Winter reading: Jack London’s “To Build a Fire”

It’s been a colder than usual winter in New England, with heavy snowfall and low temperatures well into March, but then again, cold is a relative matter.

I was reminded of that relativity when I re-read Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” this winter, a short story set in the bitterly cold Yukon wilderness, a harsh environment that London knew well from his days as a miner and adventurer during the Klondike Gold Rush of the late 1890s. Bitter cold meant temperatures that could reach 75 degrees below zero, and according to London the “Yukon Code” cautioned against traveling alone “after the frost has dropped below zero fifty degrees or more.”

My father introduced me to Jack London when I was young, and I devoured “The Call of the Wild” and “Burning Daylight” and many of London’s other adventure stories. Today I wonder if my father gravitated to London because he identified with him: both were voracious readers, self-educated men who became writers, and both lost their fathers (to desertion for London, to divorce for my father) as they became teen-agers.

London’s stories are long on description and plot, and short on character development. He set out to write page-turners because, like Dickens, much of his fiction appeared serially in newspapers and magazines. London first published “To Build a Fire” in Youth’s Companion in 1902 and a second, revised version (the one you will find in anthologies) in The Century Magazine in 1908. (The complete story is here.)

What makes London’s stories powerful is their authenticity. He gives us the insider’s view of life in the Yukon in “To Build a Fire,” which lends a matter-of-fact, journalistic quality to story. (London prided himself on getting the details right, tartly explaining to the copy editor at Youth’s Companion who had the temerity to question the story’s factuality that fires couldn’t be built with mittened hands.)

A killing cold

The cold takes on a personality of its own in “To Build a Fire”: relentless, unforgiving, a merciless force that kills the unexposed human in just minutes. The protagonist in the story is overmatched, “a newcomer in the land, a chechaquo, and this was his first winter.” London faults this novice for both his ignorance and his arrogance; the only creature with any sense is the man’s “big native husky, the proper wolf dog” who instinctively knows that it is too cold to travel.

The man plans to follow the trail back to camp and his fellow miners, where he eagerly anticipates a hot supper waiting. He ignores the advice given by old-timers, not to travel alone in such extreme conditions. And since he has not formed any emotional bond with his husky, London tells us “the dog made no effort to communicate its apprehension to the man.”

When the man blunders into a branch of the Henderson river—a dangerous misstep as it drenches his feet and legs—he reacts promptly, starting a small fire and gradually and carefully feeding it. Belatedly he recognizes the danger:

…He knew there must be no failure. When it is seventy-five below zero, a man must not fail in his first attempt to build a fire–that is, if his feet are wet. If his feet are dry, and he fails, he can run along the trail for half a mile and restore his circulation. But the circulation of wet and freezing feet cannot be restored by running when it is seventy-five below. No matter how fast he runs, the wet feet will freeze the harder.

But the man makes another—disastrous—rookie mistake: he has built his fire under a snow-laden birch tree. When the snow capsizes onto the fire, extinguishing it, he is shocked “as though he just heard his own sentence of death.”

From this point “To Build a Fire” moves inexorably, grimly, towards its end. The man’s frantic efforts to build another fire fail—his bare hands are crippled by the cold, and he realizes why the old-timers insisted that “after fifty below, a man should travel with a partner.” The newcomer thinks of killing the dog and warming his hands in its carcass, but he no longer has the strength to hold the dog, draw his knife and finish him off. “A certain fear of death, dull and oppressive, came to him,” London writes, adding, “This fear quickly became poignant as he realized that it was no longer a mere matter of freezing his fingers and toes, or of losing his hands and feet, but that it was a matter of life and death with the chances against him.”

Re-reading the story after many years, I was most struck by London’s dispassion in recounting the last few hours of this chechaquo‘s life. (London never mentions the man’s name in The Century Magazine version of the story). There is no sense of tragedy, for London portrays the man as a victim of his own foolhardiness, an amateur who has lost this Darwinian contest.

London finishes the story quickly. We are told: “Freezing was not so bad as people thought. There were lots worse ways to die.” (I was reminded of Robert Frost’s poem “Fire and Ice” in which he muses that for the destruction of world ice “Is also great/And would suffice.”) In the last paragraph of the story, we learn that the man “drowsed off into what seemed to him the most comfortable and satisfying sleep he had ever known.” His husky confirms that this is indeed, the end, as he crawls close to the man “and caught the scent of death.”

A heroic contrast

It would be a mistake to conclude from “To Build a Fire” that London viewed Man vs. Nature as a necessarily unequal contest. As an outdoorsman he admired those men whose physical and mental strength allowed them to prevail despite the harshest of circumstances. In his novel “Burning Daylight,” his hero Eliam Harmish (who is nicknamed Burning Daylight) represents the Omega of the Alaskan outdoorsman—virile, a canny veteran, and yet with a test-pilot’s appetite for risk.

But Harmish knows the rules, knows the danger, and in the first chapters of the novel his initial mythic battle with the harsh Northern elements—through a two-thousand-mile dog-sled trip on a dare—represents a deliberate and conscious test of manhood. He makes the epic journey carrying the mail from Circle City to Dyea and back in sixty days, in frigid weather, nearly killing one Indian companion and wearing down another. By accomplishing the near-impossible “[h]e had performed one more exploit that would make the Yukon ring with his name–he, Burning Daylight, the king of travelers and dog-mushers.”

Even as Eliam Harmish celebrates his victory, London sounds a warning note: “At the sharpest hazards of trail and river and famine, the message was that other men might die, but that he would pull through triumphant. It was the old, old lie of Life fooling itself, believing itself–immortal and indestructible, bound to achieve over other lives and win to its heart’s desire.” And later in the novel Burning Daylight will learn that he, too, can fail.

Yet London, a student of Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche and a socialist and materialist, balanced his fatalism with a romantic insistence that only by confronting life head-on and taking great risks could we become fully human. The reward is worth the risk. “I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet,” London’s “Credo” proclaims, adding, “The function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.”

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders

All rights reserved

Jefferson Flanders is author of the Cold War thriller Herald Square.