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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What is naturalism and how is it represented in Jack London's "To Build a Fire"?

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Naturalism is often defined as a type of realism that emphasizes the harsher and more brutal aspects of daily life. In Jack London's Yukon stories, and in his fiction in general, we see a raw, unfiltered picture of nature and of men and animals who attempt to survive in a state of nature, using both their mental and physical strength in a desperate struggle. "To Build a Fire" pits man against the frozen world of the "Northland" as well as against animals. It's the man's life finally pitted against that of the dog that is crucial; the dog has been the man's servant and companion but rebels when the man tries to kill it in order to preserve his own life. The dog survives and the man perishes in the wilderness of the north.

Though this is as harshly brutal and realistic as a story can get, it differs from the iconic examples of naturalism we normally think of, such as the novels of Emile Zola and Stephen Crane, for two main reasons, in my view.

First, it is an adventure story. There is something romantically extravagant in London's tales that is the antithesis of the man-made world of, say, the New York working-class setting in Crane's Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. In naturalism, the subjects are usually average, unremarkable people—a cross section of humanity containing victims of a starkly unforgiving milieu.

Second, what we generally regard as naturalistic in literature focuses upon the everyday, but often sordid, interactions among human beings. Zola's Nana deals with a Parisian actress who is also a courtesan: a sex worker with a wealthy and well connected clientele. The men who surround her are obnoxious, selfish, and predatory. In La Bête humaine (The Human Beast, often translated The Beast Within), Zola depicts physical abuse against women and sexual desires that are out of control and lead to murder. London deals less with human interaction than other naturalistic writers and relies much more on the thematic connections among man, animals, and nature—as well as the contrast between "civilized" and "natural"—to propel his fiction. It is naturalism in which people are not merely shown in brutal and violent situations, but are forced to take on the characteristics of our remote ancestors of prehistory, in their quest for survival.

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Naturalism in literature refers to the idea that men are governed by an uncaring fate or an indifferent environment rather than by the will of a benevolent God or by their own moral agency. Jack London's "To Build a Fire" displays Naturalism through its deterministic themes, its representation of the environment, its emphasis on objective facts, and its subject matter. 

Determinism is an outgrowth of Naturalism which posits that man has no free will. Applying the ideas of Darwinism to humans, determinism argues that a person is shaped by his environment to such a degree that he cannot truly choose how he will act in a given situation. Thus the negative events that transpire in the man's day in the story are described as "his mistake" or an accident; London notes that "it happened." The man is not held morally accountable for his actions in the story.

The environment in the story is cold, not just in the sense of temperature, but in the sense of its indifference toward the man. Although the sub-zero weather presents the man with profound challenges, it would be that cold whether he was outdoors or not. Mere survival against a hostile environment becomes the man's goal--a familiar goal in naturalistic writing.

Naturalism places a great emphasis on objective, scientific knowledge as the only way to truly understand the world. Thus London gives hard numbers throughout the story, including the fact that fifty below zero is the danger zone for traveling alone and the exact number of matches the man lights at once (seventy). The man is preoccupied with the distance to the camp and the time at which he will reach it. This numerical, factual approach is typical of naturalistic writing.

Finally, naturalist writing typically focuses on the often-ignored classes, and the main character in "To Build a Fire" is such an undistinguished person. He is just an everyday guy trying to strike it rich. He does not even warrant a name in the story. Often naturalistic stories focus more on narrative than on the character; in this story we only get a few glimpses into the mind and thoughts of the man. 

Jack London has created a quintessential story of Naturalism in "To Build a Fire" by espousing determinism, representing nature as indifferent, focusing on facts, and elevating the narrative over the undistinguished main character of the story.

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Due to the man vs. nature theme presented in "To Build A Fire," yes, it is an example of naturalism. While the story itself might not be as flowery as the naturalism exhibited by Emerson or Thoreau, it is naturalism nonetheless, as man is subjected to the forces of nature around him; in this case, extreme cold. Jack London, along with being a socialist, is considered one of the prime examples of naturalist literature writers.

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Jack London is a poster boy for naturalism, and his short story, "To Build a Fire," is a good example of why.

Naturalism is an extreme form of realism, with a heightened attention to nature and its effects on humans.  Humans are animals like any other when pitted against the forces of nature.  Humans are subject to the forces of nature.

The main character in "To Build a Fire" is pitted against nature and he is vulnerable to it the same as any other creature:  disrespect it or make a mistake, and you will suffer the consequences.  In fact, in the climate of the story, man is inferior to other animals.  The character takes the environment too lightly and does not prepare properly, and there are consequences for this.

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How does Jack London's "To Build a Fire" illustrate the elements of naturalistic literature?

"To Build a Fire" is naturalistic in that it looks at the story's protagonist in much the same way as a scientist would observe microbes in a petri dish. We observe the unnamed man from a distance as if we're participating in some kind of scientific experiment, an experiment designed to determine the effects of a cold, wintry climate on human behavior.

As the word "naturalistic" implies that the emphasis of literary works written in this style is very much on nature. Inevitably, this means that there's a quasi-scientific objectivity to the writing. Man isn't portrayed in such works as standing apart from nature but as an intrinsic part of it. This means that characters, such as the man in "To Build a Fire," are presented more as objects of study than recognizably human figures with whom we can readily identify.

As a consequence, we gain, or should gain, a greater respect for the forces of nature than the man displayed in foolishly embarking upon such a hazardous journey in the midst of such treacherous conditions. At the same time, we also gain a greater understanding of the right relationship between humanity and nature, the better to maintain an appropriate balance between the two.

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How does Jack London's "To Build a Fire" illustrate the elements of naturalistic literature?

In the literary school known as naturalism, nature is a merciless force that defeats the human will at every turn. Instead of being glorified, as nature was in the Romantic movement, nature is harsh and inimical in literary naturalism. 

In "To Build a Fire," nature is a cruel force. There is no sun shining in the Yukon where the story takes place, and there is nothing to temper the ice and cold of the landscape. When the nameless man who is at the center of the story builds a fire, nature defeats him when a load of snow from the spruce tree above lands on the fire and extinguishes it. He then drops the rest of his matches in the snow, extinguishing his chance to survive. The dog who is accompanying the man merely trots off after the man has frozen to death, showing that the man's death did not affect him in the slightest. In this tale, nature is an unpitying force that defeats humans. 

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How does Jack London's "To Build a Fire" illustrate the elements of naturalistic literature?

Jack London often employed a naturalistic approach in his writing. “To Build a Fire” falls into this category.  Naturalism bases its theory on scientific laws.  The naturalistic writer focuses on the idea that nature is indifferent to man. 

One of the main characteristics is concentration on narrative rather than emphasizing character. Usually in naturalistic stories, the characters are unnamed and are from the lower to middle classes.  The language centers on the plot.

To the naturalist, man succumbs to nature because he has no control over it. Nature is indifferent to man’s plight. There are aspects of nature that are not meant for man.  Man is in charge of his own behavior; and, if warned, he should not engage in a battle with the unresponsive natural world. Man receives facts about nature; then, he should base his decisions on this information.

In the story, the unnamed man has been warned by the old timer about the severity of the weather.  It is 75 degrees below zero.  He has been told not to travel alone in this kind of weather. Rather than listen to the voice of experience, the newcomer judges that he is able to make it through his personal preparation.

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 newcomer in the land...

In addition, the man takes a dog along with him as his companion. Through instinct, the dog knows that the weather is too cold for travel.  One of the primary themes of the story is the difference between man’s thinking and the dog’s instinct. 

Despite the man’s preparation, he makes several mistakes which cause him his life.  Nature does not help or hinder him.  Nature is what it is…the natural world.  If man chooses to battle nature, man will lose because nature will not help him. 

Little is known about the man except that he is new to the Yukon.  From the story, the reader learns that he tries to make preparations---matches, food, tries to watch for hidden springs, runs.

What does he do wrong?

  • Goes into the terrible weather alone
  • Steps into the spring
  • Makes his fire under the tree
  • Panics
  • Loses his matches
  • Runs to regain his circulation but exhausts himself

The man has to change his initial goals of making it to the camp in a certain amount of time-- to keeping from getting frostbite-- to surviving to accepting of death.  The natural world has proven once again that man must be prepared to lose the conflict of man versus nature.


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In Jack London's short story "To Build a Fire," how is the presentation of the unnamed central character relevant to the literary approach known as "naturalism"?

In Jack London’s short story “To Build a Fire,” the unnamed central character is relevant to the literary style known as “naturalism” in a number of different ways, including the following:

  • Characters in naturalistic works often behave according to instincts that humans share with animals; the main character in this store is eventually driven primarily by the fundamental instinct to survive. [See eNotes essay on naturalism, cited below, for further explanation of this and other traits of naturalism discussed in the present response.]
  • Characters in naturalistic works are often described in extremely objective, unsentimental, and neutral terms, and certainly those are the ways in which the main character is described in this story.
  • According to the eNotes essay on naturalism (cited below),

Because the focus of Naturalism is human nature, stories [reflecting] this movement are character-driven rather than plot-driven.

The main interest in London’s story is in how this character will deal with the unforgiving situation in which he happens to find himself. The “plot” of the story is extremely simple; the character’s thoughts and feelings are not, however, especially simple, particularly after he realizes that he is facing death.

  • According to the eNotes essay on naturalism, naturalistic writers, following the lead of the French author Emile Zola, often subjected “believable characters and events to experimental conditions.” Certainly this is what happens to the main character in London’s story: he becomes a kind of guinea pig in an experiment designed by London.
  • Naturalistic writers often introduced characters into unfamiliar environments, as happens in this story.
  • Naturalistic writers often emphasized that a person’s fate was determined by the person’s environment, and surely that is quite literally true of the main character in London’s story.
  • Of course, the character in London’s story is not entirely a victim of his circumstances; he makes foolish choices and reacts in foolish ways to the predicament in which he eventually finds himself. Building a fire beneath a tree filled with snow seems, in retrospect, an especially foolish decision, and the character also displays a good deal of pride and naivety, so that he is in various ways partly responsible for his fate. However, the story is fundamentally naturalistic in the quite literal sense that it emphasizes the enormous power of nature to influence and even determine the outcome of any person’s life, and it also emphasizes the relative impotence of humans when confronted with the forces of nature.



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