It’s got to be difficult being a prose writer, especially a richly imaginative one. To create a compelling narrator or character, the author has to limit her powers and ventriloquize the narrator’s voice or inhabit the character’s personality. Because the author is different from the devices she employs, and because so many possibilities clamor for her attention, it sometimes happens that the tension between what the author wants and what the narrator/character requires is so great that the act of ventriloquism breaks down.
As Wharton stammers in Ethan Frome, so too does London in To Build a Fire. Throughout the story, London calls attention to the man’s slow wit. He lacks imagination, we’re told several times. “He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances.” His head is empty of thoughts, especially abstract and metaphorical thoughts.
How comes it, then, that the man, in extremis, and running desperately to recover his rapidly waning warmth, suddenly makes an intriguing metaphorical comparison? “Somewhere he had once seen a winged Mercury, and he wondered if Mercury felt as he felt when skimming over the earth.”
A winged Mercury! Really?
I suppose the image presented itself to London in a flash, and was simply irresistible. He had to use it, even if it meant stuffing it in the man’s head, where it couldn’t possibly fit.
As outlandish as this misstep is, it doesn’t prevent London from getting back into character, fast. In less than two paragraphs, the man makes another comparison, as he attempts to confront death with a modicum of dignity: “His idea of it was that he had been making a fool of himself, running around like a chicken with its head cut off — such was the simile that occurred to him.”
Now this comparison isn’t as striking and original as the winged Mercury. No, but at least it’s consistent with the man’s non-poetic and non-philosophical cast of mind.