Criticism of Jack London's To Build a Fire
In her critique of "To Build a Fire" Jill Widdecombe assesses the personality and motivation of the unnamed man in the story. Widdecombe suggests a story of mystery, intrigue, and rationalization.
I see it as a story about inner conflict and submit the mans inner conflict
parallels Widdecombe's analogy of imagination versus rationalization. The conflict in the story is two-fold; the man struggles between his will and reasoning and second with the man's desires and abilities.
The story places the man at odds with the elements, it is a conflict each of us may have encountered at one time in our lives. London in his writing attempts to simplify the ageless struggle by fashioning a tale that is understandable regardless of age.
The tale is told by a mysterious narrator, centering on a nameless man and a nameless dog. In fact the story could be about anyone attempting virtually anything pitting themselves against the forces of nature and disregard of sound advice. I do not see the man as a egotist however I do see a lack of cognitive reasoning.
The protagonist sets out in weather conditions far more severe then he could have imagined. He travels alone, except for the dog; ironically he is told by an old native to never travel alone when the weather is below fifty below. Disregarding the advice and reasoning while it is cold, it is bearable and appropriately dressed, the conditions are not life threatening. Unfortunately the weather and elements are the antagonist he faces.
Somewhere past the midpoint of his trek the man breaks through the ice and his legs and feet become wet. Knowing he must dry his socks and boots or he will freeze
to death he builds a fire
. While attempting to light the fire he begins to realize just how cold it must be yet he attempts to rationalize the situation and stay focused.
The man is quickly becoming disoriented and struggles onward to build a fire.
After apparently succeeding he is devastated when snow warmed by the fire falls out of the tree he built it under and extinguishes the flame. Realizing his folly he moves his kindling and realizes his ability to function in the elements is quickly fading.
The story is no different then a surfer believing they could ride a fifty foot wave, the wave it just a little bigger. Or a lone sailor attempting to cross the Atlantic alone because the journey is only a little further. These able body people never consider an order of magnitude, they just figure it is the same as they always do on a larger scale.
Widdicombe, Jill. An overview of "To Build a Fire," Exploring Short Stories, Gale Research, 1998. Literature Resource Center Database_ 16 Feb 2004. GALILEO