illustration fo a man in winter clothes lying on the snow under a tree with a dog standing near him

To Build a Fire

by Jack London

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The third paragraph of Jack London’s ‘‘To Build a Fire’’ offers a concise assessment of the personality and motivation of the story’s unnamed central character as he embarks across the vast and snowy winter landscape of the Klondike:

But all this—the mysterious, far-reaching hair-line trail, the absence of sun from the sky, the tremendous cold, and the strangeness and weirdness of it all— made no impression on the man. It was not because he was long used to it. He was a new-comer in the land, a chechaquo, and this was his first winter. 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 a 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 temperature; 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 moccasins, 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. (Excerpt from ‘‘To Build a Fire’’)

Referring to the above passage, James I. McClintock asserts that this ‘‘quick and alert’’ man tries to use reason instead of imagination to get him past his difficulties and safely to camp but that human rationality proves to be helpless against the Klondike’s ‘‘killing landscape.’’ In the same vein, Earle Labor and Jeanne Campbell Reesman refer to the frozen landscape as a powerful enemy or ‘‘antagonist,’’ asserting that the man ‘‘falls into misfortune because of . . . an overweening confidence in the efficacy of his own rational faculties and a corresponding blindness to the dark, nonrational powers of nature, chance, and fate.’’

In the context of ‘‘To Build a Fire,’’ then, ‘‘imagination’’ is the ability to recognize one’s limitations. As it happens, the man does not possess this ability until it is too late. From the beginning, he is aware of and responds to the intensity of the cold. At first, he greets this ruthless cold matter-of-factly and with relatively mild surprise: ‘‘It certainly was cold, he concluded, as he rubbed his numb nose and cheek-bones with his mittened hand.’’ This reaction seems especially low-key when compared with the dog’s response in the paragraph immediately afterward: ‘‘The animal was depressed by the tremendous cold. It knew it was no time for traveling.’’

As the story progresses, the man becomes more keenly aware of the magnitude of the cold. Nevertheless, this awareness does not fundamentally alter his mundane response to the unearthly ‘‘cold of space’’: he feels only a ‘‘pang of regret’’ after realizing that he should have covered his nose and cheeks against frostbite; he is only ‘‘a bit frightened’’ at the speed with which his fingers go numb when he removes his mittens; he is merely ‘‘angry’’ at his bad luck when he plunges knee-deep through the ice on the river-trail. It is not until snow falls from a tree and extinguishes his poorly placed fire that the man becomes ‘‘shocked’’ rather than merely surprised and at last acknowledges ‘‘his own sentence...

(This entire section contains 1491 words.)

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of death’’ as a result of this calamity.

Readers of ‘‘To Build a Fire’’ have judged the man’s casual response to the cold to be at best naively reckless and at worst downright stupid. They have argued that the man was not being reasonable by relying on his own ability ‘‘to keep his head’’ and arrogantly ignoring the old-timer’s advice to travel with a partner. Some have pointed out that at the very least, he should have dispensed with ‘‘traveling light’’ and instead used his dog as a pack animal for hauling extra supplies—a practice that was not only customary in the Klondike but logical as well. Most obviously, the man never should have been so foolish as to build his second fire underneath a snow-laden tree.

Rational or not, the man’s behavior is what makes ‘‘To Build a Fire’’ such a powerful story. His inability to imagine himself in danger from the cold and his fruitless attempts at ‘‘keeping his head’’ once he recognizes that death is near constitute behavior most of us can understand. Such disasters as fires, earthquakes, tornadoes, and floods bring with them enough eye-popping or ear-splitting devastation to make them clearly life-threatening. However, the extreme cold of frosty landscapes or ‘‘the White Silence,’’ as London describes it, is so quiet and abstract that it does not immediately appear to be lethal. Besides for most people, cold is easily rendered harmless by well-insulated houses and central heating, so that like the man in ‘‘To Build a Fire’’ (who has come from and is going to a warm cabin) we tend to forget that human beings are ‘‘able only to live within certain narrow limits of temperature.’’

Critic James I. McClintock emphasizes this point when he remarks that, even had the man been capable of imagining his own mortality before he set out on his journey—that is, even if he had traveled with a partner—there is no guarantee that he would have survived nature at its most extreme during a Klondike winter. Ultimately, McClintock argues, imagination is proof against unimaginably cold temperatures only if it keeps us indoors when they occur.

Indeed, the cold itself functions as an invisible antagonist in ‘‘To Build a Fire.’’ It meets the man as soon as he goes outside into the brutal Klondike winter, stays close by him throughout the story, and finally kills him through the effects of hypothermia— the lowering of body temperature to subnormal levels at which frostbite and eventually death occur. Hypothermia does not happen exclusively to newcomers or chechaquos, however. James H. Barker’s book Always Getting Ready/Upterrlainarluta consists of photographs and interviews with Yup’ik Eskimos living on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in Alaska. The Yup’ik word upterrlainarluta means ‘‘being ever prepared,’’ and for the Yup’ik culture on the Delta this means ‘‘that one must be wise in knowing what to prepare for and equally wise in being prepared for the unknowable.’’ This concept is similar to the ‘‘imagination’’ in ‘‘To Build a Fire.’’ One interview in particular in the book provides a grim example of the importance of upterrlainarluta:

Morrie told us how he lost his arm. During the winter of 1974 he was traveling downriver by himself on a snowmachine. The track became caked with ice. Attempting to clear it, he reached into the track and accidentally hit the throttle. His arm was caught. He couldn’t reach his tools to release the tension on the track so he sat there for some time trying to work his arm loose. Knowing he would die without help, he lay there long enough for his arm to freeze, cut it off and walked the couple of miles downriver to a nearby cabin for help. (Excerpt from Always Getting Ready/Upterrlainarluta)

Some may think that in ‘‘To Build a Fire’’ London exaggerates the dangers of extreme cold in order to tell a good story, but this is not the case. In January 1996, a Yup’ik couple and their grandchild were traveling by car in Interior Alaska when they got stuck in a snowbank far from the main highway. Unable to free their car, they stamped out the word ‘‘HELP’’ in the snow and set off on foot for the nearest dwelling—a roadhouse about ten miles away. Although not traveling alone, they suffered a fate similar to London’s character in ‘‘To Build a Fire.’’ With the temperature dropping below minus sixty degrees Fahrenheit, they tried unsuccessfully to build a fire. As hypothermia set in, they became disoriented. In a classic response to the last stages of hypothermia, they began to hallucinate and overheat. They wandered around in circles and threw off their parkas and mittens. Then all three died from the ‘‘tremendous cold.’’

In ‘‘To Build a Fire,’’ London’s chechaquo is confident that to survive the harsh Klondike winter ‘‘all a man had to do was to keep his head.’’ That confidence is, however, misplaced. As Peter Stark puts it in his article on hypothermia, ‘‘The cold remains a mystery, more prone to fell men than women, more lethal to the thin and well-muscled than to those with avoirdupois, and least forgiving to the arrogant and unaware.’’

Source: Jill Widdicombe, ‘‘Overview of ‘To Build a Fire,’’’ in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2000.

Keeping His Head: Repetition and Responsibility in London's To Build a Fire

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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 viceversa, 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).

I 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.

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-fivebelow- 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 signifi- cance, 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 idiosyncrasies 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. Sentence structures themselves repeat, whether resuming from similar subjects and adverbs (‘‘They were . . .’’ ‘‘They hid . . .’’; ‘‘Sometimes . . .’’ ‘‘Sometimes . . .’’); 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.

II Repetition establishes a compelling pattern in London’s Arctic for reasons that are neither simple nor straightforward. 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. 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. (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.’’ 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 speci- ficity, 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.

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 repetiT tive, 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.

Source: Lee Clark Mitchell, ‘‘‘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.

Alaskan Nightmare and Artistic Success: 1898-1908

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‘‘To Build a Fire’’ is London’s most mature expression of his pessimism. The nameless ‘‘chechaquo’’ or tenderfoot who confronts the white silence in this short story possesses neither the imagination that gives man an intuitive grasp of the laws of nature and allows him to exercise his reason to accommodate himself to them, nor the ‘‘thrice cursed’’ imagination that convinces man of the absurdity of confronting the unknown with ridiculously finite human powers:

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 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.

He does not recognize that man is so finite that the bitterly cold Alaskan landscape inevitably destroys the individual. The rest of the story suggests that man is totally unequipped to face the unknown and inherently too limited to explore life’s mysteries and live. If the individual is to survive, he must avoid truth-seeking and ‘‘spirit-groping.’’

Only two other living beings are mentioned in ‘‘To Build a Fire’’: the ‘‘old timer’’ and the dog who accompanies the tender-foot along the ‘‘hairline trail’’ into the ‘‘unbroken white’’ of the mysterious land. The old timer offers one way to survive, and as it turns out, the only way. In the autumn before the young man takes his fatal journey, ‘‘the old timer had been very serious in laying down the law that no man must travel alone in the Klondike after fifty below.’’ His experience has given him the imagination to continue living; but, significantly, he adjusts to the unknown by refusing to venture into it. He remains with other men, away from the trail during the heart of winter. The lesson he attempts to teach the young wanderer is that if one hopes to survive, he must retreat from a solitary confrontation with cosmic power, ‘‘the full force of the blow’’ delivered by ‘‘the cold of space’’ at the ‘‘unprotected tip of the planet.’’ The kind of accommodation the Kid makes, practicing the code in order to adjust, is impossible. The dog, however, accompanies the reckless young man into the cold and does survive. Instinct protects him. Nevertheless, instinct gives no comfort to man, since it is unavailable to him. The dog has ‘‘inherited the knowledge’’ from his savage ancestors who, like he, had never been separated from the brutal landscape by civilization. In fact, the dog is part of the inhuman Alaskan wilderness and, like it, ‘‘was not concerned in the welfare of the man.’’ The old timer’s imagination, then, warns that man cannot confront the depths of experience and live; the dog’s instinct for survival is unavailable to man. Having been divorced from nature by civilization, no man is fit to undertake the most arduous journey.

In addition to imagination, the quality that permitted the Malemute kid and other protagonists to survive in the Northland had been their knowledge of the concrete and their mastery of facts. Suspicious of abstractions, London had given his characters control over the factual. For example, Sitka Charlie may not understand the reasons for the bizarre occurrences in ‘‘The Sun-Dog Trail,’’ but he sees the details in the ‘‘picture’’ and knows how to respond to them effectively. The Kid, too, is able to master situations because he knows Northland lore, knows facts and can order them rationally. But by the time London had written ‘‘To Build a Fire’’ he had lost his faith in the potency of reason.

The chechaquo in this story has a command of facts and is ‘‘quick and alert in the things of life.’’ Clell Peterson argues perceptively and convincingly [in ‘‘The Theme of Jack London’s ‘To Build a Fire,’’’ American Book Collector, XVII, November, 1966] that the young man is not, as many readers assume, merely ‘‘a fool who dies for his folly’’; he is ‘‘not a fool’’ but the ‘‘modern, sensual, rational man.’’ Rather than a deficient character, he is another of London’s limited protagonists; and his death denies the efficacy of reason. The plot presents the mythic journey of the limited man into the unknown where his reason, his only support, no longer can sustain him:

The ‘‘dark hairline’’ of the main trail in the ‘‘pure snow’’ on the broad frozen Yukon suggests the narrow limits of man’s rational world compared with the universe beyond his comprehension . . . The events of the story take place in a world devoid of sunlight, of day-light, 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.

The power of reason has collapsed. London has even lost his faith in ‘‘facts’’: symbolically, the man falls through the snow into the water, the accident which begins his desperate struggle to live, because there are ‘‘no signs’’ indicating where the snow is soft. The man’s tragic flaw has been his masculine pride in his rationality.

Neither the abstract nor the concrete, imagination nor reason, sustain life. The romantic and the realistic impulses both lead nowhere. Without their protection, the unknown becomes a destructive agent whose white logic is the ‘‘antithesis of life, cruel and bleak as interstellar space, pulseless and frozen as absolute zero.’’ The landscape in ‘‘To Build a Fire’’ has become killer. What remains for London to do in this story, which everyone agrees he does masterfully, is to record the grotesque details which describe the nightmare of impaired physical activity that is the prelude to the modern man’s death. In ‘‘To Build a Fire’’ London has employed a controlled artistry to present the theme that was struggling to life in ‘‘In a Far Country.’’

Now that London’s everyman has become merely a helpless victim of the killing landscape, the mystical light goes out of the Alaskan sky. Rather than, as some would have it, portraying man’s insignificance but unsystematically depicting affirmations of the American Dream, the reverse had happened: London tried to dramatize a new version of human dignity but unintentionally drifted towards the pessimism which undeniably informs these Northland stories. Throughout the best of his Alaskan stories, London had made a series of adjustments in order to stave off a darkening vision and to preserve some reason for ‘‘spirit-groping.’’ Although his temperament and reading called upon him to affirm life, he exhausted the positive as he found himself forced to move from themes of mastery, to themes of accommodation, to themes of failure. His honesty compelled him to deny affirmations. Even the archetypal quest motif and the evocative imagery of the wasteland, artistic elements which distinguish his stories from those of lesser writers, disappear from his fiction as he discovered that it is not undertaking the dangerous and desperate quest that determines the quality of life but, instead, inexorable, external forces of nature and man’s irrationality, his link with that nature. The Alaskan nightmare had reached its conclusion, and London retreated from the ‘‘Unknown.’’

Source: James I. McClintock, ‘‘Alaskan Nightmare and Artistic Success: 1898–1908,’’ in White Logic: Jack London’s Short Stories, Wolf House Books, 1975, pp. 79–119.


Critical Overview


To Build a Fire, Jack London