Choices and Responsibility in London's To Build a Fire and Crane's The Open Boat

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Choices and Responsibility in London's To Build a Fire and Crane's The Open Boat

Naturalism portrays humans' control over their actions and fate as limited and determined by the natural world, including their very humanity. The freedom described by Jean-Paul Sartre results in all individuals having the ability to make present choices independently. Despite the fatalism illustrated in naturalism, the characters in London's 'To Build a Fire' and Crane's 'The Open Boat' are ultimately responsible for their choices and consequences of their choices.

In 'To Build a Fire,' the man's antagonist is nature: London displays the man's journey as restricted by external forces. First, the temperature of the tundra is seventy-five-below zero (978), which naturally exposes the man?s ?frailty as a creature of temperature? (977). Obviously the man is subject to the forces of winter, and can not change his homeostasis as a warm-blooded animal. Similarly, London employs the ?traps? (979) of snow-covered pools of water to show that while humans may presume we are invincible, nature will stealthily remind us of our vulnerability (through invisible germs, for example). Just as the man does not see the ?trap? (981) that soaks his legs, he fails to notice the dog?s apprehension regarding their journey (981). Here London shows man's self-proclaimed superiority is falsely assumed, as he lacks the ?instinct? (978) that the dog possess; later, the man can not kill the dog (985), which signifies the dog is not subordinate regarding survival. After the man steps in the water, London notes, ?He was angry, and cursed his luck aloud? (981). By attributing his misfortune to ?luck,? the man relieves himself of responsibility, recognizing himself as a victi...

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...ependent of anything, including fellow humans, that would influence his decision regarding survival. Sartre would explain that this man dies stuck in a mode of pre-reflective consciousness because of his solitude: the man can not see his mortality until he imagines himself looking at his frozen body with his children (987). A similar irony is seen when Crane's men curse the vision of those attending the fictitious life-saving station; saying, ?They must have seen us by now,? (909) the men do not see that they alone are responsible for their survival.

Works Cited

Crane, Stephen. "The Open Boat." The Harper American Literature. Ed. Donald McQuade et al. 2nd ed. 2 Vols. New York: Longman, 1993.

London, Jack. "To Build a Fire." Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. 7th edition. Ed. X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia. New York, NY: Longman, 1999.

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