryan S. Turner addresses some of the paradoxes involved in the conjunction of self and body, in Body and Society (New York: Blackwell, 1984): “Our bodies are an environment which can become anarchic, regardless of our subjective experience of our government of the body” (7). And he adds: “In writing this study of the body, I have become increasingly less sure of what the body is. The paradoxes illustrate the confusion. The body is a material organism, but also a metaphor; it is a trunk apart from head and limbs, but also the person (as in ‘anybody’ and ‘somebody’). The body may also be an aggregate of bodies, often with legal personality as in ‘corporation’ or in ‘the mystical body of Christ.’ Such aggregate bodies may be regarded as legal fictions or as social facts which exist independently of the ‘real’ bodies which happen to constitute them. There are also immaterial bodies which are possessed by ghosts, spirits, demons and angels. … The body is at once the most solid, the most elusive, illusory, concrete, metaphorical, ever present and ever distant thing—a site, an instrument, an environment, a singularity and a multiplicity” (7–8).
This pronominal division occurs earlier, and to similar effect. See, for instance, the last sentence in the full paragraph quoted above, p. 76.
The passage reads: “The blood of his body recoiled before it. The blood was alive, like the dog, and like the dog it wanted to hide away and cover itself up from the fearful cold” (80; also p. 89).
The free indirect discourse accorded the dog forms a third voice that appears less obviously—at the end of the story, for example, in the concluding paragraph quoted at the beginning of this chapter. At other times, the man's “throat sounds” and uncharacteristically threatening movements are clearly rendered from the uncomprehending, instinct-ridden perspective of the animal (cf. pp. 76–77, 90). The way in which that perspective is characterized strongly resembles the man's, which contributes to the reduced view of him as a distinctly human self. The man's efforts to entice the dog to him, for instance, elicit this response: “Something was the matter, and its suspicious nature sensed danger—it knew not what danger, but somewhere, somehow, in its brain arose an apprehension of the man” (90). Moreover, the accuracy of instinct, in contrast to the ineffectiveness of knowledge, forms a minor theme through the story and is confirmed in the concluding scene. Still, this third narrative voice is at once less prominent and less critical to the story's development than the other two.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4861
SOURCE: “Why the Man Dies in ‘To Build a Fire’,” in The Critical Response to Jack London, edited by Susan M. Nuernberg, Greenwood Press, 1995, pp. 27–35.
[In the following essay, Adams investigates ambiguities in “To Build a Fire” and suggests another perspective on the story.]
During a discussion of “To Build a Fire” a student asked me, “Why was the man in the Yukon?” I answered that he was probably a prospector, since the “camp” in the story is an “old claim.” But only the earliest version of the story tells us explicitly that men are in the Yukon “prospecting and hunting moose.” I began thinking about that difference and other differences between the various versions of the story, especially major differences like the dog and the man's death, and it seemed to me that there was a general pattern to the changes London made. What was explicit and in the foreground of the first version became implicit or in the background of the later versions. This suggested to me that the foregrounded additions, the dog and the death, were thematically linked, and that in a special way the man dies because of the dog.
In the plot of the later versions of the story the man does of course die because of the dog; more precisely, he dies because he cannot kill the dog in order to warm his hands enough to build a fire.1 This foregrounded and explicit plot detail is in accord with what can be called “the standard reading” of the story. In the standard reading the man dies because he is not biologically fit to live.2 This Darwinian theme (actually a “moral”) is foregrounded by the explicit comparison of the dog's innate characteristics to the man's. Because he is not the dog and because of a conjunction of arrogance, inexperience, and bad luck, the man learns the hardest way a bitter “law” of the Yukon, that no human goes out alone on the trail when the temperature is lower than fifty degrees below zero. This law is also a moral, and so the Yukon moral merges with the Darwinian moral to form the standard reading. And this reading easily accommodates a typical “moral” of Naturalist narrative: humans are cast into an existence over which they have no control, and their inherent failings and a disinterested but “implacable” Nature will always conjoin to produce disaster. For most admirers of “To Build a Fire” these interlocked morals of the standard reading combined with London's skilled storytelling produce a powerful examination of “the human condition.” Unfortunately, there are ambiguities in the story which not only make the standard reading problematic but also suggest that another reading is required.
One set of ambiguities has to do with the distinction between evolution and inheritance. For example, are we to understand from the story that when in their evolutionary history humans lost the resources of fur and instinct they also lost the resources of intelligence, but developed the characteristic of arrogance? And what exactly is the range of the man's arrogance and lack of “imagination?” Is his attitude toward the “old timer” and his advice an aspect of this lack and inevitable and predictable because it is an evolutionary characteristic? Or is it genetic? Or is his arrogance a product neither of history nor of inheritance but the result of factors outside biology, for example experience? The story implies that had he been in the Yukon longer the man's experience would have been different and hence his attitude, behavior, and fate would have been different. If Yukon survival is a matter of experience, then any innate evolutionary or genetic weaknesses are irrelevant. Or is London's point that men like the one in the story are so biologically handicapped by evolution or genetics that they never live long enough to get the experience that could keep them alive?
These ambiguities about the importance of the man's biological makeup are compounded by an ambiguity about the events over which the man has no control. A significant foregrounded event in the plot, as the man himself recognizes, is bad luck.3 As in many Naturalist narratives luck is the “laboratory” in which characters are tested, where the interaction of biology and circumstances is manifested as success or failure. But is the man's luck linked to his experience or to his biology? The man knows for example, that he must avoid the concealed water and what to do if he steps in it (466). Were he more experienced or more “imaginative” (or for that matter, if he had more fur) the man would be no better off if luck was against him. And what are we to make of the incident of the spruce tree which dumps the snow on his fire? Is it the result of inherited obtuseness? Or the result of inexperience? Or the predictable result of haste and fear, as the story seems to suggest? Or is it simply more bad luck? In short, does the story say that a man with his weaknesses will always have bad luck, or does it suggest that if his luck had been good, then any inherited or learned behavior would be irrelevant?
London thus seems indecisive about what the standard reading takes to be the theme of the story. But perhaps the problem is that London is less interested in the thematic elements of the story than in the narrative presentation, the “literary” aspects of the story, for example its irony.
For most of us, I suspect, the important result of evolution is that we humans, including the man in London's story, have become in significant ways superior to dogs and even to the environment. The man in the story obviously can do many things the dog cannot do: he can plan ahead (“He would be in camp by six o'clock,” 463), he can apply the past to the present (“He remembered the tale of a man, caught in a blizzard,” 474), he can carry prepared food with him, he can choose warm clothing, he can make fires, he can tame animals, and he can use tools such as matches, watches, thermometers, and knives. If suddenly transported to the Equator, he probably could survive (barring bad luck) but the Yukon husky might not. The fundamental irony in the story, as David Hamilton points out,4 is that a creature endowed by evolution with the power to think, choose, and create, chose, without thinking, to create serious trouble for itself and the more it tries to demonstrate its superiority to circumstances the more it shows that only a more “primitive” and “inferior” creature could get itself out of the trouble. With the irony of the story we are again brought back to the biological questions raised by the story. Considering that most of the man's characteristics are those of other humans, are we to see the irony of the story as a “universalizing” aspect of the man's fate, telling us that it is the case for all humans that not only do our evolutionary characteristics of mental and technological superiority not guarantee us against disasters, in some cases they might actually get us into trouble, that in those cases we might be better off if we were more primitive? But what if our technology always works or our luck always holds? Certainly we could imagine a story where that would be the case. Possibly London is implying in his story that such will never be the case for humans, that either luck or matches will always fail. Or is he only warning us as a general principle not to be complacent about human superiority?
Perhaps I am wrong in seeing a universalizing motive for London. Perhaps he is saying that the man in the story is not a “representative” human but only an individual with specific characteristics in specific circumstances such that he will die, but because most of us do not correspond to the man's model we should not worry about a similar fate. The story can be read that way (the man does have specific characteristics—red hair, lack of imagination, inexperience) and such a reading greatly reduces both the story's ambiguities and its moralism. But even that reductive reading will not eliminate all the ambiguities and moralism in the story.
It may be, as modern literary theory holds, that the kinds of ambiguities I have been pointing out are the inevitable by-product of any fictional narrative and are not specific to London's story. Or they may be specific if they are the result of London's having to revise the story without the original version at hand.5 I will argue that the ambiguities are not only specific to the story but also are the result of an intrusion during revision of an ideology which London was only partly conscious of, an ideology which generally went into the background of the revised versions but which is important in determining why the man dies.
In the first version of the story, printed in Youth's Companion in 1902, the protagonist survives his ordeal and learns his lesson: “‘Never travel alone!’ … the precept of the North”6 (343). In the second version the dog and the man's death were added, along with an epigraph when the story was printed in Century Magazine in 1908: “He travels fastest who travels alone … but not after the frost has dropped below fifty degrees or more.—Yukon code.”7 The epigraph was dropped when the story was printed in the collection Lost Face (1910), in effect creating a third version. The first version of the story is clearly what I suggested that we could imagine, an account in which the man's luck and technology do not fail. In that version we are told up front not only the moral of the story but also that one can live after having learned it, as “Tom Vincent found out” through “bitter experience” (342). The phrase “found out” and the symbolic name “Vincent” (“conquering”) tell us that while reading the story we can relax and concentrate on the details of the lesson; we will feel no anxiety about the human condition from Tom's fate. He is young, “big boned and big muscled, with faith in himself” (342). He seems to have no more insight into human existence than the anonymous man of the revised versions and he is just as arrogant; because he is young and strong and arrogant he will not wear a nose-strap (a “feminine contraption”) and exults in “mastering the elements” (343). Animals hole up in bad weather, but not a man (343). And though he will soon be “fighting for his life against those same elements” he thought he was master of, his arrogance is ultimately justified. If he runs in panic, he has the strength to run, and if he burns his flesh in kindling the crucial fire, he has the stoicism to endure it (346–347). What could be a typical Yukon disaster turns out to be only a learning experience, one which Tom passes on to others; he has become the old timer.
Obviously the 1902 version is aimed at young readers and does not raise the kind of questions that the revised versions do. The loss of the epigraph in the 1910 version suggests that London was no longer certain that the law of the Yukon is the point of the story; the removal of the epigraph emphasizes the focus on the laws of evolution. Linked to that shift in focus is a change in the overt motivation for being in the Yukon: in the early version Tom is a member of one of many groups hunting and prospecting, and he is prospecting successfully, for they had “struck ‘pay’ up there on Cherry Creek Divide” (342). This motivation is only implicit in the revised version, appearing as the “old claim” where “the boys” are waiting (463). But the most significant differences between the three versions are of course the foregrounded additions of the dog and the death of the man.
The presentation of the dog is generally read as the chief means of presenting the Darwinian moral, but London shows us not so much what the dog is as what it has been forced to become, an adjunct to the man. It is as though London was deliberately denying the cliché, “A man's best friend is his dog.” In its original, evolved form, in the state of nature, the dog is protected by a heavy coat of fur (464) which suggests but contrasts with the man's “red beard and moustache” (464). The dog is the perfect Darwinian exemplar, capable of surviving if it and its environment are not interfered with. But London tells us that both have been interfered with.
When we first see the dog it is primarily in its altered role. No longer an autonomous entity, a “wolf-dog” adapted to its surroundings, it has been reduced to an object owned by the man and slinks along at the man's heels (464) expecting the man “to go into the camp and to seek shelter somewhere and build a fire” (464). It has been conditioned by humans to respond to an environment created by humans: it “had learned fire, and it wanted fire” (464); at the man's death it trots up the trail “to the other food providers and fire providers” (478). And the conditioning has been brutal. In what amounts to a capsule history of the relationship between the “superior” and “inferior” species we see the dog first as “native husky” trotting after the man (464), then it slinks along (464), then it is used as a means of detecting traps (466), then it is characterized as “the toil slave” of the man, trained by “whip lash” and “menacing sounds” (468), and finally it is to be sacrificed to save the man's life (474). The progression (or rather regression) is from the dog's function as companion to its function as disposable object; thus the dog is always “it,” not “he” or “she.”
The dog's dependent and objectified status and its partial assimilation to the man's environment makes ambiguous the implied physical resemblance of the two. The moisture of its breathing has caused the dog's “jowls, muzzle, and eyelashes” to be “whitened” by “a fine powder of frost” (464). The man's corresponding beard and moustache are also frosted with a “muzzle” of ice (464).8 This coincidence can be seen as reinforcing the Darwinian theme, as suggesting that the man will be (or ought to be) reduced to the animal state. He does, after all, shy “like a horse” (466) and he does step into a “trap” and he must, exactly like the dog, immediately deal with the consequences of that mishap. Or the similarity can be seen as another aspect of the dominant irony of the story: the superior being, placed in primitive conditions which he long since evolved out of, can no longer function, even if he superficially resembles a primitive species. But the resemblance also suggests an entirely opposite reading: the dog, in the process of his assimilation to the life of the man, is being placed in the same peril as the man. As a “wolf-dog,” half wolf and half dog, he cannot survive if he becomes dependent on human shelter, human food, human fire. Neither can he survive if he undergoes the final reduction to merely an object useful for the preservation of human life. By the resemblance between the two, London suggests a kind of perverse and ironic evolutionary process: humans will finally produce a dog so dependent and so objectified that it can no longer survive in its environment and hence will no longer be available to serve or save humans in that environment.
The essentially adversarial relationship between the dog and the man is the foregrounded version of the adversarial relationship between the larger environment and the man. Part of human evolution (at least social evolution) is the invention of the adversarial metaphor “hostile environment.” The metaphor has a purpose: if anything in the environment is to be subjected to a superior species it has to be seen as an inferior, as an object, or as an adversary. In the first version of “To Build a Fire” the adversarial relationship is foregrounded; Tom the conqueror enjoys “mastering the elements” and “defying the frost.” The cold “could not stop him.” “Strong as were the elements, he was stronger.” “He was a man, a master of things” (343). And though he limps “pitifully” into camp and bears the “scars on his hands” (347) of the battle he has won he is still master.
It seems at first that in the revised versions London abandoned the metaphor of battle and conquest, but in fact he only changed the implicit language defining the relationship. By a typical feat of “double speak” humans can redefine their adversarial relationship with nature so that “attack” or “conquest” becomes “defense.” This redefinition is implied by the technology the man carries. To humans threatened by a hostile environment, clothes, food, matches, thermometer, knife and dog are merely “weapons of defense.” And the Yukon is hostile and dangerous: it sets “traps” (466). But if we consider the source of the man's weapons, the technology which manifests the human superiority to nature and the assumed right to defend against it (that is, the right to master it), we can see technology as part of the redefinition of our relationship to our environment. For the man to have a thermometer, watch, and knife the earth had to be mined; for him to have a handkerchief and clothes the earth had to be plowed; and for him to have lunch animals had to die. Thus the foregrounded relationship between the man and the dog extends to every aspect of the man and his history and to the Yukon environment in which the events of the story take place.
The bitter cold of the Yukon is in the foreground of the man's consciousness and hence in the foreground of the story, but the emptiness and “pure” whiteness (462) are not. A corollary question to the one asked by my student is, “Why are there no native inhabitants of the Yukon in the story?” To the obvious answer that the story is not about them I would respond that the story is implicitly about them, just as the story is implicitly about the dog. Northern working dogs like the “husky” in the story are after all an innovation of those original inhabitants who were displaced by white intruders, whom we call “Eskimos,” and whose name the dog bears as a reminder.9 In all that vast whiteness surrounding the man the Eskimos occupy no physical or mental space. But to us they are conspicuous by their absence, not only because of the Eskimo dog but because of the man's attitude toward other humans. His companions at the camp are “boys” (463), the Yukon shrubbery is “nigger heads” (465), and the old timer on Sulphur Creek is both a horse (“hoss,” 477) and too “womanish” (470) to appreciate what a younger man can accomplish. When he feels contempt for himself he is “a chicken with its head cut off” (478). Obviously anyone or anything defined as inferior does not register in any significant way on the man's consciousness; we are not surprised then when without reflection he intends to slaughter the dog.
Less shocking but just as significant is his lighting a fire. It is a simple act and burns up only twigs and flotsam. But the burning wood was once part of the timber resources of the Yukon and links the simple act to man's reason for being in the Yukon: he has come “the roundabout way to look at the spring from the islands in the Yukon” (463). Earlier we glimpse the “fat spruce timberland” (462) and a “spruce-covered island” (462) and later the “big spruce trees” (463) and the “small spruce trees” under which he builds the fatal fire (469). Presumably the reason the man notices the “changes in the creek, the curves and bends and timber jams” (465) is that successfully getting logs out in the spring requires avoiding such timber jams. Thus dog and trees are interchangeable, only two of the “things of life” which catch the man's attention.
Labor and Hendricks comment on this “coldness” and emptiness of the man and suggest that it reflects and acts upon his environment;10 but his coldness is more than a matter of the “personality” or “attitude” of a single man experiencing an event of significance only to him, or even to other men like him. Another aspect of the emptiness in the story is that everyone is unnamed, including the dog, who is also neuter in gender. Paradoxically, this anonymity is a kind of “fullness.” In the sequence of revisions London changed the protagonist from “Tom Vincent” to “John Collins”12 and then abandoned names entirely. When he changed from the personalized “Tom” to the anonymous “man” he allows us, almost forces us, to read the man not as individual or even as generic male but as species, with species-specific behavior. And that specific behavior is destructive. The expansion of the man's role from person to species alters the Darwinian moral of the story: the evolutionary point is now not the arrogance and failings of a single individual but the arrogance and failings of a species, the assumption that since it is a superior species it has the right to consume everything on the planet. The man's decision to kill the dog is only the foregrounded version of his decision to come to the Yukon in the first place.
If in fact this implied social critique, which is also an ideology, is in the story, it can reasonably be asked, “Why is that ideology not in the foreground of London's consciousness and hence foregrounded in the story?” I suggest as answer a paradox: London did not foreground the social critique because he was a Socialist. Our contemporary concern about the exploitation and destruction of the “biosphere,” a concern which we call “environmentalism,” is of course dependent upon earlier critiques of exploitation and earlier concern for “Nature.” As David Morris points out in “The four stages of environmentalism” we are in the fourth stage; the modern environmentalist sees the destruction of the biosphere as the predictable result of the exploitation of natural and human resources begun in the Industrial Revolution.13 But London wrote “To Build a Fire” during the first stage of environmentalism, when the concern was only to set aside and maintain “unspoiled” a part of the natural landscape, to symbolically “conserve” the American Eden. And though like socialism this concern for nature carries the seed of a larger ecological consciousness and critique, there was not in 1908 a widespread feeling of our moral duty to save the world but rather a sense of our duty to leave something of a pristine and primitive environment to posterity. It is not probable, therefore, that modern environmental concerns would be in the foreground of London's consciousness. As a Socialist his attention was focussed on the exploitation of the “wage slave.” Nevertheless, we can see in London's story the shape of a larger critique in the attitude of the man toward animals and other humans. His refusal to take a companion on the trail suggests more than simply arrogance or inexperience; it suggests an ideology, a belief that going it alone is preferable to communal or cooperative action.14 That London was subconsciously dealing with a clash of ideologies, one espousing cooperative action and one espousing individualism, is implicit in the man's attitude toward the womanish old timers and in the definition of the dog's function as “toil slave” of the man. The verbal echo in “toil slave,” however faint, of London's socialist ideology suggests a source and meaning for the ambiguities in the story and a proper reading.
In the model I have been developing London rethought two or three times the moral he wished to convey in “To Build a Fire.” He moved from a focus on the laws of the Yukon as the point of the story (1902 version) through a version emphasizing the Yukon code within a Darwinian framework (1908 version) to the 1910 version in which both the Yukon code and evolution become ambiguous. The cause of the ambiguity, I argued, was an intrusion into London's consciousness of a social critique linked to his socialist views; but it is a critique which was at the time too rudimentary to be manifested as a systematic denunciation of the human consumption of the planet. Hence we get only hints of the critique in the background of the story. But with the focus first on the dog and then on the final cause of the man's death we are drawn through the foregrounded events in the plot to the implied critique in the background. The man's final and desperate attempts to reduce the dog to disposable object and to build a fire of and under the spruce tree are the conjunction of acts which let us correctly read the story. The quenching of the fire emphasizes the reason why he came to the Yukon, to empty it of fur, gold, and timber. It is fitting that a dog and a spruce tree take away his last chance of survival.
Such a judgement of the man of course imposes another moral on a story already moralistic and emphasizes the irony of the story; in short, as Labor and Hendricks point out,15 it imposes “poetic justice” on the man. It also moves the story away from realistic to fabular narrative. The man's death is no longer simply a plot device to convey a Darwinian-Naturalist moral about the human condition; it is a commentary on the man's motivation for being in the Yukon. The attempt to kill the dog is no longer simply “proof” of Darwinian laws; it is also an example of the arrogance of a self-styled dominant species. Nor is the incident simply an objective correlative incapsulating for us the emotions inherent in such a moment; it is a clue to how to read the story. At the risk of sounding like Polonius I could categorize “To Build a Fire” as a “proto-environmentalist fable,” for there is indeed something fable-like in the anonymous man's being destroyed by what he intended to destroy.16 The fable says that the man dies not because of an inheritance of bad genes, about which we can make no moral judgement, but because of an inheritance of bad ideology, which we, and London, can judge. For those of us who share London's moral concern about the world, however tentatively it is presented in the story, the judgement delivered by nature on a would-be violator is in fact a judgement, it is exactly what he deserves, and for us, as for London, that judgement is why the man dies.17
All references to the final version of “To Build a Fire” are to the Lost Face version in Donald Pizer, ed. Jack London: Novels and Stories (New York: Library of America, 1982), 462–478.
This reading is summarily stated in The Spectator by Tony Tanner: the story is “simply about a man fighting a losing battle with frost” reprinted in Twentieth Century Literary Criticism 15 (Detroit: Gale Research, 1985), 270. The standard reading is vigorously espoused by Charles E. May, “‘To Build a Fire’: Physical Fiction and Metaphysical Critics,” Studies in Short Fiction [SSF] 15 (1978), 19–24. But in Jack London (New York: Twayne, 1974) Earle Labor argues that the story follows the model of classical tragedy.
“He was angry and cursed his luck aloud” (469).
In Critical Survey of Short Fiction 5 (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Salem, 1981), 1811.
Or perhaps they are the characteristic difficulties of London's work. Labor summarizes some of them in Jack London, 148–150. See also Charles N. Watson, Jr., The Novels of Jack London: A Reappraisal (Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1983), 235–244. Labor and King Hendricks reprint the letter in which London says he is revising from memory in “Jack London's Twice-Told Tale,” SSF 4 (1967), 334–347.
I am citing this version as reprinted in “Twice-Told Tale,” 342–347.
The epigraph is in Pizer, Jack London, 997.
Labor and Hendricks point out in “Twice-Told Tale,” 340, that the dog is just one of the “things of life” for the man. The muzzle metaphor does not appear in the 1902 version of the story.
This assuming the common etymology of “husky” from “Eskimo.”
“Twice-Told Tale,” 335.
A curious exception is “Bud,” who devised the nose-strap. But perhaps because the name is a diminutive/nickname it suggests the man's attitude toward Bud.
Pointed out in Labor, Jack London, 155.
In Utne Reader 50 (1992), 157–159.
This was pointed out to me by two colleagues, Rebecca Hogan and Nancy Lewis. Labor and Hendricks see the man as a “loner” but do not connect that characteristic with an implicit socialist critique.
“Twice-Told Tale,” 340.
In “Twice-Told Tale” Labor and Hendricks categorize the 1902 version as an “exemplum,” but the category applies equally well to the later versions.
Perhaps London is making a distinction between those members of the species who exploit the planet (“the man”) and those who oppose the exploitation (socialists). But how that distinction can be fitted into the evolutionary theme is not clear, unless he is suggesting that while exploitation is an innate characteristic of humans only some humans manifest that characteristic in behavior because of circumstances, “personality,” etc. and others do not for the same reasons.