Naturalism in Jack Londons "To Build a Fire"

Categories: To Build a Fire

Even with our ability to tame some sides of nature, there are still certain conditions and forces which are beyond control; we inevitably are left with no will, powerless against nature’s indifferent influence. This struggle against nature is depicted by many authors of the 19th and early 20th centuries, using key concepts of naturalism and determinism, a key component of naturalist theory, as a foundation and philosophy for many of these stories. Jack London and Stephen Crane are notorious for their writings which have been regarded as cornerstones of naturalist theory in classic American literature.

Stories such as "to Build a Fire", "The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky”, convey themes of naturalism and universal determinism in order to show the protagonist’s lack of free will in his constant battle with nature, often foreshadowing catastrophe and displaying natural instinct found within each character. In theory of Naturalism, nature holds certain precepts that even our own will and integrity cannot bend or break.

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Charles Darwin, creator of the theory of evolution, believed in patterns of natural selection and that over time our environment will shape our genetics. Even we as humans, in Darwin theory, are susceptible to change as we have no free will and our environment shapes and determine things for us.

We in speculation have no control over our own fates; we only have choices that will lead us towards a certain future, one that is decided by nature, and not the individual. In the story, "To Build a Fire", London makes us aware that the protagonist is completely unaware of that notion, he believes with his own determination and will he can conquer the deepest hardships of the wild, attempting to defy the words spoken to him by the old man at Sulphur Creek.

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The adventurer simply believes through his own resolve that this expedition is simply an obstacle to which he can survive, but when set against nature in this environment, survival is the key concept, a profound element when talking about Naturalism. The forces of nature and its destructiveness are beyond the protagonist’s control, and London makes that point when he talks about the cold and its effects on the explorer, saying “But, rub as he would, the instant he stopped his cheekbones were numb, and the following instant the end of his nose went numb.”(London, pg 1064) Though the man, through his own determination, attempts to warm himself by rubbing his cheeks and the end of his nose with his mitten, he is unable to fulfill this desire, as nature takes hold of his destiny.

This sense that nature prevails can also be read in lines such as “He pulled the mitten on the right hand, and beat it fiercely against his knee” (London, pg 1064) He is essentially fighting, savagely, against nature though is unable to triumph. It is somewhere between his spittle freezing and his face forming frostbite that the man should come to some conclusion about his place in nature. Yet as London described before, his inability to recognize the “significance” of nature and her power puts him in an awful position. His conceit will continue to lead him towards a desolate and bleak future, until finally he will become helpless and feeble amongst the supremacy of nature. It is important to note that the first incident sprung on to the character in this story is passed off as something of bad luck, “He cursed his luck aloud”(London, pg 1063 ). The word luck whether bad or good, implicates his lack of free will, luck is something not controlled by him, as suggested by the naturalist theory. It is even more important to take note of phrasing used in his second and most devastating incident.

London uses the phrase, “It was his own fault or, rather his mistake”(London, pg 1062) when describing the occasion when the spruce tree collapses onto his final chances for survival. London follows fault with mistake in order to convey to the reader that his fault would mean him bearing responsibility, rather it is then stated as a mistake, meaning an incident a bit more outside of his control. In the naturalist theory there are choices, but all choices lead towards certain predetermined futures. The man made the ill-fated decision to build his fire under the tree shrouded in tons of snow, just as all through the story he has been continually attempting to overcome nature’s wrath throughout the story. His conceit had caught up with him as nature took control of the mistake and extinguished his only chances of making it out alive. Survival as mentioned before is a key concept of Naturalism, it is vital in the struggle against nature, in order to beat the unfavorable conditions of nature, one must survive. In order to survive one must have keen instincts to thrive in the wild, and in the story, London uses the man’s mammal companion and his owner, in order to show this necessity for instinct.

The protagonist has a certain level of intellect, which gets him by, yet he still needs matches to create his fire and he needs a map in order to guide him to certain locations, all which exercise ones intellect. None of these require instinct, only a certain methodology and knowledge of the items. In the sense of his intellect as opposed to the dog’s instinct, the man’s knowledge of his complicated tools can only take him so far, but eventually lead to error, such as his fingers becoming too numb to strike his matches to create a fire. The dog on the other hand is able to rely solely on instinct in order to overcome the veracity of nature, such as burying itself into the snow when it becomes cold or gnawing the ice between its extremities. Although the man cannot rely on fur in order to keep his warmth, London still shows us that the instinct of the dog prevails the man’s subpar intellect. London even agrees upon the statement, “This man did not know cold. Possibly all the generations of his ancestry had been ignorant of cold, of real cold, of cold one hundred and seven degrees below freezing-point. But the dog knew; all its ancestry knew and it had inherited the knowledge.”(London, pg 1061) If the man had similar instinct as the dog and understood the severity of the cold, he could have been more cautious in his approach and possibly survived the misfortunes to come or not even have began the expedition of impending doom.

Though the man took his intellect for granted, if his instinct were stronger he would have known not to build his fire under the tree. His method had led him thus far and would eventually lead him to death, as the dog would survive and using his instincts to find the nearest suppliers of food and fire. In Crane's novel, "The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky", Crane has set up an environment which contrast the more natural element of the Yukon in "To Build a Fire". The story revolves around a more civil setting, with the town of Yellow Sky which serves as a reflection of the old west. Coming back to the notion of determinism, it can be found that every character has a notable lack of free will amongst society. Even at the beginning of the story the protagonist, Jack Potter, is on a train which is very symbolic of his lack of free will, a continuous and predetermined path. Also we get a sense of the influence of nature on Jack as the story depicts , "The man's face was reddened from many days in the wind and sun, and a direct result of his new black clothes was that his brick-colored hands were constantly performing in a most conscious fashion".(Crane) As the story progresses the reader is informed of Jack's current condition, to which he has claimed to have "gone headlong over all the social hedges"( Crane )

This custom of going against social norms describes yet another characteristic of naturalism, just as in London's story, we see a man who defies advice and travels into the heart of the Yukon alone. Also this defiance of social values shows the animal like instinct within Potter, whether he was acting out of lust or loneliness, he resorted to some "sharp impulse" which presents an instinct within himself, one not well thought out. He is nervous in his approach towards home and his attempt to exercise free will has proved disheartening as he fears what others might think of his illicit behavior. He is confined and his will is broken. As the perspective switches to Yellow Sky we see a town very much stuck in the tradition of the old west. With the social conventions surrounding Yellow Sky, society have again proved as an authoritive and dominating control. The town is almost dictated by societal customs, such as the closing of the saloon when scratchy strolls through befuddled and bellicose. This is routine for the town as the bar tender mentions "No, he can't break down that door," replied the barkeeper. "He's tried it three times."(Crane) Almost satirizing the idea of the old west as nobody is that distraught except for the drummer from the east.

This act of Scratchy continuously terrorizing the town gives us the idea of the force of social conventions and their plight upon the town. Determinism dictates the town as they wait while Scratchy displays his power and for their sheriff to eventually show up and smother Scratchy’s hostility. When Jack shows up with his new bride it can be inferred that Crane introduces the hero aspect detailed in the theme of naturalism. Throughout the book we see a man who is quite nervous and hesitant around his bride, but when pitted against his old adversary Scratchy, Jack takes up the role of the hero. When approached by Scratchy he is vulnerable and relates this to scratchy when he says, "You know I fight when it comes to fighting, Scratchy Wilson, but I ain't got a gun on me. You'll have to do all the shootin' yourself."(Crane) Throughout the story we see that Jack has a hindered sense of free will as he frets over societies view of himself and it is then foreshadowed he will encounter his long time foe Scratchy who dictates Jacks everyday job as Sheriff. But it is here at the end that we see Jack triumph over these social concerns by sacrificing himself and then overcoming Scratchy.

By the end of the story we Jack as the ideal naturalist hero, one who has overcome the dilemmas of the natural world. Naturalism is an idea that can explain many aspects of society. For instance the very reason I write this paper is to earn a degree that I must obtain in order to live a better life in the future, whether or not it is truley what I want to pursue. There are non-fictional accounts of men whom have abandoned the tyranny and mediocrity of their society and entered the wild only to gain a freedom they’ve never had, some of whom are inspired by these naturalistic writers. London and Crane give their readers a sense of what nature holds, often conveying how wonderfully aesthetic the natural world can be.

It is possible to learn from naturalism and the literature that surrounds it, to understand how powerful nature is and how corrupt society has become. All of our naturalistic heroes whether fictional or non fictional, depart this life in a similar manner. They pass fighting the wilderness, conquering society, or stepping outside of their own confines and crossing new bounds. When they depart this life it is death by surviving in the natural world, a place where only few truths in this world are found. In the midst of their last moments, they slip into the most comfortable sleep they have ever known.

Updated: Nov 01, 2022
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Naturalism in Jack Londons "To Build a Fire". (2016, Jun 05). Retrieved from

Naturalism in Jack Londons "To Build a Fire" essay
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