In “To Build a Fire,” the man’s lack of imagination; his inability to reflect on and admit the reality of his situation; and to recognize his shortcomings represent mankind’s fatal hubris. Man stands apart from Nature, not understanding that he has a place in it – he does not hold sway. To deny Nature then is, in itself, an unnatural act.
An Unnatural Act: Man’s Fatal Capacity for Hubris
Jack London’s literary landscape is inhabited by characters pitted against the brutal forces of Nature, in which the aim is nothing more or less than survival itself. In this unforgiving world, man’s fundamental existence is stripped of the notion of “higher purpose;” his struggle is the struggle of all brute life. In “To Build a Fire,” the doomed protagonist is a self-deluding, one-dimensional representation of humanity’s hubris, a character out of touch with the most overwhelmingly elemental forces, which can easily destroy him. The man’s lack of imagination and the capacity for self-reflection is his undoing. It is a metaphor for mankind’s blind and self-destructive disregard of the world around him. “To Build a Fire” tells us that to ignore Nature is, itself, an unnatural act.
The dog is set in counterpoint to the man, an animal without higher consciousness yet far better equipped to survive in the deadly cold of the Yukon. Armed with nothing but primordial instinct, the dog exhibits the interconnectedness of Nature, profoundly aware that danger is imminent. “Something was the matter, and in its suspicious nature sensed danger – it knew not what danger, but somewhere, somehow, in its brain arose an apprehension of the man” (London, 1991, p. 12). The dog, representing the natural world, is pure instinct. Its apprehension comes from a consciousness the man can’t understand. It speaks to man’s “disconnection” from the natural world, which is not sustainable because man cannot function beyond Nature. He is part of Nature.
The man plunges recklessly into the wild alone, ignoring the warnings of the old-timer at
Sulphur Creek (London, 1991, p. 9). He needs no help in spite of the fact that he is a newcomer spending his first winter in the Yukon. To make matters worse, he is unmindful of his surroundings, of dangers he’s been warned about until it’s too late. Building his fire under a tree laden with snow, he is stunned when the falling snow blots out his last, best chance at survival, stunned not so much from sheer, naked surprise but because he should have known better.
Unwilling to come to terms with his limitations and admit weakness, the man is still convinced he needs no help. The end of his journey is in his thoughts, but not much else. “He was not much given to thinking, and just then particularly he had nothing to think about save that he would eat lunch at the forks and that at six o’clock he would be in camp with the boys” (London, 1991, p.7). Out of touch with his surroundings, with “nothing to think about” but lunch, his one-dimensional view of the world around him is symbolic of man’s single-minded arrogance. The man’s fate is the fate that awaits mankind; it’s the cost of hubris.
In his arrogance, he believes that he has eliminated the danger inherent in traversing the Yukon at 50 degrees below zero simply by dressing warmly. This fundamental “cluelessness” is reflected in a telling statement in which the man’s keenest appraisal of his situation (until he finally realized his fate was sealed) seems to have been that it “certainly was cold” (London, 1991, p. 8). In spite of his superior mental capacity, the man symbolizes humanity’s inability to truly understand Nature. The dog, on the other hand, is Nature. Its understanding is inherent. Its survival isn’t the result of a desperate struggle; it survives because that is its nature.
Having ignored the advice of someone who knew the Yukon intimately, not surprisingly, he also ignores warning signals from the dog. His relationship with the animal was not a friendly one. The man’s physical abuse of the animal suggests that the man is at odds with Nature. Had he been aware of the dog’s behavior and able to interpret its activity for what it was – a clear indication that danger lay in their path – he might have survived as well. But as man disconnected from Nature, he no more understands the dog and its warning signs than he understands that he is limited by his human nature, that as a man he occupies a place in the world: he is not the master of it.
When the man ceases his struggling and comes to accept his fate, he realizes all that’s left for him is to die with dignity. Having ignored Nature’s dangers, all of his struggling against Nature comes to nothing. If we accept the notion that man is apart from Nature because he struggles against it rather than accepting his place in it, then we must also accept that, ultimately, dignity is all man has with which to face his mortality. Man blusters and rages, carrying on as though he stands beyond Nature, but to no avail. Exhausted, nearly frozen, it’s only as the end comes that the clarity of the man’s final thoughts brings wisdom through reflection. Now profoundly self-aware, he can see that he was wrong to ignore the warnings he received, fatally wrong to have tempted fate.
“To Build a Fire” tells us about the awful cost of denying Nature. Man, in his arrogance, ignores instinct. In the story, the man has no regard for the dog, whose fearful actions warn of the danger ahead. As such, London warns us that neglecting Nature, to deny its presence and power, is to deny the fact that mankind itself is part of Nature. Countless examples from our own era confirm the folly of such a perspective.
London, J. (2001). “To Build a Fire.” The Collected Jack London. New York: Barnes & Noble