A Discussion of Naturalism in “to Build a Fire”
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Naturalism, according to Nina Baym in the introduction of The Norton Anthology of American Literature, “introduces characters from the fringes and depths of society whose fates are determined by degenerate heredity, a sordid environment, and/or a good deal of bad luck” (7). Hence, the authors of naturalism often produce stories with twisted plots in which their protagonists encounter many obstacles and setbacks by nature, and these predicaments often injure or even take the characters’ lives. Of the many works in The Norton Anthology, I find the work “To Build A Fire” represents this literature movement best. The author, Jack London, skillfully engages his readers by reflecting this notion on his characters – the cruel nature, an instinctive dog, and an ill-fated man – and in which their behaviors are clarifications of Darwinism’s ideal and bounded to a deterministic view.
The story is takes place at a Yukon trail and a man, a “newcomer” to the area, is making a daring attempt to cross this dangerous pathway through an extreme environment to meet up with his friends (1057). The temperature at the area is “fifty degrees below zero” (1057) and “exceeding cold and gray” (1057). The man travels by foot without many personal items except a lunch bag that is hidden “under his jacket”; he also travels with a companion, a native husky dog (1058). This area is full of many “traps” (1067), small water streams hidden under icy surfaces . The man knows this fact but he keep on going disregarding the conditions. He meets misfortune when he accidentally steps on one of these “traps” (1067) and drenches his boot up to the knee. This tragedy forces the man to stop and build a fire for drying out. However, his initial fire is diminished when a chunk of snow from an overhead branch of a tree falls over the flame. Frozen and nearly handicapped by the -75 degrees weather, the man’s panicked attempt at building a second fire is now hindered greatly, this time by his own poor performance. He then makes several desperate attempts to stay warm but has to surrender to the force of nature. At the end, the man calmly sits back and willingly accepts his defeat in the battle against nature.
London’s conveying of naturalism is partly due to his description of nature in this story. He presents nature as a fearful, unpredictable, and merciless being. This being seems like it is neither aware nor caring for its containing creatures. No matter how knowledgeable and well-prepared is the man he still meets surprises. The man’s anticipation of nature, however, does not prepare him completely. Nature cripples the man every time he leaves himself unguarded, such as when he takes off his mittens to eat lunch and when stops rubbing his cheek bones. In addition, London describes nature as having a perpetual force. This force is shown at the beginning and the end of the story.
Naturalism in this story is also attained from Darwin’s theory of evolution in a sense that humans and animals, in this case the man and his dog, share some common characteristics such as instincts and the will to survive. This point is supported by Nina Baym in her introduction of The Norton Anthology, in which the naturalism movement promotes the notion that humans evolved “from ‘lower’ forms of life… [and they need] the wisdom derived from their winged and four-legged brothers and sisters” (7). The dog and the man in this story both have instincts. However, the dog is clearly wiser than the man because it utilizes its instincts which have passed down from its ancestors. It knows not to cross the creek in such weather conditions. In addition, its inherited survival mechanism is also noted when the dog stumbles on water and automatically licks its toes to prevent sore feet and when it senses fear in the man’s behavior at attempting to kill it.
In addition to Darwinism’s view of life, the author also applies a deterministic view to the man in his story. This view, according to the Nina Baym, suggests that “nothing individuals do is of real significance” (9). Even though London projects the main character, an ordinary man, as an advanced creature who can think and reason beyond the dog, the man still is a creature “[of] frailty” and “without imagination” (1057-1058). For instance, the man consulted the Old Timer from Sulphur Creek for advices prior to crossing the trail, he wears thick clothing to keep himself warm, he brings tools to made fire, and he is keenly cautious when he crosses the frozen creek. However, he still loses his life at the end.
Jack London’s story at first seems like an example of man versus nature and nature has the upper hand. However, a closer look at the story suggests that we, as humans, are much stronger at sustaining the force of nature because of our capacity for reasoning and learning knowledge. He also implies that nature itself is not against the humans and other creatures it contains; it just goes on and follows its natural course. The humans, in contrast, create conflicts against their own self by not listening to their instincts, following advice, and sticking together.