Jack London’s short story, “To Build a Fire,” is the tragic tale of a man who decides to travel alone through the hostile environment of the Yukon in sub-freeing temperatures and falls victim to the unrelenting and unforgiving power of nature. During his journey, the man gets his feet wet as he falls through the ice into the water of a hot spring (London 122). Because of the severity of the cold, some “one hundred and seven degrees below [the] freezing point,” the man’s life depends upon his ability to promptly light a fire to keep his feet from freezing (122-23). After one, half-successful fire-starting endeavor, and several other pitiful attempts, the hopelessness of the man’s lone struggle against the hostile environment of the Yukon begins to become apparent. After a lengthy episode of panic in which the man tries desperately to return the feeling to his extremities by “running around like a chicken with its head cut off” (128), the man at last “grows calm and decides to meet death with dignity . . .” (Labor 66). The story’s central theme is one portrayed by many existentialist writers—that man lives a solitary existence which is subject to the relentless, unforgiving forces of nature; an ever so subtle part of this theme is that it is man’s goal to find meaning in his existence.
The word existentialist, as well as the subject of existentialism itself, evades definition. Davis McElroy points out this problem by comparing the act of defining existentialism to the act of trying “to explain human existence in a single sentence . . .” (xi). For the sake of brevity, perhaps a short, simple definition would be best; according to the American Heritage Dictionary (3rd ed.), existentialism is “a philosophy that emphasizes the uniqueness and isolation of the individual in a hostile or indifferent universe” This statement defines the theme of Jack London's short story—the lone man traveling across the bleak, unfriendly expanse of the Yukon can come to be seen as the solitary individual who inhabits a cruel and indifferent cosmos. At the conclusion of the story we finally see the man come to the realization, in a round about way, that it was best to meet his fate with dignity, thus giving meaning to an otherwise meaningless and cruel death. This existential theme in “To Build a Fire” is not likely to be a mere coincidence, but instead appears to be part of London’s intentional design. According to Charles Child Walcutt, Jack London was greatly influenced by the ideas of such men as Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, and Friedrich Nietzsche, all prominent thinkers of London’s time (5). So it is no accident that at the heart of the story lies an existentialist theme.
London emphasizes the existential theme in “To Build a Fire” in several ways, the most important of which is his selection of the setting in which the story takes place. The story is set in the wilderness of the frozen Yukon during the harsh winter months when “there was no sun nor hint of sun” in the sky (118). London places his solitary human character in the perilous setting of the wilderness of the Yukon, which is enough to begin to illustrate his theme, but when London combines this unforgiving environment with the deadly cold of the Yukon winter, he creates a setting which is the epitome of the hostile, existential environment. The remoteness of the Yukon wilderness, as well as the absence of a human travel companion for the man, serve to illustrate the existentialist idea that man is alone in the universe. To further emphasize this idea, London has not given the protagonist a name, but simply refers to him as “the man” throughout the story. By not naming the character, London has placed him at an even greater distance from the reader within his deadly setting, thus isolating him all the more in a bleak and hostile universe.
Imagery is an important element which London uses to illustrate and emphasize his theme. Earl Labor sees the “mood and atmosphere, which is conveyed through repetitive imagery of cold and gloom and whiteness,” as being “the key to the story’s impact” (63). Indeed, London does rely heavily on imagery to set the mood of the story, and in this way he draws a picture of the merciless environment his character must endure. London uses imagery with such skill that the reader can almost feel the severe and deadly cold of the environment and can almost hear the “sharp, explosive crackle” when the man’s spit would freeze in mid-air (119). Through the use of such vivid imagery, London guides the reader toward the realization of the story’s theme; the reader can visualize the man “losing in his battle with the frost” and thus can envision man in his conflict with a cruel and uncaring universe (128).
London also uses irony to illustrate and stress his existential theme. The man is “keenly observant” as he moves through the treacherous terrain of the Yukon (120). He is constantly on the lookout for signs which tell of the hidden dangers that he wishes to avoid, but, ironically, the man “falls through the ice” in an area which is absent of any “treacherous signs” (Perry 227). The man gets a further dose of the capricious and impassive nature of the universe when, after painstakingly starting a fire, the life-sustaining fire is ironically snuffed out by falling snow just as he is about to begin thawing out his freezing feet. King Hendricks sees irony in that even “with all his knowledge [the man] is still a helpless victim to natural powers and natural forces” (22). Hendricks further notes the irony in the fact that the man “could not survive in the Artic [sic] weather of 75 degrees below zero while the dog, living only by instinct, without mittens, without earflaps, without a coat, without lunch, and without a fire, saved himself” (22). To preserve the existential theme of man being alone in an uncaring cosmos, the reader must not be confused by the presence of the dog as a traveling companion to the man; the reader must instead see the dog for what it really is—a further extension of the apathetic and uncaring environment. The dog is not a sentient being as man himself is and cannot therefore be looked upon as being a kindred spirit who shares the bitter existence of the lone, lost soul who is the protagonist. By accenting the essential parts of his story with irony, London directs the reader’s attention to the heartless indifference of nature and thus the existential theme of man’s living a solitary existence in a capricious and harmful universe.
With his classic style, Jack London has created an exciting and unforgettably tragic tale which illustrates a modern philosophic theme. This story’s theme speaks of man’s need to find meaning in the sufferings of his solitary existence in an environment which is both hostile and indifferent to his sufferings. London illustrates and emphasizes this theme in three ways: through his choice of setting, his imagery, and his artful placement of irony within the story.
“Existentialism.” The American Heritage Dictionary. 3rd ed. New York: Dell, 1994.
Hendricks, King. Jack London: Master Craftsman of the Short Story. Logan: Utah State U P,
1966. Rpt. In Jack London: Essays in Criticism. Ed. Ray Wilson Ownbey. Santa Barbara:
Peregrine, 1978. 13-30.
Labor, Earle. Jack London. New York: Twayne, 1974.
London, Jack. “To Build a Fire.” Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry and Drama.
6th ed. Ed. X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia. New York: Harper Collins, 1995. 118-29.
McElroy, Davis Dunbar. Existentialism and Modern Literature. Westport: Greenwood, 1968.
Perry, John. Jack London: An American Myth. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1981.
Walcutt, Charles Child. Jack London. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1966.
--Richard F. Robbins
SOURCE: “The Theme of Jack London's ‘To Build a Fire,’” in American Book Collector, Vol. 17, No. 3, November, 1966, pp. 15–18.
[In the following essay, Peterson discusses the motif of the journey in “To Build a Fire.”]
Judged simply by the number of times it has been selected by the editors of anthologies, “To Build a Fire” is Jack London's most popular and presumably his best short story. What merit editors find in it, I can only speculate; but I imagine that it is admired as a fine example of a suspenseful story with a strong theme presented in vivid, realistic detail. All this, of course, it is; and it is interesting to recall in this connection that, aside from the death of the protagonist, the story treats of precisely the range of experience that London himself had had in the northland. He too, in his relations with cold, dogs, fires, and all the rest of the exotic mise en scène, had never become more than a chechaquo; and writing within that narrow range of experience, he recreated a moment of truth about the Yukon more clearly and credibly than anywhere else in his fiction.
Valid as it is, however, an interpretation which halts at the careful contrivance of suspense, a strong theme—by which is meant, I suppose, the primitive struggle for survival—and precise, realistic details cannot explain the appeal of the story, which, like all serious fiction, hints at a depth and richness of meaning below the level of literal narration. In this paper I wish to discuss this “depth and richness of meaning,” or theme, particularly in terms of the fable and the characters. To put the discussion into context, let me summarize the story even if its great popularity guarantees that most readers are familiar with it.
A man, whose name is not given, is traveling alone, except for an almost wild dog as companion, in the far north in the dead of winter. Although aware of the dangers of the journey, the man is confident. He is alert and careful; but even so he accidentally breaks through the surface of a frozen stream and gets his feet wet. When he fails in his attempts to build a fire to dry himself, he dies. His wolf-dog companion leaves the body to seek food and warmth with the dead man's companions waiting in camp.
The fable unfolds as a journey taken in the face of serious danger in which the conflicts between man and nature and between man and dog provide the drama. But I wish to consider here the journey itself, presented in the first sentence of the story in a passage that is both rhetorically impressive and charged with implication:
Day had broken cold and gray, exceedingly cold and gray, when the man turned aside from the main Yukon trail and climbed the high earthbank, where a dim and little-traveled trail led eastward through the fat spruce timberland.
These details, admirably foreshadowing the events of the story, tell how a man leaves the well-trodden path of the familiar world of men to follow a faint and difficult trail into a world of mysterious (“dim and little-travelled”) but significant (“fat spruce timberland”) experience. The very rhythms of the passage reinforce the meaning. The shifts from the initial iambic rhythm to anapestic and back to iambic follow the movement of the passage from the scene itself (“Day had broken …”) to the first action (“… turned aside …”) and to the second (“… climbed the high earth-bank. …”). The double stress upon “earthbank” emphasizes the boundary between the realms of familiar and unfamiliar.
The journey thus brilliantly announced is, as I have implied, more than a literal journey, although the hard, realistic surface of the narrative may obscure what ought to be obvious. The nameless man (his anonymity is significant) is a modern Everyman who, if not precisely summoned, nevertheless takes a pilgrimage the end of which “he in no wise may escape.” At the realistic level, the direction of the journey is toward camp and safety, a return to the comfortable, sensual world of the known and familiar, but it becomes a journey into the unknown with the possibility of illumination as well as the risk of disaster. Hence another analogue, what Maud Bodkin, after Jung, has termed the archetypal theme of rebirth, suggests itself.
For Miss Bodkin, the rebirth theme consists of a double movement—downward toward disintegration and death and upward toward redintegration and life, but life greatly enriched. Jung terms this latter change “subjective transformation” and the result the “enlargement of personality.” The pattern is similar to what Toynbee calls “withdrawal and return.” “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is a rich and exciting work employing this theme, whether formulated in Jung's or Toynbee's terms; but the theme is a common one in fiction, including London's. “The Story of Jees Uck” (1902), an obvious instance, tells of Neil Bonner, a spoiled young man who is forced by his father to leave the civilization that has corrupted him and to live in the northern wilderness. There he has experiences, including a liaison with Jees Uck, a native girl, which give him new insights and values. These he takes back to civilization where he becomes a prominent member of his society.
“To Build a Fire” is of this general type. The central character—like Neil Bonner and the Ancient Mariner—has a misconception that must be changed, for living in such ignorance is a kind of death. At the beginning of the story we are told “That there should be anything more to it than that [cold as a fact requiring certain simple precautions] was a thought that never entered his head.” Extreme cold is a metaphor for a whole range of experiences beyond the man's awareness, and the point of the story is not that the man freezes to death but that he has been confronted with the inadequacy of his conception of the nature of things.
Neither the analogue of Everyman nor of the archetypal rebirth quite fits, however. The man, unlike Everyman, undergoes no redemption; nor, like Neil Bonner and the Ancient Mariner, does he return to civilization changed by the intensity and significance of his experience. He does not even have a moment of illumination as he dies. He comes nearest to insight when dying, he thinks, “When he got back to the States he could tell the folks what real cold was.” The inadequacy of the vision is indicative; had he been capable of truly comprehending his experience, London implies, he might not have died. Inexact as the analogues are, however, they define the kind of story “To Build a Fire” is and show that its significance lies in something profound and universal in the fable.
Before turning to a discussion of the characters, I must call attention to several details of the setting that seem to me symbolic. The “dark hairline” of the main trail and the “pure snow” on the broad frozen Yukon suggest the narrow limits of the man's rational world compared with the...