Jack London,“To Build a Fire”
Study Guides on Works and Writers
Century, 76 (August 1908): 525-534; collected in Lost Face (New York: Macmillan, 1910), pp. 63-98
Jack London (1876-1916) was one of the most popular and respected American authors of his time. He created literary characters who, like himself, were active and adventurous, and many of his stories, including “To Build a Fire,” argue that humans must either adapt to the Naturalistic universe or be annihilated by it.
London was born John Griffith Chaney to a working class family in San Francisco. At ten he took menial jobs to help support his family, and at fourteen he dropped out of school to work full-time. At sixteen he bought a boat and harvested oysters illegally, becoming known as the “Prince of the Oyster Pirates.” Educating himself with books from public libraries, London discovered socialism and at nineteen began giving fiery street-corner speeches, prompting local newspapers to call him the “Boy Socialist of Oakland.” He ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Oakland on the Socialist Party ticket in 1901 and 1905. Admired by Eugene Debs and Leon Trotsky, London championed workers’ rights in his novels The People of the Abyss (1903), The Iron Heel (1908), and The Valley of the Moon (1913). He attacked Nietzschean individualism and capitalism in The SeaWolf (1904) and Martin Eden (1909).
Author of some twenty novels, two hundred short stories, and four hundred nonfictional pieces during his twenty-year literary career, London’s first published work was a newspaper article based on his experiences aboard the sealing ship Sophia Sutherland. He later worked as a war correspondent, reporting on the Russo-Japanese War for the Hearst newspapers in 1904 and the Mexican Revolution for Collier’s in 1914. The journalistic style of his fiction influenced Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell.
Many of London’s fictional works were based on personal experiences. His years as an oyster pirate and subsequent employment by the California Fish Patrol are reflected in The Cruise of the Dazzler (1902) and Tales of the Fish Patrol (1905). His seven months aboard the Sophia Sutherland inspired The Sea-Wolf, and his 1907-1908 voyage to the South Pacific aboard The Snark, a ship London designed himself, was fictionalized in South Sea Tales (1911), The Cruise of the Snark (1911), and The House of Pride and Other Tales of Hawaii (1912). London also participated in the Klondike gold rush of 1897. His adventures inspired The Call of the Wild (1903), White Fang (1906), and “To Build a Fire.”
London initially wrote “To Build a Fire” as a boy’s adventure tale, and it was published in Youth’s Companion magazine in 1902. He later expanded and revised it, publishing the often anthologized, more Naturalistic version six years later. The story begins with the protagonist and his dog hiking across the unforgiving Alaskan wilderness toward a mining camp. Untroubled by the cold and gloomy landscape, the prospector considers himself master of all he surveys—the entire length of the Yukon Territory. Confident in his independent nature, strong will, and ability to reason, the man believes he, not an unpredictable universe, controls his fate. He consults his watch several times, calculating his speed and planning precise times for meals and his arrival at camp. The man takes care to follow a faint sled trail and avoid thin ice that hides dangerous pools of frigid water, which could soak him and threaten his life. He forces his dog to lead, and when the dog breaks through into the water, it instinctively bites the ice from its forepaws. This reaction contrasts with the man, who initially forgets to build a fire when he stops for lunch, not immediately noticing that his hands are dangerously numb. A little frightened, he quickly lights a fire and eats.
Soon after getting back on the trail, the man himself breaks through the ice, soaking his clothes below the knee. He carefully constructs and lights a fire to dry out his feet, socks, and moccasins. Because he builds the fire beneath a spruce tree rather than in the open, however, the snow on the tree’s branches drops on the fire, dousing it. The man frantically builds another fire, but his fingers are so numb that he cannot light it. Remembering a story about a man killing a steer and crawling inside during a blizzard, he attempts to catch and kill his dog, but the dog’s superior instincts enable it to evade him. Panicked and fearing death, the man begins to run blindly across the snow, stumbles, and realizes that he is doomed. Defeated by the environment and the flaws in his nature, he falls into “the most comfortable and satisfying sleep he had ever known,” the sleep of death. The dog leaves the man for the food and fire of the camp.
TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION AND RESEARCH
- 1. “To Build a Fire” follows many of the tenets of Realism. Students should research literary Realism as they examine London’s stark, journalistic style. Students might discuss the effect of London’s verisimilitude, such as the man’s spittle crackling sharply and explosively in eighty-below temperatures, the amber colored ice on his beard from his tobacco spit, and his symptoms of frostbite and hyperthermia.
- 2. London’s protagonist takes a cavalier attitude about his journey across the frozen tundra. He is brave and strong; he can reason; and he is observant. Is he abnormal, or are his experiences extraordinary? He begins his journey arrogantly selfconfident, unconcerned about traveling alone or his rapidly freezing cheeks: “A bit painful, that was all; they were never serious.” Why is he surprised by the cold and its effects on him? Also, why doesn’t his technology and talents (the ability to build a fire) protect him from hyperthermia and death in the end?
- 3. Students should conduct research on Naturalism in literature. “To Build a Fire” follows Emile Zola’s instruction on how to construct a Naturalistic literary work: placing the protagonist at the center of a scientific experiment and allowing the reader to observe how heredity and environment shape his character and determine his destiny. Why does London characterize his failure to build a fire as “his mistake” rather than “his own fault”? What is the difference? Why is London’s protagonist unnamed? How does his background explain his failure to adapt to a hostile environment?
- 4. Many literary scholars have cited the man’s lack of imagination as a reason for his failure. What kind of imagination would he need to survive? Why is it important for him to “meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man’s frailty in general”? The man is proud of his ability to travel and survive alone, rejecting the “womanish” fears and warnings of the old-timer never to travel in these conditions without a partner. Why is asking for help or taking advice gendered female? London’s protagonist considers himself a true man and is shocked when he fails, realizing by the end that the old-timer was correct. The man’s final words are an admission of wisdom gained too late. Discuss the didactic nature of literature; why is it better to learn a lesson from the experiences of a fictional character rather than through one’s own experience?
- 5. The dog, on the other hand, has evolved to survive in this climate. The man considers the dog an inferior being; yet, when the man realizes his own lack of warmth and endurance, he begins to envy the dog. The dog, whose ancestors lived in this region, has evolved a natural covering that protects it in the cold. However, it has more than fur to protect it; as a “brother” to the wild wolf, it has the instinct of self-preservation, a biological heritage of knowing when not to be outside: “It knew that it was no time for traveling. Its instinct told it a truer tale than was told to the man by the man’s judgment.” Although it lacks the man’s knowledge of thermometers, its brute instinct enables the dog to survive the cold and the man’s murderous desperation. Students should find examples in the text that show what the dog does to obey “the mysterious prompting that arose from the deep crypts of its being.” Also, discuss how and why the dog chooses instinct over social training. When does it obey the man and when does it disobey? Discuss London’s message that instinct and fur covered skin are superior in this environment to human reason and human-made tools like matches and clothing.
Carolyn Johnston, Jack London—An American Radical? (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1984).
A study of the development of London’s politics, particularly his socialism. Johnston argues London should be considered a rebel rather than a radical and that his political views were complicated by his sympathetic but disdainful attitude toward the lower working class.
Alex Kershaw, Jack London: A Life (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998). A passionate, insightful biography of London, written in a breezy style.
Jonathan Auerbach, Male Call: Becoming Jack London (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1996).
An important critical study of London’s early life and writing career, particularly his contributions to literary Naturalism.
Leonard Cassuto and Jeanne C. Reesman, eds., Rereading Jack London (Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press, 1996).
A collection of essays by noted scholars, who examine London’s Naturalism from a variety of theoretical approaches that include psychoanalytical, poststructuralist, Marxist, feminist, and New Historical.
James I. McClintock, White Logic: Jack London’s Short Stories (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wolf House Books, 1975); republished as Jack London’s Strong Truths (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1997).
McClintock’s book analyzes, among other things, the Darwinian ideas explored in London’s stories of adventure and death in a hostile Arctic environment.
Nancy A. Walker, ed., Jack London (New York: Twayne, 1994).
A collection of essays that includes “The Literary Frontiersman,” by Earle Labor and Jeanne Campbell Reesman, which analyzes London’s imagery and symbolism in “To Build a Fire.” Labor and Reesman argue that the Naturalistic set-ting—the bitter winter in the Yukon—is a character in the story, mythical and antagonistic.
Charles Child Walcutt, Jack London (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1966.
A pamphlet that provides an overview of London’s writing. Walcutt pays particular attention to the influence of Darwin, Nietzsche, and Marx.