Style and Technique
The fiction of London, in tandem with the work of Frank Norris, Stephen Crane, and Hamlin Garland, helped to shape an American naturalism, a particular strain of scientific realism that was influenced by European writers of the later nineteenth century, particularly the French writer Emile Zola, who described the role of the novelist as that of “a scientist, an analyst, an anatomist” who interprets reality through the application of scientific determinism. In “To Build a Fire,” London places his protagonist in a harsh natural setting that tests to the limits his ability to survive in the wilderness.
The style of this particular brand of realistic fiction depends on the cold, objective presentation of detail that respects the force and power of nature and reduces the individual to a position of relative insignificance. The central character of London’s story is a vain creature, supremely and ironically confident of his ability to survive.
The story is carefully structured around the building of several fires. The first two fires the tenderfoot builds are merely matters of convenience, when he stops on his journey to rest and eat. In both instances, the dog is reluctant to leave the safety of the fire. The third fire is built to stave off an emergency because the man has gotten his lower body wet. This fire is foolishly built, however, because the tenderfoot has no foresight or common sense.
The fourth and final fire the tenderfoot attempts to build is crucial to his survival, but he is too far gone to accomplish this task. His hands are by then too frozen to manipulate his matches, and his mind is so far gone that he cannot fully understand the seriousness of his peril. All he can do is believe in the possibility of his survival. The story provides an interesting study in the psychology of an unhinged mind.
London’s story depends for its effect on situational irony. An ironic strain that runs throughout the story is the tenderfoot’s sense of superiority and contempt for the old trapper on Sulphur Creek. The irony is dramatic in that the reader soon realizes that the old man was right, a realization that escapes the tenderfoot until the very end of the story.
The story is set in the Klondike in the Yukon Territory of Canada, the site of a gold rush in the late nineteenth century. Gold was discovered in the area in 1896, and, by 1899, thousands of prospectors had flooded the region. The Klondike is in upper northwest Canada, near the Alaskan border at about the same latitude as lower Siberia, and the area is intensely cold in the winter with temperatures regularly reaching fifty degrees below zero. One prospector mentioned in a letter that his thermometer had reached sixty-five degrees below zero, which was the lowest the thermometer would go, and it stayed there for several days.
When he was twenty-one, twelve days after the news of the gold strike reached the United States, London and his brother-in-law ventured to the Klondike. Reaching the gold fields was very difficult. Many prospectors, including women, used the Chilkoot Pass where they had to lug equipment and supplies up a steep trail. Some used sleds, but many just carried the load on their backs as London did. He would take a load up a mile, leave it and go back and get another one, time after time. One woman reported that the trail was only about two feet wide and had loose snow on either side. She said that if someone slipped off the trail, he or she was never seen again. After negotiating the pass, the prospectors had to float their belongings down a river to Dawson and the site of the gold diggings.
Many people and animals died on the trail. In fact, White Pass was also called Dead Horse Trail because of the smell left by dead horses rotting along the path. In addition, the prospectors had to deal with avalanches. In one avalanche, a dog named Jack lived eight days under the snow before men dug him out. Since this was in 1898, the same time London was in the...
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