Jack London’s To Build a Fire

By Michael Dotobuildafire

Each of Jack London’s short stories is a valuable lesson about life and natural laws. As said by the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau: “Man is (physically as weak as) a reed, but he is a reed that thinks.” (L’homme n’est qu’un Roseau, mais un Roseau pensant.) The history of humankind is that of persistent struggles for life. Facing the powerful and mysterious nature, men are so tiny, weak, and fragile. However, thanks to the strength of thoughts and will, men have subdued and controlled nature to exploit its energies to serve the needs that have been increased. Ideas help men’s ability to develop, and a strong will helps men’s strength multiply. Except for the universe of which the mystery we have not discovered yet, anything on earth must have its limit; so are men’s strength and ability.

In his story “To Build a Fire,” Jack London described the failure of a lonely traveler struggling against the tremendous cold since he could not overpass the law of limit.

…[T]o meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man’s frailty in general, able only to live within certain narrow limit of heat and cold; and from there on, it did not lead him to the conjectural field of immortality and man’s place in the universe.”. 

The rough character is a man who traveled through the kingdom of snow somewhere in the North Pole. This was his first winter, and he had only a dog to be his companion. He was well equipped with enough materials and a strong will to save one thing: “The trouble with him was that he was without imagination.” When the temperature dropped seventy degrees below zero, nothing could help him survive except the fire. He sometimes failed to build a fire because his hands were almost frozen as they were exposed to the cold air. All his extraordinary efforts became helpless. In such a harsh and dangerous situation, he realized that: “a man should travel with a partner.” The second character, if an animal might be so-called, is a big native husky wolf-dog. It didn’t have a sharp consciousness like his master but had its brute instinct: “It experienced a vague but menacing apprehension that subdued it…” The dog’s presentiment was much better than the man’s, but the dog must rely on him. “Its instinct told it a truer tale that was told to the man by the man’s judgment… and that made it question eagerly every unwonted movement of the man as if expecting him to go into camp and to seek shelter somewhere and build a fire.”

As long as man’s struggle against nature was in process, an internal conflict happened simultaneously within his thoughts. He was a strong man – physically and spiritually – for he did not stop thinking and struggling until his last attempts failed. He surrendered only when he could no longer control his arms and legs. The climax of his internal conflict is his level attitude toward death as he finally learns that he has been defeated: “It was like taking an anesthetic. Freezing was not as bad as people thought. There were lots worse ways to die.”

It is deficient if we do not point out another conflict between the man and his dog in which the animal played a passive role. The man wanted to kill the dog to warm his hands; the dog sensed the danger but did not want to fight against its master. The only thing it could do was to run away from the man.

In another story of his – “Love of Life,” concerning a similar case – London lets his protagonist survive after a persistent and desperate resistance. Perhaps in Love of Life, either the condition was less harsh, or the man’s will was much stronger than that in To Build a Fire. We learn that the strong will usually go along with faith; precisely speaking, it is reinforced by belief. “If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain: remove hence to place yonder; and it shall remove, and nothing shall be impossible unto you.” (Bible, Mathew 17:20)

Using both the omniscient and objective points of view, Jack London did not simply tell us the characters’ actions but also revealed their thoughts and feelings. Thanks to London’s experience as a sailor, a miner, and a traveler, he had the competence to describe the development of each character’s emotions thoroughly and exactly step by step. This helps us to share the joy, the pain, and the difficulties the characters endured.

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