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Introduction to Literary Context: American Short Fiction

To Build A Fire by Jack London

by Michele L. Kreidler

Content Synopsis

“To Build A Fire” is one of the first of Jack London's short stories set in the Klondike during the Gold Rush years, and is arguably his most famous. The story has only two characters, a man and his dog. The man is a newcomer to the Klondike and is setting out from town to join his compatriots, referred to ‘the boys’ at a specified point on the Yukon River. The dog is with him, although the relationship between the man and the dog is more business-like than companionable.

Before he sets out on the trail, the newcomer is warned by a more experienced Klondike traveler, referred to as the old-timer from Sulphur Creek, that no man should travel alone when the temperature drops below −50 degrees. As he hikes along the trail, faintly visible under the trees along the winter in the dim light of the Yukon winter, the man dismisses the old-timer's advice. The man estimates the temperature to be about −75, and yet he is traveling at a good pace and estimates reaching ‘the boys’ by six o’clock.

Despite his confidence, the newcomer is wary of the many springs that dot the trail and appear as snow-covered ice, yet are filled with flowing water if the ice breaks through. He knows that if he stumbles into one of these springs, he must stop to build a fire and dry out his socks and moccasins. In this cold, he is well aware of the danger of frostbite and frozen limbs. He walks with a keen eye for slight depressions in the snow; a sure sign of an ice covered spring. But, just past noon when he is most confident of arriving at the meeting place, he sinks into the snow and crashes through the ice. He is wet up to his shins.

He does not panic, but calmly and methodically goes about building a fire to dry out his clothes. He forgets, however, the one rule of survival in the Yukon; never build a fire under snow covered tree limbs. Once his fire takes hold and the warm air rises, the boughs overhead shed their burden of snow. It falls and snuffs out the flames he has painstakingly started burning. He is now concerned and wonders if maybe the old-timer was right about having a trail partner. He begins to build a second fire out in the open. But now his fingers are so frozen, he fails to light a match. In desperation, he tries to light the whole pack of matches but succeeds only in dropping them in the snow.

The dog has been patiently waiting, hoping for a warm fire also and cannot understand why this human is unable to build a fire. The newcomer, now grasping the severity of his situation, considers killing the dog to warm his hands in the entrails. However, he does not have enough feeling in his hands to grasp his knife. In the end, the newcomer lays down allowing himself to drift into the sleep. The dog, smelling death, runs into the forest in the direction of other humans and other fires.

Symbols & Motifs

The singular motif in “To Build A Fire” is survival. This motif is expressed through the imagery of cold, especially as portrayed in the man's experience of frostbite, freezing extremities, and the freezing amber tobacco juice ice clinging to his beard. The man's confrontation of his own mortality in the Klondike—namely his hubris in going out on the trail alone and reliance on knowledge and skill is contrasted with the dog who relies on survival by his instincts. The nonspecific symbolism in the story is consistent with London's writing style which was based on realism. This realism, as well as the adventures played out in his stories, was the basis of his success as a writer and his appeal to publishers in the growing market of mass media and magazine publishing.

Historical Context

The historic context of “To Build A Fire” is rooted in the confluence of geography, namely the largely unexplored (at the time of London's writing) Yukon territory, and economy, specifically the Panics of 1893 and 1896. These financial crises caused widespread unemployment, recession, and numerous bank failures in the United States. The arrival of two ships, one in San Francisco and one in Seattle, in July 1897 bearing miners and their bags of gold, created an overnight sensation. It can be argued that these financial crises were the catalysts of the Gold Rush as thousands faced with the specter of poverty and financial ruin stampeded to the Klondike willing to risk life and limb for the prospect of quick wealth. Jack London himself was a victim of the national economic collapse and went to the Yukon with his brother-in-law to seek riches in the goldfield. Ultimately, most of the stampeders, as the mining adventurers came to be known, never realized their vision of quick wealth. By the time they arrived in the goldfields, most of claims along the creeks and riverbanks were already claimed (Waltham, 2007). The real wealth to be realized was in the retail trade with enterprising outfitters providing supplies and services needed by miners and travelers. This business was driven in part by the Canadian Mounted Police who, acknowledging the risk of survival in the remote and uninhabited territory, would not let prospectors cross over the Canadian border without a year's worth of supplies. As a result, business entrepreneurs trumped the prospectors in finding riches in the Yukon (Adventure Learning Foundation, 2009).

Societal Context

The society of the Yukon was characterized by a lust for adventure, risk-taking, and desperation. The lure of the Yukon was shared equally by professional men, business men, teachers, ne’er- do-wells and those generally down and out on their luck. Many women joined in the stampede as wives, husband-seekers, or business entrepreneurs in their own right. Living on the edge of survival created a society that was raw, free-wheeling and very much of-the-moment. With only three characters, the traveler, his dog, and reference to the old-timer, London shows the elemental nature of this society where traditional codes of behavior do not apply. Instinct and experience are the keys to survival not social values or laws of men. In fact, traditional law enforcement was minimal as the territory was too vast and the resources of the Canadian government, in the form of the Canadian Mounted Police, too scarce to be of great effect.

Religious Context

The lack of overt religious reference in the story is significant given the story's theme of survival, confrontation of mortality, and death. This however, is consistent with Jack London's life which does not give evidence of any specific religious belief or spiritual philosophy.

Scientific & Technological Context

The climate of the Klondike provides the geographic context for the story. There is a conspicuous lack of reference to science or technology. London relies on folklore and the observations of nature to inform his character and the character's subsequent actions. For example, the relative temperature is measured by specific natural phenomena, e.g. spittle freezing in the air before it hits the ground, breath freezing in the moustache and beard to such an extent that the man cannot open his mouth to bite his biscuit, and the presence of amber ice from dribbling tobacco juice down his chin. The knowledge needed to survive in the Yukon was largely based on folklore and the raw experience of survival in an inhospitable climate. In his journey, the main character relied on clues from the landscape. He surmised the location of deadly iced over springs by observing “the snow above the hidden pools had a sunken, candied appearance.” His trail was a faint line. He had no compass, no maps, or any other tools to guide him or protect him. This lack of technology underscores the primitive society that characterized life in the Yukon. For the man in the story, and other Gold Rush stampeders, it was a contest of man vs. nature, each in its most primeval form.

Biographical Context

Jack London was born in San Francisco on January 12, 1876. His mother, Flora Wellman, was not married at the time of his birth and claimed his father to be William Chaney. Chaney denied the paternity. Wellman, in desperation, gave the baby to Virginia Prentiss, an ex-slave, who remained a powerful figure in London's life. Following recovery from an attempted suicide, Wellman married John London, a partially disabled Civil War veteran. The baby, now known as Jack London was re-united with his mother and the family eventually settled in Oakland, CA. At the age of 13, London quit school and went to work at a local cannery. It was grueling manual labor for 12–18 hour shifts. He quit this job and found subsequent work as an oyster pirate, then an oyster pirate patrol man, and then a worker on a Japanese sealing schooner. After quitting that job and returning to the United States, he became a vagrant, eventually ending up serving time in the Erie County (New York) penitentiary. He returned to California, finished high school, and at the age of 21, enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley. Financial circumstances prevented him from graduating from Berkeley and in 1897, he joined his brother-in-law, James Shepard and headed to the Klondike and the Yukon Gold Rush. Although he only spent one year at Berkeley, the experience profoundly influenced his thinking and his politics. London developed a philosophy of life centered on social Darwinism and socialist political ideology.

London's experience in the Klondike, like many others, ended in failure. He returned to Oakland in 1898 with a determination to “sell his brains” to earn a living. His experiences in the Klondike provided the basis for his short stories and novels. London was fortunate that the era of magazine publishing was blossoming at the same time he determined to make a living as a writer. His short stories, characterized by adventure and realism, were highly marketable and London soon was making a lucrative living as a writer.

London was married twice, first to Bess Maddem (1900–1904) who bore him two daughters, Joan and Little Bess. They divorced and in 1905 he married Charmian Kittredge. In 1905, he purchased 1000 acres in Glen Ellen, Sonoma County, California and began building Beauty Ranch. His dream was to make the ranch self-sustaining. To this end, he read and studied agriculture and animal husbandry. He continued to write novels, short stories, and news articles to support his family and his ranch activities. His adventures now included sailing and traveling to the South Pacific and Hawaii. He began construction of a 15,000 square foot mansion, to be called Wolf House. Tragically, the mansion burned to the ground just weeks before London was able to move in.

London died in 1916, at the age of 40. Many questions surround his death. His early life of adventure and risk taking as well as alcoholism took a toll on his body. He was suffering extreme pain from uremic poisoning and speculation exists that he either accidentally overdosed on morphine prescribed for his pain, or he deliberately overdosed. London is buried on his Glen Ellen Ranch, now maintained as Jack London State Historic Park.

Works Cited

1 

Adventure Learning Foundation. “Klondike Gold Rush Yukon Territory 1897.” 2009. 14 Feb. 2009.

2 

London, Jack. “To Build A Fire.” The Collected Jack London. Ed. Steven J. Kasdin. New York: Marlboro Books, 1991.

3 

Marciano, Alain. “Economists on Darwin's theory of social evolution and human behavior.” European Journal of History of Economic Thought. 2007: 4(4), 681–700. EBSCO Online Database Academic Search Premier. 19 Feb. 2009.

4 

Waltham, Tony. “Klondike Gold.” Geology Today. 2007: 23(6), 219–226. EBSCO Online Database Academic Search Premier. 14 Feb. 2009.

Discussion Questions

  1. Was the character in the story, “the man,” prepared to make this journey? What could he have done differently?

  2. The man was warned not to travel alone if the temperature was below −50 degrees. Why did he chose to travel alone?

  3. What is the role of the dog in the story?

  4. How does London use sensory elements in the story to describe the cold?

  5. At what point in the story did the man realize he was going to die?

  6. What was the man's reaction to realizing he was in mortal danger?

  7. Did the man prepare himself for death? In what ways?

  8. What do we know about the Old-Timer? What role does he play in the story?

Essay Ideas

  1. “To Build A Fire” has only two characters in the story—the dog and the man. The climate, specifically the cold, has a significant role in the story. Can you say the cold also serves as a character in the story? Why or why not?

  2. Portions of the story are told from the point of view of the dog. Is this significant to the story? In what ways?

  3. We assume at the conclusion of the story that the dog survived. Why did London spare the dog's life? Is this significant to the story?

  4. Jack London espoused the philosophy of ‘social Darwinism.’ How is this philosophy expressed in the story?

  5. The man was warned about traveling in the severe cold. He was also new to life in the Yukon. Did he deserve to die? Why/why not?

Citation Types

Type
Format
MLA 9th
Kreidler, Michele L. "To Build A Fire By Jack London." Introduction to Literary Context: American Short Fiction,Salem Press, 2013. Salem Online, online.salempress.com/articleDetails.do?articleName=LCASF_0035.
APA 7th
Kreidler, M. L. (2013). To Build A Fire by Jack London. Introduction to Literary Context: American Short Fiction. Salem Press. online.salempress.com.
CMOS 17th
Kreidler, Michele L. "To Build A Fire By Jack London." Introduction to Literary Context: American Short Fiction. Hackensack: Salem Press, 2013. Accessed June 18, 2024. online.salempress.com.