Jack London’s fame as a writer came about largely through his ability to interpret realistically humans’ struggle in a hostile environment. Early in his career, London realized that he had no talent for invention and that in his writing he would have to be an interpreter of the things that are rather than a creator of the things that might be. Accordingly, he turned to the Canadian Northland, the locale where he had gained experience, for his settings and characters. Later on he would move his setting to the primitive South Seas, after his travels had also made him familiar with that region. By turning to harsh, frontier environment for his setting and themes, London soon came to be a strong voice heard over the genteel tradition of nineteenth century parlor-fiction writers. His stories became like the men and women about whom he wrote—bold, violent, sometimes primitive. London was able to give his stories greater depth by using his extraordinary powers of narrative and language, and by infusing them with a remarkable sense of irony.
“To Build a Fire”
“To Build a Fire” has often been called London’s masterpiece. It is a story which contrasts the intelligence of human beings with the intuition of the animal and suggests that humans alone cannot successfully face the harsh realities of nature. The story begins at dawn as a man and his dog walk along a trail which eventually could lead them, thirty-two miles away, to a companion’s cabin and safety. The air is colder than the man has ever experienced before, and although the man does not know about the cold, the dog does. While the animal instinctively realizes that it is time to curl up in the snow and wait for warmer weather, the man lacks the imagination which would give him a grasp of the laws of nature. Such perception would have enabled him to see the absurdity of attempting to combat the unknown, especially since an old-timer had warned him about the dangers of the cold to inexperienced men. With his warm mittens, thick clothes, and heavy coat, the man feels prepared for the cold and protected while the dog longs for the warmth of a fire. As the man walks along the trail, he looks carefully for hidden traps of nature, springs under the snow beneath which pools of water lie, since to step into one of these pools would mean calamity. Once he forces the dog to act as a trail breaker for him, and, when the dog breaks through and ice immediately forms on its extremities, the man helps the dog remove the ice.
At midday the man stops, builds a fire, and eats his lunch. The dog, without knowing why, feels relieved; he is safe. The man, however, does not stay beside the fire; he continues on the trail and forces the dog onward too. Finally, inevitably, the man’s feet become wet. Although he builds a fire to dry out, snow puts out the fire, and before he can build another fire, the cold envelops him, and he freezes to death. The dog senses the man’s death and continues on the trail toward the cabin, wherein lies food and the warmth of a fire.
The irony of the story is that the man, even with the benefit of all the tools with which civilization has provided him, fails in his attempt to conquer nature and instead falls victim to it, while the dog, equipped only with the instinct which nature has provided, survives. The story, representing London’s most mature expression of pessimism, stresses the inability of human beings to shape their environment and conquer the unknown. Unlike the dog, they cannot draw from instinct since civilization has deprived them of it. They are therefore unfit and totally unequipped to face the unknown and conquer the cosmic power....
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