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To Build a Fire

 

Author Jack London (1876–1916)

Classification Naturalism

Fiction F

First Published 1902

Locale The Yukon territory, some seventy miles south of Dawson

Time of Plot 1900

Principal character:

A TENDERFOOT, who is attempting to travel across the Yukon wilderness in winter

The Story

"To Build a Fire" is an adventure story of a man’s futile attempts to travel across ten miles of Yukon wilderness in temperatures dropping to seventy-five degrees below zero. At ten o’clock in the morning, the unnamed protagonist plans to arrive by lunchtime at a camp where others are waiting. Unfortunately, unanticipated complications make this relatively short journey impossible. By nine o’clock that morning, there is no sun in the sky, and three feet of snow have fallen in this desolate Yukon area. Despite the gloomy, bitter, numbing cold, the man is not worried, even though he has reason to worry. At first he underestimates the cold. He knows that his face and fingers are numb, but he fails to realize the seriousness of his circumstances until later in the story. As the story unfolds, the man gets progressively more worried about the situation. At first, he is simply aware of the cold; then be becomes slightly worried; finally, he becomes frantic.

His only companion is his wolf-dog. The animal, depressed by the cold, seems to sense that something awful might occur because of the tremendously low temperatures. The dog is frightened, and its behavior should show the man that possibly he has underestimated the danger.

At ten o’clock, the man believes that he is making good time in his journey by traveling four miles an hour. He decides to stop and eat lunch. His face is numb, and his cheeks are frostbitten. He begins to wish that he had foreseen the danger of frostbite and had got a facial strap for protection. He decides that frostbitten cheeks are never serious, merely painful, as a way to soothe himself psychologically and force himself not to worry about the cold. He knows the area and realizes the danger of springs hidden beneath the snow, covered only by a thin sheet of ice. At this point, the character is very concerned about these springs but underestimates the danger. Getting wet would only delay him, for he would then have to build a fire to dry off his feet and clothes. Every time he comes upon a suspected trap, he forces the dog to go ahead to see if it is safe. He begins to feel increasingly nervous about the cold.

By twelve o’clock, he is still far away from his camp and anticipates getting there by six o’clock, in time for dinner. He is pleased with his progress, but, in reality, he is simply reassuring himself that there is no need to worry. He decides to stop and eat lunch,. a lunch he had planned to eat with his friends at the camp. His fingers are so numb that he cannot hold his biscuit. He reflects back to the time when he had laughed at an old man who had told him how dangerous cold weather could be. He now realizes that perhaps he had reason to worry and that he had forgotten to build a fire for warmth. He carefully builds a fire, thaws his face, and takes "his comfortable time over a smoke." Then he decides that he should begin walking again. The fire has restored his confidence, but the dog wants to stay by the warmth and safety of the fire.

The man’s face soon becomes frozen again as he resumes his journey. Lulled into a false sense of security by the fire, he becomes less and less aware of his surroundings and steps into a hidden spring, wetting himself to his waist. His immediate reaction is anger because he will be delayed by building another fire. He carefully builds a fire, well aware of the importance of drying himself. He remembers the old man’s advice at Sulphur Creek that circulation cannot be restored by running in this temperature because the feet would simply freeze faster. His fire is a success and he is safe. He now feels superior, because although he has had an accident and he is alone, he has saved himself from certain death. He decides that any man can travel alone as long as he keeps his head. Although confident because of his swift action of building a fire to dry off, he is surprised at how fast his nose and cheeks are freezing. He can barely control his hands: His fingers are lifeless and frostbitten. Suddenly, his fire exists no more: He has built it under a large tree that is weighed down with snow, and when he pulls down some twigs to feed the flame, the snow in the tree is dislodged and falls on the man and his fire. He thinks again about the old man at Sulphur Creek and realizes that a partner at this time would be helpful. He begins to rebuild the fire, aware that he will lose toes, and possibly his feet, to frostbite. Because his fingers are nearly useless, he has difficulty collecting twigs. He is so sure that this fire will succeed that he collects large branches for when the fire is strong. His belief that the fire will succeed is the only thing that keeps him alive. He finishes the foundation of his fire and needs the birch bark in his pocket to start it, but cannot clutch the wood. He panics, drops his matches, and is unable to pick them up. He succeeds in picking them up, finally, and by using his teeth, he rips one match out of the pack. By holding it in his teeth and striking it against his legs twenty times, he lights it but drops it again when the smoke gets into his nostrils. He then strikes the entire pack of matches against his leg and tries to light the wood but only burns his flesh. He drops the matches, and the small pieces of rotten wood burn. He knows that this is his last chance for life and that he cannot allow the matches to go out. Because he cannot operate his hands, in his attempt to keep the fire burning, he spreads it out too much and it goes out. Now he can only think of killing the dog to put his hands in the carcass to stop the numbness. The dog senses danger, however, and quickly moves away. The man goes wild and catches the dog but soon realizes that he cannot kill it because he cannot use his hands. He knows that death is upon him and begins running, just as the old man had warned him not to do. The man hopes that he has a chance to run to camp but knows that he really has no chance, for he lacks the strength. He curses the dog, for it is warm and alive. The dog runs on but the man crumples after running a few yards. He decides to accept death peacefully and admits to himself that the old man at Sulpher Creek had been right. The dog stays with him, but when it smells the scent of death, it runs off in the direction of the camp, where reliable food and fire providers can be found.

Themes and Meanings

The main conflict in this story of survival is between man and nature. Another central conflict, however, is that between youth and confidence as opposed to wisdom and experience. The main character is a young man who believes that he knows the frozen wilderness but is still a tenderfoot who has not yet learned to respect the power of nature. London shows early in the story that the tenderfoot lacks imagination, an asset he sorely needs when tested to the extreme by the wilderness.

The man’s egotism is in conflict with his common sense. He does not understand mankind’s frailty and is too proud to admit his own. He does not comprehend the danger posed by an alien, hostile environment in which he can only survive by the full exercise of his native wit, instincts, skill, and cunning.

Before the coming of winter, the old-timer from Sulpher Creek had warned him that one should always travel in winter with a partner and that one should never attempt to travel alone in temperatures colder than fifty degrees below zero. In his ignorance, the tenderfoot had laughed at the old-timer’s advice. Caught in the bitter cold, the tenderfoot is made to realize the value of the old man’s warning.

The tenderfoot scorns other precautions. Once caught in the wilderness, for example, he realizes the value of having a partner. He realizes, moreover, that a facial strap would have protected him against frostbite. Still, he manages to build a fire after he has broken through the ice, and, his confidence momentarily revived, he laughs again at the old-timer. Ironically, the man is doomed by his egotism and his stupidity. When the fire goes out, he has second thoughts about his superiority.

The plot development is incremental as the tenderfoot’s dilemma gets more desperate and as he unwillingly learns his lesson. His absurd belief in himself and his ability to cope with the situation is retained until the very end. Although he refuses to give up hope, it becomes increasingly clear that he has lost touch with reality. "When he got back to the States," he fantasizes, as he is freezing to death, "he could tell the folks what real cold was." Ultimately the man will die and be survived by his dog. The animal, a creature of instinct untainted by pride, is better adapted to the environment than the man.

Style and Technique

The fiction of Jack 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 interpreted 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 man 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 upon 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, since the man has got his feet 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 absolutely 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 dilemma. 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 upon 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.

James M. Welsh

Author Biography

 

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Author: Jack London
Chapter: Introduction to Jack London

Biographic Comment

Jack London was born in San Francisco in 1876. The product of a broken home and a poverty-stricken family, he left school at the age of fourteen to go to work. In those times this was not an unusual occurrence for an average boy, because then school was not considered the necessity that we think it to be nowadays. However, the things that Jack London did were unusual. While still in his teens he shipped as an able seaman to Japan and the Siberian coast and also worked with a group of oyster pirates. He took odd jobs in mills and a canning factory, and worked his way across the country with a group of socialists who had planned a march on Washington to protest conditions among the poor. Then he joined the gold-rush. He later went to Japan as a war correspondent in 1904 and to Mexico in 1914. He died at age forty.

 See - Jack London: 1876-1916: Jack London...was the embodiment of the ideal early twentieth-century American-romantic, vigorous, a self-educated success.... His voracious reading...led him through a wilderness of doubt from which he did not seem able to find the means of escape.

 

London Legend

Wound up with the facts of Jack London's life there is much legend. It is a fact that in 1897, when he was twenty-one-years old, he went to the Klondike with the first rush of gold-seekers. Much fable is mixed up with the stories of what he did there, however. Many people believe that London personally saw and did everything that he wrote about in his adventurous stories. Others doubt that he ever did any of these things himself. Somewhere in between is the truth, although the whole of it will probably never be known. There is no doubt, however, that he did follow the rush into the Klondike, that his experience with boats helped him in crossing the dangerous Whitehorse Rapids, that he did stake a claim, but that a year later he returned home as poor as when he had left.

See - Men At Sea: From "The Sea Wolf"

 

Autobiographical Novel

Our study of the life of Jack London is further complicated by the novel Martin Eden, which was published in 1909. This book is what is termed an autobiographical novel-that is, based on the actual life of its author-but how much of it is true and how much is false we do not know for sure. It is the fiction author's privilege to do with truth whatever he thinks necessary for the creation of a good narrative. Also, beside being a novelist, Jack London looked upon himself as something of a social philosopher, and he used this story as a means of showing the effect that his ideas about life had or should have had upon the life of his central character. Martin Eden, therefore, cannot truly be considered as the real Jack London in the things he did or said. He is only the Jack London that the author saw himself as being. This novel, then, should not in every sense be taken as literally true, and should be considered only as a help in the study of the author's life.

 

Education

Though poorly educated, Jack London had a tremendous respect for the value of education. This respect was undoubtedly gained in large measure during the years immediately following his leaving school. After wandering about the country and drifting from job to job, he realized that he was not getting anywhere, and that he was still as poor as ever. Not wanting to take the time to return to high school, he crammed enough knowledge into his head during a three-month period of reading and study so that he was able to pass a special entrance examination for college. He enrolled at the University of California; but, after a few months, the lure of the "gold rush" got him, and he was off to the Klondike in 1897.

 

Writing Career

When Jack London returned home a year later, he began to put his energy into the task of writing. Success did not come to him immediately. He spent the next years writing stories, begging publishers to accept them, and receiving as little as five dollars for them when they would be accepted. In 1900 the first volume of his collected short stories appeared in a book called The Son of the Wolf. Included in this volume is the famous "Odyssey of the North." However, it The Call of the Wild, published in 1903, which brought fame to the author and which led to his being one of the most financially successful writers of his time. This novel was then followed by The Sea Wolf (1904), White Fang (1906), Martin Eden (1909), plus numerous short stories and political essays. Before his death in 1916, he had published forty-nine volumes.

See - Sea Wolf Ship Wreck: From Sea Wolf: 'Ahoy! Take me ashore! A thousand dollars if you take me ashore!'

 

Social Background

With Jack London, as with many authors, we can really understand his writings only in the light of his own times. And what was these times? First of all, and most importantly, it was the height of the Industrial Revolution in American society when the barons of industry held free sway. In 1882, for instance, John D. Rockefeller established the Standard Oil Trust, a group of some forty oil companies, and used every cutthroat method to suppress competition. Then, in 1892, Andrew Carnegie, the great steel magnate, used hired thugs to break up a strike among his workers. There was no effective legislation on the side of the laboring man. It would seem that even the federal government was opposed to the Labor Movement, for in 1877, President Hayes, and in 1894, President Cleveland, each sent out Federal troops to quell riots which had arisen during railroad strikes. These were indeed times of economic turmoil.

 

London's Socialism

There were other factors which made those restless times. For instance, a great influx of non-English speaking immigrants was flooding the labor market and making it easier for the industrialists to keep salaries and working conditions at whatever low standards they desired. Opposed to these unfair practices of management was the rising wave of socialism which had a statement of doctrine in Karl Marx's Das Kapital, and which, under the direction of men like Eugene Debs, was advocating violence and revolution instead of peaceful legislation and order as the means by which the laboring man in the United States should better himself.

Young Jack London, poor himself, as was pointed out before, and forced to go to work at an early age in order to support himself, became an advocate of this violent type of socialism-class warfare, revolution, and the overthrow of the capitalist by the laboring class. He preached it loudly on the street corners, and a little more quietly in his books. On one occasion he allowed himself to be arrested in order to test the legality of an Oakland, California, law; and on more than one occasion he signed his letters "Yours for the Revolution."

 

Philosophy

We have said that Jack London was a socialist in his political thinking. His writings reflect this; but more importantly they also are deliberate attempts to explain the philosophy of naturalism. This is the theory that man's entire life is controlled by his environment. London was a voracious reader, and one of his favorite authors was Herbert Spencer. Now Spencer is the one perhaps most responsible for spreading the theory of evolution that man is descended from lower forms of life. In The Call of the Wild London traces the steps by which a tame or civilized dog retraces the evolutionary steps until he finds himself in his original primitive state. In White Fang the process is reversed. The half-wolf rises from his wild, primitive state to one of civilization. But Jack London's was an undisciplined mind. He read only what he wanted to read and believed only what he wanted to believe. Even these two books, then, which most critics consider his best, have a certain vagueness about them. Mixed with the naturalism is a romanticism, an escapism which carries the reader away from the reality of his surroundings into the adventuresome wilderness of the Klondike. Also in the naturalism a definite lack of purpose is evident. The reader is forced to ask himself at the end of each of these novels: Is London really serious about wanting us to believe that we have no control over our environment or over our destiny?

 

The Man

Jack London as a man is an enigma. He was the embodiment of the ideal early twentieth-century American-romantic, vigorous, a self-educated success. Also he was an ardent disciple of both socialism and evolution. However, like many of his kind, he was also proud, naive, and indecisive. His voracious reading did not lead him down a road of satisfied contentment. Instead it led him through a wilderness of doubt from which he did not seem able to find the means of escape. He died of uremic poisoning according to the four physicians in attendance at his bedside.

 

The Call Of The Wild

Anyone who picks up this novel expecting an animal story in the tradition of Black Beauty or My Friend Flicka is in for a disappointment. Told from the point of view of the dog Buck, this story, as other animal stories, contains a great amount of sentimentalism. However, unlike other animal stories, it contains a great amount of brutality, viciousness, and disregard for the value of human life. The dog Buck is the only really important thing in the novel. His survival is what counts. The other dogs, and even the humans in the story, are merely a background against which the story of this survival takes place. They can pass out of the picture without explanation or without reason. For example, at the end of Chapter 5, the ice breaks away under Charles, Hal, and Mercedes, carrying them to their death. None of these people has done anything worthy of this cruel death, unless it be that they were mean to Buck. Moreover, John Thornton expresses sympathy only for Buck and not for the victims of this tragedy.

The law of the "club and the fang" is the predominant element in this novel. Kill or be killed is what drags Buck relentlessly through his adventures until finally he is released from any hold that civilization has upon him. At the conclusion of the story, he is not only with the wolf pack; he is one of them.

See - Buck Returns to the Wild: To him, in appearance and action and impulse, still clung the Wild.

The Call of the Wild is not really a novel in the strict sense that we think of Silas Marner or David Copperfield as being novels. Rather it is more like seven distinct short stories, each with its own characters, its own plot and climax. Buck runs though each of them, with each being an episode in the story of his return to the primitive state. Through each chapter relies on the other for continuity, each could almost be read separately and be appreciated for itself. Thus, from this point of view, we have an interesting situation as you will see in our chapter by chapter discussion of the work.