An Analysis of Jack London's To Build A Fire
Length: 456 words (1.3 double-spaced pages)
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Charles E. May, Author of the article "To Build A Fire': Physical Fiction and Metaphysical Critics" was giving his psychological criticism on the Jack London short story. May was elaborating on the naturalistic behavior of man versus nature when it comes to survival. May's article suggests that the protagonist in the story did not only have a psychological discovery but a "simple physical discovery that self is body only"(23).
In the story, "To Build A Fire", the protagonist has to accept that he was not invincible, but a human with a weakness. The man may have been psychologically apt in his own eye but weak against nature and the physical elements. The protagonist displayed defiance in authority when he "laughed" (152) at the advice of the Old-Timer on Sulphur Creek when he told him how cold it gets in the country. The protagonist felt he had everything under control when he made the first fire to keep warm in spite of the numbness of his fingers. The test of egos and wills began to surface when the man was ready to move on and the dog wanted to stay near the fire. However, just as "there was no keen intimacy between the dog and the man"(152) the dog would be the protagonist constant companion until the man's death.
The man had to accept that the "fire provider had failed"(156) when he did not have control of his frozen fingers or the building of the fire. Nature had defeated him. The id in the protagonist wanted to kill the dog to keep himself warm. But the ego along with the man's inability to "neither draw nor hold his sheath knife"(157) caused him not to be able to kill the dog. The aura of death was prevalent. Realizing that he no longer had dominion over his own body as well as accepting his making a "fool of himself"(158) he had to accept the inevitable. Not only did he have to accept death, he had to acknowledge that the Old-Timer was right when warning him about traveling alone.
Ironically, while the man was dying, he was angry at the dog because of its natural warmth, instincts that he had, and the survival skills that the dog used.
Those were the elements that the man lacked. It was a shame that the protagonist had to suffer and die in order to find out that man's fraille body cannot withstand nature's harsh elements in spite of his over-confident, psychological strength.
May, Charles E. "To Build A Fire': Physical Fiction and Metaphysical Critics". Studies In Short Fiction 15 (1978): 19-24
Sipiora, Phillip. Reading and Writing About Literature. New Jersey: Pearson, 2002