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...
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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 Klondike, some scholars believe that the dog may have been the source of London's tales about dogs in the arctic. Most of the prospectors discovered that all the good claims had already been staked when they got to the gold fields, so they were disappointed, but many savored the adventure for itself.
New prospectors were called chechaquas, and they had to learn how to survive in the gold fields, especially in extremely cold temperatures during the winter. Most of them would have already been physically and mentally tough after enduring many obstacles just to reach the Klondike. They had to carry their supplies up a trail in one of the mountain passes before cutting down trees to build a raft or a boat to float all the supplies down a river which had dangerous rapids. Next, they had to build a cabin to live in and cut enough wood to stay warm. Only after they did all of that, could they start mining for gold. The mines were "placer" mines, and the method was to either pan for gold or use boxes made of wood and screening much like a kitchen strainer. The prospector would shovel dirt into the box, swish it around, let the water run out, and then look for small pieces of gold in the wet dirt. All London ever found was "fools gold" which is iron pyrite and looks like chunks of gold but has no value. But London's year in the Klondike provided him with another sort of gold, the settings for his most famous novels, White Fang and The Call of the Wild, as well as for his short story, "To Build a Fire."
As London mentions in the story, miners who were traveling in the winter carried their food inside their clothes next to their bare skin to keep it from freezing. The man in the story has two biscuit and bacon sandwiches inside his shirt. He mentions how good the grease tastes, which is not surprising because people need extra calories and fat to insulate them from the cold. Very thin people do not do well in extreme cold, lacking the warmth a layer of fat on the body provides in cold climates. A high fat diet is fairly common in northern latitudes since fat insulates the core of the body, preventing a person's core temperature from falling too low and freezing to death.
Being able to build and maintain a fire was a necessity in the Klondike. The prospectors would have known the basics of building a fire because many people in the 1890s did not have electrical or gas heating like modern houses do, most houses using wood or coal stoves for heat instead. The man in the story knows how to build a fire. In fact, he has a small fire to warm him while he eats lunch, but he makes a big mistake when he builds his second fire under an evergreen tree. He shakes the tree as he is collecting tinder, and the snow on the branches falls off and extinguishes his fire. Little mistakes like that in the wilderness can end up being life-or-death matters.
Equally important in the story is the danger of getting wet in extreme cold. London explains that while streams freeze completely, small springs well up and do not freeze. They are covered with snow, however, so a traveler may step into one by accident. That is what happens to the man in the story. He gets his feet wet, causing them to lose all insulation, and they begin to freeze. Being able to build a fire is doubly important if a person has gotten wet in very cold temperatures. The man's inability to build a fire spells death for him, but the dog, who also gets its feet wet, knows what to do. It instinctively licks its feet to keep them warm and bites the ice chunks out from between the pads in its paws. Natural selection has bred this knowledge into dogs though the dog only knows that its feet will hurt if ice builds up on them. The point London makes is that the dog instinctively knows what to do to save itself while the man's knowledge is not enough to save him in a setting as cold as the Klondike. The setting of the story is actually part of the characterization and plot since one key theme is the battle between man, dog, and nature, and how people may not be as able to exist in the wilderness as easily as they would like to think they could. The prospectors from the lower forty-eight states were unaccustomed to severe cold and general hardship, so many of them ended up dying in the Klondike.
After the gold rush in the Klondike peaked in 1900, most of the prospectors left. Today, adventurer-seekers can take tours of the Klondike which are substantially safer than the trek of the original prospectors.
‘‘To Build a Fire’’ is the story of an unnamed man traveling across the Klondike territory in winter to meet his partners at a mining camp. Ignoring the advice of an old-timer, the man makes the journey alone except for a dog, despite the intense cold. As the result of a series of mishaps, the man freezes to death without reaching camp.
Point of View
Point of view means the perspective from which the story, or narrative, is told. The point of view in ‘‘To Build a Fire’’ is third-person omniscient. In other words, the narrator stands outside of the story and refers to the characters in the third person (‘‘he,’’ ‘‘the man,’’ ‘‘the dog,’’ ‘‘it’’) and sometimes comments on their behavior and personalities. The omniscient narrator is by definition all-knowing— able to present not only what the characters are doing and saying but also what they are thinking. Thus the narrator in ‘‘To Build a Fire’’ shows us that the man in the story is observant and careful enough to look for dangerous cracks in the river trail, but he also remarks that the ‘‘trouble’’ with the man is that he is unreflective and ‘‘without imagination,’’ so that he never thinks about his own mortality and cannot imagine that the intense cold could be anything worse than uncomfortable. Similarly, the narrator comments on the dog’s thoughts, telling us that the animal can sense that the temperature is dangerously below minus fifty degrees Fahrenheit and asserting that the dog feels no affection for the man.
The setting denotes the time and place of a story as well as the social circumstances of the characters. Although the exact date and country are never given in ‘‘To Build a Fire,’’ references to the Klondike, to such rivers as the Yukon, and to such cities as Dawson, as well as the mention of an ‘‘old claim’’ on Henderson Creek, indicate that the story takes place in the Klondike region of Canada near Alaska during the ‘‘gold rush’’ which began in 1897. Of greatest significance is that the story takes place during the winter in the far north, where temperatures can fall to minus seventy-five degrees Fahrenheit and the sun does not rise for days. Into this setting walks the man, who is a chechaquo, or newcomer, to the region. His inexperience and lack of imagination do not allow him to prepare for the brutal cold.
The style of a story means the way in which its ideas are expressed—what words have been chosen and how the sentences have been structured to tell the story. One element of style which characterizes ‘‘To Build a Fire’’ is repetition. Certain words and actions are repeated in the story to emphasize the intense coldness of the weather and the seriousness of the man’s plight. The word ‘‘cold’’ itself recurs frequently, beginning with the opening sentence: ‘‘Day had broken cold and gray, exceedingly cold and gray . . . ,’’ and ending with a mention of the ‘‘cold sky’’ in the story’s final paragraph. Elsewhere the man continually expresses his surprise at the coldness of the weather. The repetition of other words and actions also contributes to the sense of bitter coldness: for example, each time that the man removes his mittens, his fingers instantly go numb, and he has to struggle to warm them up, ‘‘threshing his arms back and forth’’ to regain feeling.
The old-timer’s advice against traveling alone is frequently repeated, adding a sense of foreboding to the story. Even more ominous is the use of the phrase ‘‘it happened’’ to introduce the two disasters— first when the man breaks through the ice, and next when his fire is extinguished. Literary critics have noted that the cumulative effect of such repetition is to make the man’s death by freezing seem inevitable.
‘‘To Build a Fire’’ has been called a naturalistic story. Naturalism is a literary movement which developed during the late nineteenth century. Influenced by scientific determinism as well as by Darwin’s theory of evolution, naturalism contends that human beings are determined by their heredity and the laws of nature and are thus controlled by their environment and their physical makeup rather than by spirituality or reason. As a naturalistic creature, the man in ‘‘To Build a Fire’’ lacks imagination, and although he tries to survive by using reason, he is overwhelmed by the forces of nature.
"To Build a Fire" is written in the spare style of naturalism. It is more like a report than the fiction written in the florid style of other writers of the early twentieth century. London uses short sentences and merely combines them to create longer sentences. While the resulting prose is rather choppy, the story is so compelling that the reader does not notice the short sentences. This style presages the modernist writing style of Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Chandler who tell stories in few words but manage to make every word count.
London's style is also influenced by American realism which emphasized details to make the characters as realistic as possible. This influence is most notable in London's discussion of the man's mouth and chin as the cold freezes his breath to his beard and mustache, creating a powder of frost. Also London tells us that the man chews tobacco, "and the muzzle of ice held his lips so rigidly that he was unable to clear his chin when he expelled the juice." So, London continues, "the result was that a crystal beard of the color and solidity of amber was increasing its length on his chin. If he fell down it would shatter itself, like glass, into brittle fragments.... It was the penalty all tobacco chewers paid in that country." Details like this make the story more interesting and believable.
The author discusses the effects that cold can have on people, noting that the man's speed of four miles per hour had kept his blood surging to his extremities, but when he stops, his hands and feet rapidly begin to freeze because, as London says, he was barely protected from the cold of outer space because the air is thinner at high altitudes. London compares the man's blood to the dog, saying, "The blood is alive, like the dog, and like the dog it wanted to hide away and cover itself up from the fearful cold." In fact, blood does recede from one's arms and legs in cold in order to keep the core of the body in the abdomen warm. This detail is what might be expected of a scientific literary naturalist who is merely presenting a specimen for us to dissect in the lab. London is purely naturalistic in his approach to the man's plight. The narrator offers no sympathy for the man and remains completely neutral in recounting the man's struggle with the frigid temperatures.
Later authors rejected the naturalist approach because it was too cold and distant, too scientific. It failed to make readers feel emotions other than mild regret. But London tells the story of a dying man in a way that arouses interest if not sympathy, so that readers join his scientific expedition into hypothermia and the man's struggle for survival just as everyone must participate in everyday struggles to survive and prevail. The trail the man follows may be a metaphor for one's own journey through life. On that journey, some succeed, some fail, and some keep trying until the end when death inevitably conquers all.