Jack of the nature. He also refused to

   Jack London (January 12, 1876- November 22, 1916) was an American
author, journalist and social activist who spent a significant time of his
young life mining for gold in the arctic north; therefore, he mainly used cold
and snowy places such as Alaska and Canada as settings in his novels and
stories. After coming up against the life’s brutal face as a gold prospector in
the Yukon, he thought that all the modern conveniences, which civilization
provided, had turned everyone, men in particular, into lazy individuals who had
no idea how to survive from the harsh and brutal side of the nature. He also
refused to use 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.” One of his most known stories, “To
Build a Fire,” which is not overtly political or racial, tells the tragic
story of a man whose purpose is to travel with his dog to get to his friends through
harsh and hostile environment of the Yukon under freezing temperatures and
falls victim to the unforgiving and the unrelenting power of nature. During his
journey, the nameless protagonist gets his feet wet after stepping onto the ice
which is so vulnerable that it cracks. It is so
cold in the Yukon, “one hundred and seven degrees below the freezing point,” that
the man has to light a fire to keep his feet and hands from freezing. He even
thinks about cutting his dog open to put his hands inside of it. However, he
cannot do it since his fingers are too numb to do so due to the cold.  After several disgraceful attempts, the
desperation of the man against the intimidating environment of the Yukon begins
to become evident. Finally, the man decides to meet his death with dignity after
trying to find ways to survive. In this
research paper, the story is discussed with the help of different thoughts in
terms of the two themes: naturalism and existentialism, which the author has
splattered in the story.

   To begin with, “To Build a Fire” can be given as a prime example of the literary
movement of naturalism. Naturalism was an offset of Charles Darwin’s and Herbert
Spencer’s theories on evolution. Darwin theorized that environments change
things such as the way organisms act and even their biology in his 1859 work “Origins of the Species.” In other
words, an organism can behave more carefully and more successively in order to
survive from the situation or environment. Spencer implemented this theory to
human environment, and then Social Darwinism came out as one of the dominant
philosophies in the late 19th century. Naturalists thought evolution
as proof that the world is deterministic and that humans do not have free will.
To put it in other way, any action that people make is not a “first” step.
Rather, the action has been caused by prior environmental, social, and
biological factors beyond our individual control. Because of the fact that
people do not have free will, naturalists abstained from making moral
judgements on the actions of their characters; after all, the environment
determined these actions, not humans. The theme, naturalism, can be seen
clearly in the story. For instance:

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The sight of the dog put a wild
idea into his head. He remembered the story of the man, caught in a storm, who
killed an animal and sheltered himself inside the dead body and thus was saved.
He would kill the dog and bury his hands in the warm body until feeling
returned to them. Then he could build another fire . . . He sat down in the
snow, and in this fashion held the dog, while it barked and struggled. But it
was all he could do: hold its body encircled in his arms and sit there. He
realized that he could not kill the dog. There was no way to do it. With his
frozen hands he could neither draw nor hold his knife. Nor could he grasp the
dog around the throat. He freed it and it dashed wildly away, still barking.
(page 76-77)

The man does not kill the dog
because his fingers are too numb to do it; however, even if he does kill the
dog, he wouldn’t be the one to blame. He even cannot be responsible for
thinking of killing the dog. Because he only tries to do the thing which will keep
him alive a little longer. Every living creature follows their instincts, after
all. Another example to naturalism is that the dog which belongs to the man
knows that the weather is too cold to travel. That’s why there is only one
thing to blame, the cold environment of the Yukon, which is naturalism. “. . .
But the dog knew and all of its family knew. And it knew that it was not good
to walk outside in such fearful cold. It was the time to lie in a hole in the
snow and to wait for this awful cold to stop. . .” However, this example also
shows the difference between human nature and animal nature. The man does not
listen to the warnings as to that the time of the year is too cold, and that no
one has come to travel here for one month. But the dog knows it very well
thanks to its instincts.

The other theme in the story that is also mentioned above is
existentialism. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, (3rd ed.) existentialism is “a
philosophy that emphasizes the uniqueness and isolation of the individual in a
hostile or indifferent universe.” So this statement matches with the
London’s “To Build a Fire” in terms of the man trying to find the meaning of
his life, and at last he gives into his fate. Richard F. Robbins states in his
article named “The Existantialist Theme
in Jack London’s ‘To Build a Fire'” that “The
story’s central theme is one portrayed by many existentialist writers—that man
lives a solitary existence which is subject to the relentless, unforgiving
forces of nature; an ever so subtle part of this theme is that it is man’s goal
to find meaning in his existence.” London emphasizes this theme in several
ways; however, the most important of them is the setting the story takes place.
London places his solitary character, the man, in a wilderness place like
Yukon, which is enough to reflect the existentialism theme by itself. However,
in addition to the wilderness of the place, London make it harder for his
character by combining the wilderness of the Yukon with the hostile
environment. Richard F. Robbins explains this in the same article with these

The remoteness
of the Yukon wilderness, as well as the absence of a human travel companion for
the man, serve to illustrate the existentialist idea that man is alone in the
universe. To further emphasize this idea, London has not given the protagonist
a name, but simply refers to him as “the man” throughout the story. By not
naming the character, London has placed him at an even greater distance from
the reader within his deadly setting, thus isolating him all the more in a
bleak and hostile universe.

What Robbins
mean by saying this is that London does not let his reader feel empathy with
“the man” so that the man is, in fact, could not be more alone in searching for
his existent. Another thing that reflects this team is the imagery London uses
in the story. For instance, spit freezing in the air visualizes in the readers’
mind, and make them realize that the weather in the story is really not a good
time to travel. It can be also accepted as a clue as to that the man will lose
the battle against the nature.

   What I think about “To Build a Fire” is that even though there are some clues about
naturalism and existentialism themes, I don’t think London did it on purpose,
or his main purpose was not to use either naturalism or existentialism themes
in the story. My point is that London was complaining about people being lazier
and lazier with the evolution of technology and the modern conveniences
that were provided by civilization. That’s why I believe that his main purpose
in writing this short story was to remind people that the technology was not
enough to save them in a situation in which “the man” was. However, he used the
themes naturalism and existentialism themes to support his idea. Charles Child Wulcatt
states the fact that he lived in the same time period as Charles Darwin,
Friedrich Nietzsche and Herbert Spencer’s thoughts and ideas influenced Jack
London. In fact, it is not an accident to see naturalism and existentialism in
the story.

   In conclusion, the themes naturalism and
existentialism in “To Build a Fire”
by Jack London are taken into consideration and are explained with the help of
both different articles and the examples from the story.