Dr. Chris Davis
Jack London: To Build A Fire
Jack London was born on January 12, 1876 in San Francisco, California. The name given to him at birth was John Griffith Chaney. His mother, Flora Wellman Chaney, was abandoned by his father before he was born. When he was nine months old, his mother married a man named John London and he adopted her baby. Jack London’s mother was sick and frail and unable to provide nourishment for him, so she had an African American woman, Mrs. Virginia
Prentiss, become his wet nurse. Mrs. Prentiss and his step sister, Eliza, were London’s greatest sources of comfort and affection during his childhood. “Out of the circumstances of his childhood were shaped the essential attitudes of his adulthood, and throughout his mature years he compensated, both creatively and self destructively, for what he considered to have been a deprived childhood” (Labor 3).
From a very young age, London had a love for reading. He grew up very poor, and reading provided him an escape from poverty. From the time he was nine years old, his mother forced him to work up to 18 hours per day. He hated this traumatic experience and reflected this in his writing. “The circumstances of London’s impoverished childhood strongly influenced the essential attitudes of his adulthood” (Labor 1).
Throughout his life, London had many occupations. He was a “novelist, short story writer, political essayist, adventurer, hobo, seaman, socialist, rancher and war correspondent”
(Labor 1). He took what he learned from these experiences and infused it into his writing. His
experiences while traveling in the U. S., the Yukon and the Pacific helped him to develop his philosophy that only the strongest survive. His literary works focus on the themes of “courage, strength, determination and a healthy respect for the truth” (McEwen 1). He was a socialist and
“his writings reflect the social and intellectual turbulence of the turn of the 20th century” (Baym and Levine 628).
London’s works often centered on the conflict of man against nature. Such is the case in his short story, To Build A Fire. This story is about a man and his dog hiking across the frozen wilderness to meet the man’s friends at their cabin. The old-timers of the Northland have advised against this venture, and have specifically told the man he should never travel alone.
Despite their warnings, the man and his dog go forward on their own. From the beginning of the story, the reader develops a sense of gloom and impending tragedy as London describes the setting and the atmosphere that is present. His use of vivid imagery allows the reader to feel the bitter cold that surrounds the man and his dog. “There was no sun or hint of sun, though there was not a cloud in the sky. It was a clear day, and yet there seemed an intangible pall over the face of things, a subtle gloom that made the day dark, and that was due to the absence of sun”
(Baym and Levine 628-629).
London also gives the reader insight into the man’s character. He is a newcomer to the land and has not experienced a frozen winter or extreme cold like this. The man seems to have some knowledge of his surroundings but no real understanding of his circumstances. “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” (Baym and Levine 629).
The dog, however, seems keenly aware of the dangers around them and does not want to go on. London wrote, “The animal was depressed by the tremendous cold. It knew that it was
no time for travelling” (Baym and Levine 630). London often used dogs as characters in his stories. His writing style gives the animals human characteristics and helps the reader feel the struggle from the dog’s point of view.
As the story continues, it becomes increasingly clear that the man is quickly freezing to death. If he does not stop to build a fire, he will surely