Man’s First Winter
Jack London’s “To Build a Fire,” though bitterly cold and hard to read in parts, is an inspiring moment in American literature as far as the words “humanity” and “triumph” are concerned. As humans, we all endure a “first winter,” an awakening of sorts. It often feels like a season of sheer bewilderment and uncertainty, though we endure these things over various landscapes and under unimaginable circumstances. Is it a classic, “man’s search for meaning?” I wouldn’t go that far; our protagonist seems too far removed from any depth of emotion for that. It is, however, a snowy explication of fortitude, and is particularly raw in description; a true tale of perseverance, a relentless, icy test of endurance. London personifies how far we can push the mind and the body, how to make the two work in conjunction in the most bleak of circumstances, and how to accept defeat with grace and “death with dignity” (London, 638). The struggle – and failure – to provide one of man’s most basic needs leaves the protagonist literally fearing for his life; what he does with the fear is the lesson to be learned.
The best way to find London’s intention for the story is to explore the text carefully, with caution, step by step. This is a story of intention and carefulness, though our protagonist may not hold up to our method. “The trouble with him was that he was not able to imagine. He was quick and ready in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in their meanings” (London, 629). This is a troubling thought considering that hiking the Yukon in such conditions as “fifty degrees below zero,” was not ideal. Imagination is required to assess and carry out thought, to put “the thing” in action. Was this man prepared? London seems to believe so, though he portrays the man in a gently flippant way from the beginning of the story to the attempt to build the third fire. He says several times that, “a thought never entered his head” (London, 629). It’s hard to decide under these tones if the man was actually prepared, or passing off his flippant attitude as confidence; those are very different things with very different circumstances in “80 degrees of frost” (London, 629).
The man seems to subconsciously and continually,survey the knowledge obtained by his person, and justify his actions because by his own estimation, he’s mentally and physically prepared for his journey towards the camp. “He paused to breath at the top. He excused the act to himself by looking at his watch” (London, 628).Why is it necessary to justify his breath, excuse the action? If London’s intention was to weaken the character, reducing the audience’s faith in the man before the outset of the journey, that’s the seed that was planted. “And to get his feet wet in such a temperature meant trouble and danger” (London, 631). London exploits arctic doom and the fear of freezing before the man has reached mid-day. I can’t help but immediately assume the worst is upon this man from the beginning due to lines likes this and others, though by the end, I am fully aware and in support of what kind of decision he has to make. It is so raw, human in a way I think other writers find troubling; London remains accurate regardless of difficulty.
“It did not lead him to meditate upon his frailness as a creature of temperature, and upon man’s frailty in general, able to only live within certain narrow limits of heat and cold; and from there on it did not lead him to the conjectural field of immortality and man’s place in the universe” (London, 629).
This excerpt is a blatant example of the man’s ego, and obvious lack of imagination. One might think of or survey their days as they walk such tumultuous earth. That was no nature-walk or a stroll in the woods for pleasure; his journey was out of need to meet and make connection with other humans. He seems to border on cheekiness with his soft dismissals and overconfidence in the harsh Yukon conditions. The Yukon is located directly in the middle of Alaska, British Columbia and Northwest Territories in Canada; in plain terms, this means it is frigid outside. I spent a few summers in Canada in high school and the days were pleasant when the sun was out, but the evenings – especially on the water – were freezing. I cannot imagine staying any further north for an extended period of time, let alone meander, then wander, about in the Yukon. The mere thought is chilling.
The body deserves a moment of speculation here, as it reacts to the cold in a specific way. In a BBC article, “What Effect does the Extreme Cold Have on the Human Body?” Stephen Dawling explains that, “The human body is not designed for polar cold – most of us live in temperate and tropical climes, where the mercury rarely dips below freezing. There are populations that have adapted to polar extremes – like the Inuit in Arctic Canada and tribes like the Nenets in the north of Russia – but the vast majority of Homo sapiens has no experience of living in such sub-zero temperatures.” Without getting overly scientific, Dawling reiterates the instinctual notion that human bodies are not meant or designed for freezing temperatures. This man was on a journey in a country unknown for the first time. No matter how mentally prepared he was, it was no match for what the Yukon had in store. London doesn’t even bother equipping this man with proper attire; mittens are surely tossed out when considering what other sturdy, weather-bearing garments the man wore and carried.
Lois Josephs’ article Man’s Relationship to Nature: A Sub-theme in American Literature, offers a blanketed introduction to the sub-theme, “man’s relationship to external nature, unifies ideas and encourages critical thinking” (Josephs, 180). This seems in clear opposition with the man in London’s story, but there is absolute truth in her reflection. If a man possesses no imagination, it’s hard to believe he is in possession of critical thinking skills. Joseph reminds us that Henry David Thoreau, “suggests that we learn from nature,”(Josephs, 181) and I agree, though Josephs finds this notion, “impractical.” I don’t believe observation and note of nature leads to anything but further understanding of what we innately possess. Yes, we are human and bound by social construction; however, at our innermost core, we possess instinct. Our protagonist follows his instinct as long as he possibly can, until eventually allowing his mind to be consumed by a force greater than his own power: nature – the experience of a lifetime, man’s first winter. The awakening, as previously mentioned, is the line that’s drawn between instinct and knowledge, the difference, being nature.
Natural elements that drive the man’s experience in the story are his possession of and connection to the husky, the rigid, unforgiving elements of the Yukon (previously mentioned,) and the excursion to build – and maintain – fire. To begin with, we must observe the man’s inability to maintain the fire he builds. It would have been nearly comical had London not emphasized how dire the situation was. This frozen man attempts to build three fires, essentially failing all three times as none of the fires eventually save him. The element of fire reigns supreme here as it is the thing he needs most while simultaneously being the thing that will ultimately kill him; there is no chance of survival without a flame to keep him warm.
The dog represents nature in working companionship. This “big native husky,” (London, 630) is figuratively said to be “man’s best friend,” but London doesn’t necessarily depict it that way. The dog has far more realistic reactions and views to the bone-cold weather, as it is naturally efficiently equipped to bear it. “To permit the ice to remain would mean sore feet. It did not this. It merely obeyed the mysterious prompting that arose from the deep crypts of its being.” Once again, man versus nature, instinct versus knowledge; the native dog knew how to handle cold to this degree, and possessed the mental capacity to understand that over thinking action would be a waste. It appears that the dog carries a deal of sympathy for its master, and is truly distraught after his death. However, the it demonstrates it’s allegiance to it’s true master, nature, when it departs from the man’s body and, “trotted up the trail in the direction of the camp it knew, where were the other food-providers and fire-providers” (London, 639).
In my mind, the dog finds the boys’ camp alone, signally the man’s fate to the other men, who survived their trek to the camp, by nothing other than luck. “The man drowsed off into what seemed to him the most comfortable and satisfying sleep he had ever known.” He becomes a legend of the Yukon, the kind the old-timer from Sulphur Creek recalls from time to time, heeding other, similar men of no imagination of singular thought of survival, “be mindful, winter is upon you.”
Dawling, Stephen. “BBC – Future – What effect does extreme cold have on the human body?” BBC News. BBC, 7 Jan. 2014. Web. 21 Mar. 2017.
Hudson, John C., ed. GOODE’S World Atlas. 20th ed. N.p.: Rand McNally & Company, 2000. Print.
Josephs, Lois. “Man’s Relationship to Nature: A Sub-Theme in American Literature.”The English Journal, vol. 51, No. 3, 1962, pp. 180–183., http://www.jstor.org/stable/810294.
London, Jack. The Norton anthology of American literature. “To Build a Fire.” New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013. Print. 628-639.