Jack London’s short story “To Build a Fire” stands out as one of his very best works.
An early, children’s version of the story appeared in Youth’s Companion on May 29, 1902. The classic adult version was published in The Century Magazine, August 1908, and subsequently reprinted in the short story collection Lost Face (1910). That volume takes its name from the first story in the book, about a European adventurer in the Yukon who outwits his Indian captors’ plans to torture him.
“To Build a Fire” is not overtly racial or political. It is important to remember that good fiction need not always contain overt ideological or political messages, racial or otherwise. As two London scholars observe, “A committed socialist, he insisted against editorial pressures to write political essays and insert social criticism in his fiction.”
Good fiction can function simply as art expressive of our nature in the context of a society that hates us and consciously and instinctively suppresses in a comprehensive way virtually every form of expression natural to us.
“To Build a Fire” presents the harrowing drama of man pitted against the unforgiving forces of nature. The nameless protagonist, alone in the endless wilderness of the Yukon, miles from camp, is heedless of the mortal danger he faces:
As he turned to go on, he spat speculatively. There was a sharp, explosive crackle that startled him. He spat again. And again, in the air, before it could fall to the snow, the spittle crackled. He knew that at fifty below spittle crackled on the snow, but this spittle had crackled in the air. Undoubtedly it was colder than fifty below—how much colder he did not know.
Who or what is the antagonist in the story? Nature? Or the inner essence of the man himself—his shortsightedness, incaution, refusal to think?
Despite the absence of any political or racial motive in the story, London somehow vividly captures the essence of our people’s heedless nature in his portrait of the man:
But all this—the mysterious, far-reaching hair-line trail, the absence of sun from the sky, the tremendous cold, and the strangeness and weirdness of it all—made no impression on the man. . . . The trouble with him was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances. Fifty degrees below zero meant eighty-odd degrees of frost. Such fact impressed him as being cold and uncomfortable, and that was all. It did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man’s frailty in general, able only to live within certain narrow limits of heat and cold; and from there on it did not lead him to the conjectural field of immortality and man’s place in the universe. Fifty degrees below zero stood for a bite of frost that hurt and that must be guarded against by the use of mittens, ear-flaps, warm moccasins, and thick socks. Fifty degrees below zero was to him just precisely fifty degrees below zero. That there should be anything more to it than that was a thought that never entered his head.
By contrast, the dog in London’s story symbolizes the instinct for survival and alertness to lurking danger so notably lacking in the man:
At the man’s heels trotted a dog, a big native husky, the proper wolf-dog, gray-coated and without any visible or temperamental difference from its brother, the wild wolf. The animal was depressed by the tremendous cold. It knew that it was no time for travelling. Its instinct told it a truer tale than was told to the man by the man’s judgment. In reality, it was not merely colder than fifty below zero; it was colder than sixty below, than seventy below. It was seventy-five below zero. . . . The dog had learned fire, and it wanted fire, or else to burrow under the snow and cuddle its warmth away from the air.
The story straightforwardly and with deceptive simplicity relates the progress of the man, on foot, as he journeys toward his destination, the seemingly minor accident that befalls him en route, and his subsequent, increasingly desperate attempts to build a fire.
One literary critic states that “‘To Build a Fire’ is probably London’s best and most important work. It has a compelling compressed unity of form and theme seldom found in his longer works, and it also expresses within its brief compass an entire world view.”
Note that the man says “best and most important” work, not short story.
“To Build a Fire” is indeed a superlative work of art.