Written at a time when modernism was in its cradle, To Build a Fire by Jack London was a forerunner of modern fiction. Modern Literature does not treat a work as a finished product. It is only a conduit through which the reader and the writer interact to create art as a befitting product of the imagination of both of them. In other words, modern literature is written in such a way that each writer will be able to read it in his own way. Multiple layers of meaning will be packed into the work so that multiple reading is facilitated.
Title and Theme
Fire is a symbol of several sundry things, on of them being life. The question ‘why was the lamp lit if it had to be put out like this and so soon?’ looms large in the story, since the man dies and untimely death. The man’s struggle to build a fire and his inability to do so entails the tragedy. In both ways, the title is highly appropriate. One of the ways in which this story can be read is as an allegory. An allegory means, the work has almost one to one correspondence with another aspect which is not literally stated in the work. Geroge Orwell’s Animal Farm is a perfect example. Unfortunately, allegory is considered one of the lowest kind of writing because of its usual simplicity, even though it is possible to write a very complex allegory and win accolades. Here the path the man takes symbolizes life and he could be any human being pursuing it with high hopes. Thus life and its uncertainties can be considered as the theme of this story.
Loneliness comes in two types, the depressed aloofness, and the joyful solitude. The man in the story experiences both. A writer usually takes some characters and puts them in a smaller world and talks about them to make people understand more about life. Tempest is an obvious example. Jack London makes it more intense by putting a single character in a totally deserted locale. The style chosen makes no bones about the story being an allegory. Here is an analysis:
Day had broken cold and grey, exceedingly cold and grey, when the man turned aside from the
main Yukon trail and climbed the high earth-bank, where a dim and little-travelled trail led
eastward through the fat spruce timberland. It was a steep bank, and he paused for breath at the
top, excusing the act to himself by looking at his watch. It was nine o’clock. There was no sun
nor 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. This fact did not worry the man. He was used to the lack of sun. It
had been days since he had seen the sun, and he knew that a few more days must pass before that cheerful orb, due south, would just peep above the sky-line and dip immediately from view.
That man is lonely and unsupported by anything divine is a basic tenet of existentialism which is the main feature of twentieth-century literature. This is stated in the very first phrase, the day the man choose to travel was not just cold and grey like it could cold and grey in real life, but EXCEEDINGLY cold and grey. This word ‘exceedingly’ warns the reader that it is not about an ordinary circumstance. The ‘dim and little-travelled trail’ makes the journey even more exceedingly extra-ordinary. The phrase ‘excusing the act to himself’ heightens his loneliness even further as though he feels his loneliness, still manages to give company to himself. The sky is bright though the sun is absent (hopelessness) and the absence of a guiding light, a guarding star makes the day look gloomy to the author though not to the character. “He was used to the lack of sun’ shows us that he has come to terms with the idea that there are neither answers nor any hope to be found in this world. Like a typical character in existential literature, he waits, he waits like Godot.
Thus is the stage set for the tale to unfold. The second paragraph of the story gives us more details of the setting. It is deliberately written without using objective descriptions of colour, length, distance, and shape. This objective way of description looks unimaginative and it engenders in the reader the same boredom felt by the traveller down his uninteresting trail. All the four basic elements, earth, water (ice), fire and wind, plot against this unfortunate traveller. While thick frozen ice is one kind of danger, the thinly frozen ice on pools of water is another kind. With the challenges it offers, the dangers it hides, the destinations it promises, the uncertainty it holds, the regrets its hoards, the selfishness it enforces, the apathy it preserves, the trail is a perfect allegorical symbol of life. In each and every sentence describing the trail, as listed above, we see one or another aspect of life itself.
The man keeps thinking about the different parts of his body. As they too have started rebelling against him, he feels alienated from them and considers them as what ‘he’ possesses. For him, his hand and the mitten that it covers are of the same category. He sees a closer friend in his mitten which dries when he puts them near a fire than his own hand which fails him at a crucial point of time. In existentialism, a person’s inner life is called his essence, almost the same way in religions it is called his soul or atma. The essence is acquired after a man is born or has an existence. Thus in existentialism, existence comes first, not the essence. The soul (the essence) as talked about in religions, comes in to being first and then acquires its existence or body later. Here, the man, by alienating himself from his body, thinks more of his essence. For him, his life is his essence. His body is only a belonging.
It struck him as curious that one should have to use his eyes in order to find out where his hands were.
This is not in the spirit of existentialism. This is furthered when he decides to face ‘his death with dignity’. Thus he identifies with something beyond his body. This too is not in the same spirit as existentialism which says that life is much more important than anything else. This is seen more in the animal which minds its own life and stays with the traveller only till that time when he can support its life. When he fails to support himself, it runs away looking for its next supporter. For its, life, more than dignity, is everything. However, the man’s body too incidentally colludes with the environment.
The story is the slow death of a man who has dreams, plans and schemes, and the survival of an animal who has none of these.
‘Its instinct told it a truer tale than was told to the man by the man’s judgment.’
The dog knows from his experience what to do and does not trust even its own master let alone a God it never saw. The man, even when he is told by a wiser person not to venture out at that time of the year, ignores all warning and hitches his life to hope and finds that life is all too uncertain for any hope to have an iota of substance. Unlike the dog, the man has memories, regrets, guilt, tomorrows and schemes. He saves the best for another occasion since he is sure there is another occasion. He could have eaten the food. He could have waited for another day. But he makes the wrong choice in each case. He does not wait for another day to travel as has been advised and saves the food for another time and dies without tasting it. He is willing to kill his companion for his own safety. In everything he does, he is the opposite of the dog. The dog, with all its animal instincts, does not, like its brother wolf, kills the man for food. It does not pursue the smell of food inside the dead man’s clothes. Every moment the man does something or the other which corresponds to what a man does anywhere at any point of time in his life, whether he is deserted or accompanied. The man’s name not given also makes the reader read this story as an allegory.
Point of View, Tone and Mood
The story is told from the omniscient point of view (God’s Point of View). This gives the reader good access to the thoughts, words and deeds of both the man and the dog. The story is written dispassionately and disinterestedly with not much sympathy shown to the characters from the part of the author. This calls for more sympathy from the reader as he thinks the writer is being unjustifiably insensitive. However, this only enhances character identification and it makes the reader feel the pain of the character more. The general mood fo the story too from the very first is that of a very depressing one and purposely the story takes a very slow pace, just like life.