To Build a Fire, by Jack London

Day had broken cold and grey, exceedingly cold and grey, when the man turned aside from the main Yukon trail and climbed the high earth-bank, where a dim and little-travelled trail led eastward through the fat spruce timberland.

That’s Jack London (text, not picture) doing what he does best, establishing mood and setting. At least six times in the first paragraph of To Build a Fire the lack of sunlight is mentioned. A darkness pervades the opening scene, “an intangible pall over the face of things.” It’s not subtle, either. But that’s part of the overall conception of the story. Like the man’s dog, readers are supposed to sense impending doom long before our hapless protagonist does. He’s a little slow in the head. “The trouble with him was that he was without imagination.” Of course, this is the cardinal sin for prose fiction writers, to be without imagination. And London doesn’t disappoint in this respect. Like E. Wharton, S. Anderson, and P. Roth, London prizes the creative, life-generating powers of imagination. A man without imagination is a man without apprehension, and is thus in for a world of hurt.

Verbs as windows of the soul

In addition to setting and mood, London does a great job with characterization, too. Little touches, throughout. Choice verbs, like “the man flung a look back along the way he’d come,” or “he plunged in among the big spruce trees,” or “his eager nose … thrust itself aggressively into the frosty air,” or “the man swung along the creek bed.” Insouciance has its delights, so long as one stays dry in a cold, hostile environment. But when the man breaks through a thin layer of ice, in 50 degree below zero weather, and gets wet half-way to his knees, his margin for error suddenly becomes razor-thin.

Man is not a kingdom within a Kingdom

One of my favorite short stories, To Build a Fire strikes me as quintessentially American. Themes that dominate western consciousness abound: the allure of individualism, the peril of commercial exploits, and the conflict between man and nature, as well as between judgment and instinct. Especially the conflict between judgment and instinct, because the dog lives, while the man, who is free from instinctual determination in a way that other animals are not, dies a lonely hypothermic death — which, in case you don’t know, starts off very nasty but ends with an illusory rush of warmth and pleasantness.

Against the backdrop of these themes, it’s a real pleasure, in terms of appreciating London’s craft, to watch him slowly strip away the man’s humanity until he becomes a solid feature of the barren landscape. His cheeks and nose, the once proud stern of his ambition, are severely frostbitten, charred Beck Weathers black. His fingers, thick, swollen, and goofy with cold, are utterly useless. He can’t manipulate matches and start another fire. He can’t even grip the dog, which he attempts to strangle in a desperate bid to kill the beast for borrowed warmth. Not only does dexterity flee his fingers and hands, his toes and feet, but the man can’t even talk, scream, or curse. Speech is impossible for “the ice muzzle on his mouth,” caused by the tobacco juice dripping down his beard like a solid amber icicle. No opposable thumbs. No speech.

Now that’s one cold naked ape.

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4 Responses to To Build a Fire, by Jack London

  1. Trevor says:

    Ahh! We stay on track. One of my favorites here. I reread it once during a hot sum er day. Though I remembered it all so well, I still got so engrossed I started freezing and had to shut the window.

  2. A few years ago, when I taught it to 10th-grade students, I brought in large buckets of ice, chilled their hands good and proper, and had them try to tie and untie their shoes, pick up matches, and do other tactile tasks, which they simply couldn’t do with fingers so cold. A great story.

  3. Geez, what a great activity.

    There’s something new in the imagination that came up with this story. There were shelves of travel books, including the newly exploding Polar exlporation genre. But to see that moment that was not in the explorer’s books, not quite, that’s brilliant.

  4. Matt Rowan says:

    Awesome coincidence is, while subbing for a high school English class, I got to watch film adaptation of this short story, as narrated by Orson Welles. It’s such a visceral story, images only further do it justice. (Plus nice idea with buckets of ice — so very John Dewey!)

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