Jack London’s “To Build A Fire” A Naturalism Piece?

Photo by Nathan Lindahl on Unsplash

Environment versus Predicament. Naturalism versus Realism. In a watered-down explanation, this is essentially the relationship between the two. “Naturalism concludes that natural forces predetermine a character’s decisions” (Literarydevices.net). For instance, during the colonization of America, Native Americans would kill and scalp the Europeans. Some would see this as animalistic or unnecessary. However, to them, growing up having the constant threat of westward expansion, they simply were trying to protect what was theirs. To a Naturalist, the Native Americans’ response to this expansion would’ve been based on their environment. Since Europeans were killing them and taking the Native American’s land, their environmental response was to fight back and protect.

“Realism poses that a decision of a character comes from his response to a certain situation” (Literarydevices.net). For example, let’s suppose someone had to choose between saving their mother or saving a thousand people. Their biological response would be to save their mother, however, realists would say that it would be determined by the situation. So let’s add another detail. If this person’s mother was a terrible mother, they probably would be inclined to save the thousand people. On the other hand, if she was instead Jesus, they would be more inclined to save her instead. Now that I have properly defined Naturalism and Realism, how should Jack London’s “To Build A Fire ‘’ be classified?

At first glance, it might seem like this piece is a part of the Realism movement because his response seems purely situational. However, at second glance it’s clear that it’s Naturalistic. The first key is the cold. The man is in the cold and he’s ignoring the brutish conditions so that he can get home. This right here is man vs. nature. His response was to the cold, not some situational hazard. Jack London focuses on the temperature very closely making sure the harsh conditions are understood. “In reality, it was not merely colder than fifty below zero; it was colder than fifty below; it was colder than sixty below, than seventy below” (Jack London). The man isn’t battling just a mere breezy day, he’s battling the sheer force of nature. It’s pounding down on him every step of the way and still, he treads on. It’s a battle of will. Only the strongest men can survive this.

“Yet survival in the environment is no easy thing, for it is an unequal battle between the fragile man and the mighty power of the nature” (Dan Kan). According to Abrams, humans in a Naturalist view are merely animals who happened to inherit more than normal animals. With this in mind, it’s clear that the man’s battle with nature directly ties into Naturalism. The man is arrogant and sees himself as beyond nature, which to Naturalists is the very thing that brought him into existence, it was nature’s right to take him out. He also throughout the entire story acted like an animal. He constantly would look around keeping a close eye out and watching for external dangers much like prey would do. Also, he stuck to the path and didn’t veer from it much like a deer does in the woods, the path of least resistance. With this animalistic behavior and taking on the brunt of nature, it’s clear that he was depicted as an animal. This means that he’s a Naturalistic character.

The next key is when he falls into one of the snow traps. The second that he falls in he tries everything he can do to survive, once again man vs. nature. When he is unsuccessful at building a fire he then looks at the dog. “The dog was nearly killed by his owner because of the severe cold. And finally, it left his owner for survival. This is the real instance of the naturalism theme ‘survival of the fittest”’ (Dan Kan). The survival of the fittest at this point of the story depicts the connection to naturalism as well. In nature, there is no difference between man and animal, there is only predator and prey. So when the man tried to kill the dog for his survival he was putting this in motion. This not only shows the man as an animal but shows just how nature predetermined his decision. Since he tried to overpower nature, which decided to bring the hammer, then his only move was to try to use the dog’s internal heat so he could survive. That was the only option, his hands were already frozen, he couldn’t feel his feet, and he could feel his blood slowing.

In this way nature already decided that his only choice was to kill the dog. However, since the dog had superior genetics and instincts when it came to the wild, the man didn’t stand a chance at using his frozen hands to accomplish killing the dog. This is why the dog ultimately left him and the man died. Also, it reveals just how animalistic he was. He wasn’t willing to find another way and had no attachment to the dog other than that it was a good tool to check for snow traps. He was the predator attempting to get his prey. In reality, we have an abnormal connection to our furry companions. We would think more than twice about our options before ultimately deciding to take the life of man’s best friend for our survival. However, since the man didn’t think about this, he is then an animal, thus, subject to the same rules of nature as the dog. Since he is subject to the same rules it just further proves that “To Build A Fire” is part of the Naturalistic movement. He is not bigger than nature or devoid of it thus making him a Naturalistic character.

Another way “To Build A Fire” is seen as Naturalism is how Jack London depicted his character. “Naturalism suggests a philosophical pessimism in which writers use scientific techniques to depict human beings as objective and impartial characters” (Literarydevices.net). Throughout the story of “To Build A Fire,” the man keeps thinking back to the old man who warned him of walking alone in the cold. At first, he thinks the old man is foolish and that only a real man can stand the harsh condition. However, when he finally dies he accepts the old man’s truth. The man didn’t listen to the old man not only because he thought he could handle it, but because he was on a mission to get home on time to join his boys by the fire. He was so determined to get there that he was mapping out his steps in accordance with time to see what time he would arrive.

This stubborn objectiveness is what reveals his Naturalistic nature. He doesn’t stray from his objective and he doesn’t think twice about the possibility of death. This objectiveness can also be seen when he falls into the snow trap. The moment he falls in he only thinks of the fire and fails to keep a keen eye on where he is building this fire. This leads to snow putting it out and him having to start over. However, his hands were frozen. Instead of trying to think rationally how to handle the situation at that point he continues to build a fire that he is gonna be put out. Then when he finally gets to the dog he still only thinks of himself and the fire. “He would kill the dog and bury his hands in the warm body until the numbness went out of them” (Jack London). He thought if he could warm his hands in the dog he could get the fire built. It was all about the objective of the fire and that was all. Nothing else. Then after all was lost he ran. He tried to overcome nature at that point by trying to outrun it with the same objective in mind, fire. He thought at that point if he could get home he could get warm by the fire and maybe save a few toes in the process. With this utterly dumbfounded objectiveness it’s obvious that he is a Naturalistic character.

It’s clear now that Jack London’s piece is a part of the Naturalism movement. “London depicts protagonists fighting to win in a causative naturalist universe” (Jay Gurian). He writes of a man whose objective, animalistic, decisions are predetermined by nature, and weaker than nature. All of these characteristics are the definition of Naturalistic character, thus, making it a part of the Naturalism movement. Putting this story into the Realism category just wouldn’t hold up. It’s not situational nor does it show a story as it appears. It’s a battle of man versus nature and the idea of nature as a higher power is abstract and can’t be seen as a willing force like that of man versus man, man versus self, or even man versus extraterrestrial being. In addition to that, there isn’t a distinction that would cause it to not fit into the Naturalism movement other than that he was reacting situationally. However, this is a pure stimulus to the environment that we saw when the dog fell into the first snow trap and immediately licked the ice out of its paws. So “To Build A Fire” is, therefore, a part of the Naturalism movement.

Britin McCarter is a writer, musician, aspiring scientist, and college student. Connect with Britin at http://www.facebook.com/britinmccarter

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