To Build a Fire by Jack London

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Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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.

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

Late Nineteenth- Early Twentieth- Century America
Although Jack London’s ‘‘To Build a Fire’’ was first published in 1908, the story was inspired by the Klondike Gold Rush, which began in 1897. America’s focus during the early years of the twentieth century was much the same as it had been during the closing years of the nineteenth century. The country had recently undergone significant expansion across the western plains and along the Pacific coast. In 1898 America expanded offshore as well, with the annexation of Hawaii and—as a result of the Spanish-American War—Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico.

The late nineteenth century also saw an influx of immigrants into the United States and, with it, the opening of Ellis Island in 1891 as a processing station for the new Immigration Bureau. Immigrants became an important part of the country’s industrialized economy, which produced not only the textiles of earlier years but also focused on mining as well as on the production of steel and heavy machinery. Whole families became involved in the work force. Labor laws were passed and labor unions were formed in response to unsafe working conditions and to the economic depressions which occurred in 1893-97.

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries brought about an increase in the number of public schools and libraries. By 1900 most states had compulsory education laws, and an increasing number of women were graduating from college. During the early 1900s, when London published ‘‘To Build a Fire,’’ the short story as a genre was experiencing enormous popularity.

The Klondike Gold Rush—beginning in 1897 and lasting until 1910—contributed to the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century atmosphere of territorial expansion and industrial growth,...

(The entire section is 6,077 words.)