Monday, February 15, 2010

Thoughts on "To Build a Fire"

After a week in which nature effectively paralyzed our nations capitol, it's as good a time as any to discuss what it means to read about a guy dying in the snow in Jack London's "To Build a Fire," which we were to read for American Literature this week.

I'll admit, it isn't a topic I can really relate to. I've felt cold, but not one hundred degrees below freezing cold. My impression is that London expected that the vast majority of his audience actually can't relate, and that he could bring the awareness of the perils and power of nature to a wider audience through his writing. I can certainly appreciate his goal.

But this means doesn't justify the end. It stands that reading about a guy dying in the snow is terribly boring.

In my experience, the fact stands that it is awfully hard to make a story with a single character work well. It can be argued that the husky in the story is also a character, but if this is the case, both characters are still singular. They scarcely communicate at all and when they do, it is through gesture and sound. That is to say, there is no dialogue in the story, and character development is driven purely by their environment.

Once again, stories like this, with as few as one or two characters and no dialogue, can work, but I found myself slogging through "To Build a Fire" as if it were three feet of snow, and when I finally finished, I was really, honestly glad. The story reads in the same monotonous, dramatic style throughout, as if delivered by a turn-of-the-20th-century Bear Grylls. I found that, living in a world with cars and central heat, I couldn't really relate to the character's struggles.

Which brings up an important question; is "To Build a Fire" simply an obsolete story? Are the issues it brings up even relevant anymore, in a world where no one has to trek along the Oregon trail in negative seventy degree weather?

Considering the recent earthquake in Haiti, The Kashmir Earthquake and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, The Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004 and other recent catastrophic events, it is obvious that nature pulls no punches and still poses a threat to people all over the world. Where "To Build a Fire" differs is that it deals with dangers of nature on an individual level, the aforementioned events are mostly collective concerns. However, it stands that collectives are made up of many individuals, and people should still be wary and educated about such dangers.

With that said, reading "To Build a Fire" is much like hearing a lecture from the old-timer on Sulpher Creek, and it is possible that what the story has to say could have more effectively been presented in the form of a public service announcement or a non-fiction article. And what I will say was positive about the story was that it replicated the traveler's panic and helplessness in myself, at least for a few pages toward the end, and I'm definitely not going to go outside in one hundred below weather without a partner anytime soon. I'm sure as far as Jack London would still be concerned, whatever gets the point across is to some extent a success.

This post will be cross-posted on my personal blog, Kaini Industries.



  1. Interesting. I actually had a very different reaction to the story. Despite the fact that I too have not felt the violent chills of hundred below weather, London's imagery and description made the hairs stick up on my body, while sitting in my 70 degree bedroom.

    To me, the story seemed to show a cocky man who seemed to think he was above the powers of nature. Yeah, he was chilly, but nothing could stop a MAN. Much like us today, he had the option of staying home and not venturing out into the cold. This story still applies to the people foolish enough to travel alone, without enough clothing, in the freezing cold, and is a simple reminder of the powers of nature. As you stated in your comments, it is obvious that nature can still defeat man, and this is the lasting argument from the story that would apply in today's world.

  2. I thought "To Build a Fire" was a nice contrast to Stephan Crane's "The Open Boat." Although both stories where revolved around near-death experiences due to intense forces of nature, in my opinion, "To Build a Fire" was significantly more interesting and better written.

    I feel as though the one character made this story more intimate and relate-able. I'm sure hardly anyone in our class has felt frigid 70 below 0 degree temperature, but the way in which London writes helped me to relate to the way the unfortunate main character felt, freezing alive. I can't agree with the statement that this story is "obsolete" in today's society. I feel as though more than nature's terrifying and destructive forces, London was trying to portray an average man's thought process and actions in a stressful, dangerous situation. Even further than this, I think London wanted to show the fragility of life and how thoughtless mistakes can lead to grave consequences. These aspects of "To Build a Fire" are still valid in today's society and beyond.

  3. Couldn't we argue that Nature is a character in this story? That scene where the snow falls off of the tree limb, onto the fire, is simultaneously heartbreaking and frustrating. Man vs. Nature (or wild) indeed. Also, could the unnamed man be a metonym for all of mankind?

    Along those lines, Casey is correct to point us toward the story's interrogation of masculinity, which is something that Hollywood has represented at least somewhat recently. As such, like Lauren claims, the story must still be relevant, right? Of course, we could argue that relevancy doesn't even matter if this story is "well wriiten," which is also something that Lauren claims.

  4. I definitely feel like "To Build a Fire" is still relevant today. I understand that obviously we live in a time where we don't always need to face these extreme elements and we aren't put into positions where we are constantly fighting nature.

    But I think in some ways the purpose of nature in this story is to bring out certain elements in man. It's not so much about how man interacts with nature as it is the way he interacts with himself. As opposed to the husky, man has become increasingly disconnected with his own intuition. Instead of the man in the story thinking, "Hey it's too cold to be out here, I should probably go home," he continues to rationalize his hike with all this scientific information. London practically bombards us with all this information about temperature and measurements that the man constantly reverts to. He relies on all this science to help him survive when probably just following his natural instincts, like the dog, would have saved him.

  5. This was actually one of my favorite readings from the list so far... It may not be entirely relevant to today but in my dream-world I would perhaps be trekking trails in the North West Pacific so I definitely liked reading this. Also, I think that you could relate it to, obviously, man vs. nature which is still relevant today. Huge natural disasters point to mother nature's unpredictable ways. In my geology course last semester we learned a lot about people in California who live in dangerous environments (ie mudslides, earthquakes etc...) these people go into areas that are dangerous BEFORE human habitation and will continue to be dangerous.. yet people continue to move there! This reminded me of the story and in general of man trying to defy the strength of nature!