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Jack London, a well known American author, has written a fair share of truly classic works. The Call of the Wild and White Fang are staples of middle and high school reading requirements. His other novels, such as The People of the Abyss and Sea Wolf are not as well known, but are still regarded as brilliant pieces of literature by many scholars. Lesser known are his many volumes of short stories; "To Build a Fire" being the most popular. I cannot say that I have read even a small percentage of London's works, but from what I have read, I noticed some recurring similarities.
During the semester in class, we have learned how authors utilize various elements of writing to make their point more prominent. For Jack London's earlier works, his Yukon setting and rugged, adventurous characters appear quite frequently. Such is the case with the three stories I chose to study; "Love of Life," "The League of the Old Men," and "To Build a Fire." Along with this, I believe that the theme of survival appears in these three, as well as many other stories from London. I took it upon myself to try and find out why London used survival as his main theme. To demonstrate this recurring theme, I will give a brief synopsis of the three stories.
"To Build a Fire" is a story about a man who is traveling alone in the frozen Yukon. He knows that it is not safe to be traveling when it is so cold, but stubbornly keeps moving. He falls through a crack in the ice, wetting his feet. In order to stay alive, he must build a fire, warm his feet and move on. Despite several attempts, the man fails and dies. Of the fourteen pages within "To Build a Fire," eight of those are devoted to the events of the man trying to make a fire; the other six mainly focus on the setting. The man's determination to build the fire is evident-a simple annoyance at the beginning leads to a frantic demise at the end. The plot was as simple as one man's attempt to survive against nature.
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Again we see a man's pursuit for survival against nature in "Love of Life." In this tale, two men are traveling through the Yukon carrying sacks of gold. One man gets injured, but the other, paying no heed to his companion, travels on. The man's injured ankle slows his pace and he is forced to rest many times. This slow pace and days of cloudy skies cause him to lose his way. For days the man wanders aimlessly through the barren plains. We learn of his tribulations trying to find food and his experiences with nature surrounding him. The man's unwillingness to give up leads to his survival. After several days of traveling, he is discovered lying on a beach by a group of scientists who nurse him back to life.
"The League of the Old Men" is very different from the other two stories I read. This story does not contain London's classic man versus nature conflict; instead, he looks at man versus man. Somewhere in the Yukon, a tribe of Native Americans called Whitefish are being exterminated by Europeans. The decimation of their people is not directly caused by the European intrusion, but by what they bring with them; disease, greed, and liquor. One man, Imber, decided to stand up for his tribe and protect them. Imber has seen his tribe become victim to white man's disease, white man's habits, and the loss of thousands of animals to the fur trade. Imber organized a group of people to kill any white man who came around. Eventually, Imber was the only one left in his tribe, and therefore decided to turn himself in. It is through the court proceedings that we learn the fate of the Whitefish people.
It is evident, in my mind, that these three stories share many similarities. For one, the settings all take place in a very rugged part of Canada. The characters are all very durable people; by this, I mean that they can endure events that the average human would not be able to. Would you be able to travel through negative seventy degree weather, or wander around for days scavenging for food, or be able to kill many people for the benefit of others? I cannot confidently say that I or anyone else could. However, London carefully portrays his characters in a manner that will not distance them from the audience. London's characters and setting directly set the stage for his theme: survival.
This brings me to the question of why did London use such similar settings and characters? When thought about, it becomes clear that he did this to enable the use of survival as the story's theme. Put the characters in a different setting, and what do you have? It's not going to take much to survive in a tropical island, grasslands, or jungle. In these places, food and water are readily available, and you don't have the extreme elements to deal with. The only other setting that could be as barren and harsh as the Yukon would be a desert or possibly the sea; another setting London loved to write about. One look at London's biography can tell you why he chose the Yukon over the desert-London spent an entire year when he was younger looking for gold in the Yukon and also spent much of his life at sea. The experiences he had here obviously influenced him greatly.
To further show his theme of survival, London chose to use strong, hardy characters. Again, when asked why this is, there wouldn't be a story if the character was any other way. Because of the harsh realm of the setting, the characters must be suited to walk the tight rope of life and death. If the character was too weak, he would die easily, and the story would be pointless. If he was too strong, he would seem inhuman to the reader, and the reader wouldn't be able to connect with the characters. London knew that he must use people that were neither extraordinary nor frail. This enables the reader to relate to the characters, while remaining in awe of them.
In these three stories, I have found a distinct pattern in London's writing. His choice of setting sets up the characters which set up the theme. Take away the Yukon setting, you don't need the characters to be so bold, and you lose the theme. Take away the bold characters, they die in the setting, and lose the theme. Take away the theme of survival, and you have some characters running around in a wasteland for no reason. We now know why London chose the setting he did, and how he chose characters to fit the setting, but why write continuously about survival? For this, we will look at his real life experience in the Yukon.
A very detailed chapter entitled "The Gold Rush" in Lone Wolf: The Story of Jack London gives a thorough picture of London's ordeal in reaching the Yukon. Spurred on by stories of men getting rich in the Klondike, London and a few friends decided to try their luck at panning for gold. Jack and his friend Captain Shepard planned to sail Shepard's ship up to Dyea, and begin their journey there. London, foreseeing the mad rush of men to the Yukon, decided it would be best to build a team of men to help them. When they reached Dyea, they realized that they could not pay for Indian porters to help them move their gear. Still eager to strike it rich, the men decided to do it themselves. It was at this point that Captain Shepard admitted defeat and left the group to sail back to California. For two and a half days, the men moved their food and gear three miles up a mountain ridge called "'the worst trail this side of hell.'" (Marshall, 80) The journey up to Chinook Pass had a profound effect on London. He saw many men who, like Captain Shepard, were "too weak to go on, and took weak to go back." (Marshall, 82) Even after they reached the pass, they still had a twenty two mile hike to Klondike City.
Those twenty two miles were filled with thick swamps, ice cold rivers and lakes to cross, and dense forests to carry their gear through. Upon reaching the river, London decided that, instead of waiting for a ferry, they would build their own raft to carry them the rest of the way. Along this journey, they were faced with treacherous rapids that no one had yet been able to conquer. London decided to risk his life and the lives of his men. Jack's homemade craft, the "Yukon Belle," shot down the rapids, gaining them a huge advantage over the other gold-rushers. After settling at an old fur trader camp, the four men began prospecting. A substantial amount of what appeared to be gold dust was found and the men traveled eighty miles to Dawson to stake their claim. Unfortunately, the dust was not gold, but mica. Beat from their long journey, the men decided to stay in Dawson for almost two months before returning to their camp. After some tension grew within Jack's group, he decided to switch teams with a neighbor of his. Here is where he saw the previous year wear on him and his comrades. After developing scurvy, London returned to California in June of 1898.
This retelling of Jack's adventures in the Yukon emphasizes even more why he chose the characters and setting for many of his stories. However, it does not explain thoroughly why he wrote about survival so often. As we have learned in class, one's perception of theme is not always the same as everyone else. While researching my annotated bibliography, this fact became evident. Unfortunately, many of the sources I found focus solely on "To Build a Fire," and not a broad spectrum of London's works. Irregardless, they do provide a good insight as to how others viewed London's themes.
Clell Peterson wrote an essay focusing on "The Theme of Jack London's 'To Build a Fire.'" In this essay, he concludes that the theme is one of rebirth. He does, however, mention survival; "a strong theme-by which is meant, I suppose, the primitive struggle for survival." (Peterson, 3) However, before coming to this conclusion, he examines the characters and setting of the story. "Although the man is the central character... He is not presented as young, strong, or heroic." (Peterson, 5) This is, in my opinion, why he died, while the narrator in "Love of Life" did not. Peterson looks at the symbolism of the setting and man's inability to comprehend such powerful forces. "The events of the story take place in a world devoid of sunlight, of daylight, which is also the light of reason and common sense." (Peterson, 5) London used not only the physical setting, but the man's mental setting to make his situation even bleaker.
The protagonist's lack of respect for nature and inability to step back and pay attention to the details surrounding his situation ultimately lead to his demise. "To Build a Fire" shows London's view of man in his earlier writings. The man died because he was too weak, mentally and physically. The man's irrational behavior stemmed from the chaos in his mind. "The protagonist does not wish to die, but he lacks the 'love of life' that would force him to struggle to the end." (Peterson, 7) London writes that the man "drowsed off into what seemed to him the most comfortable and satisfying sleep he had ever known." (London, 22) This clearly contrasts the main character in "Love of Life."
During the man's struggle in "Love of Life," he ultimately becomes one with nature. "He stalks ptarmigan 'as a cat stalks a sparrow,' and he attempts to eat grass 'like some bovine animal.'" (Peterson, 7) Unlike the character in "To Build a Fire," the man begins to humble himself before Mother Nature. It is this humbleness and respect that leads to his "love of life." At one point, the man is faced with the same decision as in "To Build a Fire"; to die would mean peace, and to live would mean pain. The man in "Love of Life" chose pain; "It was only life that pained. There was no hurt in death. To die was to sleep. It meant cessation, rest. Then why was he not content to die?" (London, 220) The man's journey through the wild is much like the Native American's "vision quest." No food, no shelter, and no outside help for days to find out what your purpose in life was. London leaves the man's incredible mental journey to the imagination of the reader; we only get to see his physical journey and his transformation in the end.
Why did the man survive in "Love of Life" and the other, in "To Build a Fire," die? Peterson suggests that "To Build a Fire" "places man squarely within a materialistic nature. The third story ("Love of Life") ambiguously suggests that man has been corrupted from nature and therefore pays occasionally a fearful consequence. Ignorant of his apostasy and unable to see quite where he has gone wrong, man nevertheless is capable of new insights and the tragic vision that both ennobles and conceals his fall from nature." (Peterson, 8) This interpretation leads to another interesting belief within London's writings; change. Taken out of context, the man in "To Build a Fire" dies because he was unable to adapt or change to fit the environment. "Love of Life" shows that the protagonist had to change in order to survive.
This connection carries through to the previously unmentioned "The League of the Old Men." It was the change, the invasion of the white man that caused Imber to take action. Had he accepted the change, his people would have died due to disease and starvation. Had he stepped back and viewed the situation clearly and understood what was happening, he and his people would have survived. Instead, he chose to ask no questions, and began killing any white man he saw. He was unaware that the men he slew were only innocent travelers, hunters, and mail carriers. Because of his inability to adjust to sharing land with the white men, he ended up losing his entire tribe, and was now on trial for his life. By analyzing these three stories, I have become more aware of London's "Darwinism" view of life.
Through all of my research, I could not come to a definitive conclusion as to why London commonly used survival, or his belief that survival stems from adaptation, as a common theme. I have also failed to find a concrete connection between events in London's life and the theme of his writings. For many authors, their political beliefs often appear in their literature, but it is hard to grasp the concept of socialism within these three stories. The only exception could be in "To Build a Fire."
Donald Brown points out that "If the man had been traveling with a friend instead of a dog, then he would most likely not have died." (Brown) Capitalists rely solely on themselves, communists solely on the government, and socialists take a part of both. Could this need for a companion be London telling the reader that capitalism and communism are wrong? Other than this event, I cannot find any references to London's political views within these three writings. It is too far of a reach to say that London's displeasure with the American government could have been remedied with adaptation. A determination of that would entail much more research.
Could the answer to my question lie simply in his year-long stint in the Yukon? It is evident that the Yukon setting became his favorite, writing volumes of stories about it. In my opinion, London came to some sort of epiphany about the world while in the Yukon. Many of his writings reflect either the reverence or indifference of man towards nature. There is no better place to witness the brutal beauty of nature than in the cold, barren Klondike. London had only been challenged by nature in one other context-the sea. Because of his travels later in life, I am uneasy as to whether the sea even posed a threat to London. Crippled from scurvy, it is apparent that London finally admitted defeat to nature in the Yukon.
There is nothing to deter me from believing that the events that transpired in these three stories are untrue. As London points out himself, "To Build a Fire" is based around truth. In a letter to the editor at "Youth's Companion," Jack clarifies his point to a misinformed reader. "It is an old Alaskan tragedy, this fire-building. They have traced a man, from his first careful attempt at a fire to his last wild & feeble attempt, & then found his stiff body-and this has been done more than once." (London, 1) He also relates this event to his own life; "I have built a fire at 74 below zero, and I did it with my naked hands." (London, 1) Clearly, we see that the plot of "To Build a Fire" is based around a true story.
Returning once again to "The League of the Old Men," I have established two theories surrounding the plot of the story. It was known that London was fascinated by, and took quite a liking to the Natives in the Yukon. "To the others a native was a 'siwash, but Jack would talk to them... He would entertain them and invite them into the cabin, and... he learned [more] about them." (Marshall, 88) Could London have heard a tale similar to the events of "The League of Old Men" from the Natives he spoke to? Or could it be an apologetic work of his views of the travesties and injustices done to the Natives? Again, nothing can deter me from believing either one of these are untrue. The same can be said of "Love of Life." During this period of history, and given the appropriate setting, London could have heard hundreds of similar stories from other prospectors. As a warning about the harshness of nature, or for sheer boredom, stories like these surely were told. London might have possibly just put them into writing.
As I stated earlier, I believe the time London spent in the Yukon had a profound effect on him. Because he wrote about the humbling forces of nature, it is quite possible that he himself had some near death events. Making the trek up the ridge to Chinook Pass, the twenty two mile hike to the camp, and even the "Yukon Belle" conquering the rapids are enough for Mother Nature to win the respect of London. It is this respect and awe for the often unseen forces that forced him to write about man's survival against nature. As he matured as a writer, he began to write about other conflicts; man versus man, or rather man versus change in such stories as "The League of the Old Men" and The People of the Abyss. Whatever London's motives were, he firmly established himself as the definitive author on survival.
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Brown, James K., "Jack London's 'To Build a Fire': Epistemology and the White Wilderness," Western American Literature, Volume V, No. 4, Winter 1971. Pgs. 287-289.
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Courbin, Dr. Jacqueline M., "Jack London's Portrayal of the Natives in His First Four Collections of Artic Tales," Jack London Newsletter, Volume 10, No. 3, September-December, 1978. Pgs. 127-137