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“To Build a Fire” (1908). Jack London. Jack London (1876-1916). Prolific writer of The Call of the Wild (1903), The Sea-Wolf (1904), and 18 other novels, 200 stories, over 400 nonfiction works First American writer to become millionaire from being an author

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jack london 1876 1916
Jack London (1876-1916)
  • Prolific writer of The Call of the Wild (1903), The Sea-Wolf (1904), and 18 other novels, 200 stories, over 400 nonfiction works
  • First American writer to become millionaire from being an author
  • Born San Francisco, father abandoned family
  • Supported himself working from age 13, walked across U.S. as labor protestor
  • 1893 experience at sea led to his first publication, “Story of a Typhoon off the Coast of Japan”
jack london 1876 19161
Jack London (1876-1916)
  • Attended UC-Berkeley for one semester in 1896
  • Traveled in Yukon in winter 1897
  • Involved in socialist movement as a lecturer and politician: ran twice for mayor of Oakland as socialist
  • Embraced both the socialism of Karl Marx and the “superman” ideal of Nietzsche—ideas expressed in his autobiographical novel Martin Eden (1909)
jack london 1876 19162
Jack London (1876-1916)
  • Crossed the Pacific in small boat (1907-09); helped popularize Hawaii as tourist destination
  • Married twice; his second wife Charmian was a “New Woman” who accompanied him in his travels, inspired some female characters
  • Ranch at Glen Ellen, California
nature vs civilization
Nature vs. Civilization
  • “To Build a Fire” is a classic study of this theme, through the contrast it sets up between man and dog in a fierce environment
  • First published as a boy’s story (2,700 words) in The Youth’s Companion, 1902; the expanded version (7,235 words) appeared in The Century Magazine in 1908
the man
The Man
  • Opening paragraphs (1-4): what the man notices:
    • His Watch (control of time): lunch at 12:30 p.m., arrival to “boys” at Henderson Creek forks camp at 6 p.m.
    • No sun: “intangible pall over the face of things”
    • “dark hair-line” trail
    • cold
man vs narrator 1
Man vs. Narrator (1)
  • “The trouble with him was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances” (¶3)
    • “keenly observant” (¶11)
  • No impression: “mysterious trail,” sun, cold: no sense of “mystery,” “strangeness and weirdness”
  • A “newcomer in the land”: first winter
man vs narrator 2
Man vs. Narrator (2)
  • Man’s perception of cold
    • “Fifty degrees below zero was to him just precisely fifty degrees below zero” (¶3)
    • “the temperature did not matter” (¶4)
    • Ice from chewing tobacco: “he did not mind the appendage” (¶7)
    • “What were frosted cheeks? A bit painful, that was all” (¶10)
    • “It certainly was cold”; “It was cold” (¶14)
man vs narrator 3
Man vs. Narrator (3)
  • Narrator’s perception of cold
    • “man's frailty in general, able only to live within certain narrow limits of heat and cold” (¶3)
    • “The cold of space smote the unprotected tip of the planet, and he, being on that unprotected tip, received the full force of the blow” (¶19)
man vs dog 1
Man vs. Dog (1)
  • Not introduced until ¶6. Why?
    • Wolf dog
    • “Its instinct told it a truer tale than was told to the man by the man’s judgment” (¶6)
    • Instinct points to reality: “In reality, it was not merely colder than fifty below zero; it was colder than sixty below, than seventy below. It was seventy-five below zero” (107 degrees below freezing)
    • Its ancestry knew cold, man’s didn’t (¶15)
the old timer on sulphur creek
The “old-timer on Sulphur Creek”
  • Represents experience
  • Also, the ability of humans to pass on experience
  • Problem: man’s lack of imagination means that old timer’s advice makes no impression on him (see ¶20)
man vs dog 2
Man vs. Dog (2)
  • Wants man to build fire (¶6)
  • Dog is man’s “toil-slave” (¶15)
  • “no keen intimacy between the dog and the man”
  • “So the dog made no effort to communicate its apprehension to the man. It was not concerned in the welfare of the man”
man vs dog 3
Man vs. Dog (3)
  • Paragraph 12: a study of man-dog relationship
    • Man uses dog to test ice; dog gets wet
    • Dog obeys “mysterious prompting that arose from the deep crypts of its being” and bites off ice
    • Man, using judgment, assists the dog
series of accidents
Series of Accidents
  • Breaks through ice (¶17)
  • Builds fire under spruce tree
  • Avalanche of snow snuffs out fire
  • Tries to rebuild fire. Lights all the matches, burns flesh, lights bark
  • Unsteady hands disrupt fire
  • “The fire provider had failed” (¶29)
detachment from body
Detachment from Body
  • “The man looked down at his hands in order to locate them, and found them hanging on the ends of his arms. It struck him as curious that one should have to use his eyes in order to find out where his hands were” (¶32)
  • “It struck him as curious that he could run at all on feet so frozen that he could not feel them when they struck the earth and took the weight of his body. He seemed to himself to skim along above the surface, and to have no connection with the earth” (¶34)
rise of imagination
Rise of Imagination
  • “wild idea” (from tale about man killing steer); “He would kill the dog and bury his hands in the warm body” (¶30): steal the dog’s natural advantage. His envy of dog (¶25)
  • “Somewhere he had once seen a winged Mercury, and he wondered if Mercury felt as he felt when skimming over the earth” (¶34)
  • “He pictured the boys finding his body next day. Suddenly he found himself with them, coming along the trail and looking for himself” (¶37)
acceptance of death
Acceptance of Death
  • Fear and panic (¶33)
  • “take it decently” (¶36)
  • Admission of mistake to old-timer of “Sulphur Creek”: “You were right, old hoss” (¶38)
  • “the most comfortable and satisfying sleep he had ever known” (¶39)
conclusion 39
Conclusion (¶39)
  • Dog moves on:
    • “eager yearning for fire mastered it”
    • Senses death: master has failed
    • Delays
    • Goes to “to other food providers and fire-providers”
  • Nature (and imagination?) triumph:
    • “the stars that leaped and danced and shone brightly in the cold sky”