"To Build A Fire" and "The Open Boat"
The fight between man and nature is one that has thrilled many Naturalist writers; Naturalism's goal is to examine man's position in isolation of society and everything that protects him from nature. In Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat," a group of people set adrift after their ship capsizes evaluate their chances for survival and grow increasingly aware of nature's indifference to their plight. In the same vein, Jack London's short story "To Build a Fire" tells the tale of a man and his dog, who attempt to survive in the Yukon. The harsh weather soon leaves them stranded, leaving them to take different methods to keep themselves alive. The attempt to build a fire takes up the majority of the story, as the man attempts to keep himself warm. The conflict between instinct and logic is told through symbolism and metaphor; the protagonists learn all too well that relying on logic is foolhardy, and that instinct must also be a component to his survival.
The protagonists of both stories are men of logic, evaluating how they will fare being alone in the elements. The man in "To Build a Fire" isexperiencing his first winter in the Yukon; he does not have any practical experience in the rough terrain of that area, and so he is operating by his own deductive reasoning, and not through memory. The man is incredibly stubborn; he refuses the old man's advice to not go alone throughout the Klondike, as he feels he can make it on his own. The man is also irresponsible, risking the fire that he creates several times for the sake of small details or his own quirks. The first time, he shortsightedly pulls at branches and leaves in order to keep a fire going under a pine tree, but that brings snow down upon it. Next, he risks all of his matches to create the fire, but then picks at a piece of moss and puts out the fire. All of these actions are borne of desperation, and eventually lead to his untimely demise.
The same thing can be said of the men in "The Open Boat," as their interactions with each other fall into the Naturalist tradition of stripping men down to their basest instincts. While the characters in the dinghy believe that nature is set to destroy them, the narrator instead discovers that "she was indifferent, flatly indifferent" (Crane, 1898). The characters in both stories, through the lack of cooperation they receive from the elements, learn that nature simply does not acknowledge their presence the same way as human society does, showing how far out of their element they are.
London's dog, on the other hand, was a creature of instinct, as he simply relied on what he felt to be true about surviving in the Yukon. The dog is patient and loyal, always sticking with the man no matter what foolish decisions he makes. The dog's own preparedness for the environment makes it much more likely to survive; it has a wonderful sense of smell, and can naturally stand colder weather much better than the man can. As loyal as the dog is, it knows exactly when to give up; right when it knows the man is going to die, it heads "in the direction of the camp it knew, where were the other food-providers and fire-providers" (London, 1902). The characters of "The Open Boat" do not get this same contrast of an animal understanding nature better than they do, but there is still the same sense of helplessness against the forces of nature that are present in both works. The shark that the correspondent notices later in the story could be equated to the dog; a creature that seems to have a communion with nature; by linking nature with the shark, the correspondent finds himself surprisingly unfazed by the shark's presence.
Nature, as a force, is almost the third character in both of these stories; the man (in London's and Crane's stories) and the dog in London's story attempt to defeat it, both using different methods. Nature does not intend to maliciously destroy these characters, but its benign hostility is something that needs to be addressed. The power of nature is clearly beyond the characters; they will certainly not make the environment warmer or the waters safer. All they can do is alter their reactions to nature, which London's man refuses to do; the castaways, however, manage to make it (more or less) to shore after abandoning their dinghy (and the illusion of safety in a manmade construction) and swimming to safety.
In conclusion, "To Build a Fire" and "The Open Boat" are both Naturalist tales of the battle between man and nature/logic and instinct. London's man, reasoning the usefulness of a fire, or even killing the dog to keep warm, still makes stubborn mistakes when these actions do not work out. The dog, on the other hand, simply knows more about nature in its veins than the man does, leaving it with the ability to survive. Meanwhile, the castaways in "The Open Boat" opine about the ambivalent nature of the sea, and how little it cares about whether they live or die, recognizing just how far removed they are from the actual realities of nature. These characters explore the Naturalist idea of being removed from society, thrust into nature and finding themselves wanting.
Crane, Stephen. "The Open Boat." American Literature Since the Civil War. Create edition.
McGraw-Hill, 2011. e-Book.
London, Jack. "How to Build a Fire." American Literature Since the Civil War. Create edition.
McGraw-Hill, 2011. 114-124. e-Book.