When Jack London wrote “To Build a Fire” he embraced the idea of naturalism because it mirrored the events of daily life. Naturalism showed how humans had to be wary at every corner because at anytime death could be there, waiting for them to make a mistake and forfeit their lives.
He used naturalism, the most realistic literary movement, to show how violent and uncaring nature really is and how no matter what you do nature will always be there. London also presented the basic idea of Darwinism and the survival of the fittest, basically if you are dumb you will die. Collectively, London used naturalism to show how in life, humans can depend on nothing but themselves to survive.
“To Build a Fire” is a short story that embodies the idea of naturalism and how, if one is not careful, nature will gain the upper hand and they will perish. When the narrator introduced the main character of the story, the man, he made it clear that the man was in a perilous situation involving the elements. The man was faced with weather that was 75 degrees below zero and he was not physically or mentally prepared for survival.
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London wrote that the cold “did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man’s frailty in general, able only to live within certain narrow limits of heat and cold.”(p.1745) At first when the man started his journey to the camp, he felt certain that he could make it back to camp before dinner. As the trip progressed, the man-made mistake after mistake that sealed his fate. The man’s first mistake was to step into a pool of water and soak his legs to the knees.
This blunder forced the man to build a fire to dry his wet socks and shoes so his feet would not freeze and become frostbitten. When the man began to build a fire he failed to notice that he was doing so under a large, snow laden spruce tree where he was getting his firewood. When the man had a small fire that was beginning to smolder the disturbance to the tree caused the snow to tumble to the ground and extinguish the fire. “It was his own fault or, rather, his mistake. He should not have built the fire under the spruce tree.
He should have built it in the open.”(1750). That minor detail of the critical placement of the fire ultimately cost the man his life. The third mistake the man-made was that he removed his gloves for an extended period and his hands became completely numb. When the man was trying desperately to re-light the fire he removed his gloves and lost all feeling in his hands. If he had remained calm and thought about his situation he might have had a chance to survive.
Nature showed no mercy when the man attempted to re-light the fire using only his palms, and he failed. “He was losing his battle with the frost. It was creeping into his body from all sides.”(1754) The man’s unfortunate mistakes cost him his life and nature felt no sympathy for him. He was just another man who failed to defeat nature for one more day.
If the man had brought along a companion for the journey like the old man in the town had suggested he would still be alive. However, his stubbornness would not submit to that. “The old-timer on Sulfur Creek was right, he thought in the moment of controlled despair that ensued: after fifty below, a man should travel with a partner.”(1752). Instead, the man brought a wolf dog with him to keep him company. The only thing that the dog was good for was as an outlet for the man’s jealously when he realized all the mistakes he had made. The man envied how the dog could just sit in the snow and his warm fur would protect him from the elements. The mistakes that the man-made reflect everyday life by showing how just one accident or miscalculation can cost you your life.
Naturalism utilized the environment to show how fierce and apathetic the world can be. In the opening scene of “To Build a Fire” London used a bleak description of the Yukon to show how barren the wild is. “The Yukon lay a mile wide and hidden under three feet of ice. On top of this ice were as many feet of snow.” The idea that the Yukon is a desolate wasteland full of little more than ice and snow is the perfect example of how foreboding and dangerous nature can be when it’s power is unleashed. The man obviously paid no heed to the ferocity that nature could exhibit at any given time.
Another example of nature being hostile is the dog. The only thing the dog comprehends is that the man is a fire maker who drives the cold away. ” The dog had learned fire, and it wanted fire, or else a burrow under the snow and cuddle its warmth away from the air.”(1746). If the main character in the story did not help to keep the dog warm by building a fire, the dog would have left him a long time ago. The dog also feared the man because the man was never kind to him; he only yelled and cursed at the wild dog.
Naturalism in “To Build a Fire” used the Darwinistic idea of survival of the fittest to reveal that no matter what the environment is if you are not careful about the decisions you make you will die. When the man decided to brave the perils of the Yukon he was not smart enough to take a partner with him in case something happened to him. His only thoughts were of getting back to camp before it became dark outside. He did not follow his instinct when he was crossing the frozen wasteland but plowed ahead recklessly with abandon. The man was destined to die from the start of the story. He did not pay attention to the weather, or to the advice of a man familiar with the territory and therefore sealed his fate. The man also failed his survival test when he began to panic as the second fire extinguisher.
He seemed as though he had lost all knowledge of his survival skills. He thought about killing the dog and wallowing in its steaming insides for refuge from the cold. “The sight of the dog put a wild idea into his head. He remembered the tale of a man, caught in a blizzard, who killed a steer and crawled inside the carcass, and so was saved.”(1752). When the man realized that the dog would not let him come near he was forced to concoct another plan. His idea was that if he ran all the way to the camp, he would be able to survive. Unfortunately, that plan failed as well and the man perished in the cold, numbing snow of the Yukon.
Overall, naturalism is the most realistic literary movement. It parallels life more than any other movement because it reveals the fact that nature has not the heart and no emotions. Nature feels no compassion for human struggles and will continue on it’s path of destruction and harm regardless of the circumstances.
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