As the title implies, Jack London’s 1908 short story contains within its narrative a literal set of sequential directions on how “To Build a Fire.” London extends this sequential conceit to his fatidic vision of the universe. Unlike the dog in the story, who can rely on its pure-bred arctic instinct as it navigates through the dangerous tundra, the anonymous man possesses a duller, myopic instinct which is unable foresee the consequentiality of the environment. This instinctual flaw in mankind (relative to that of a husky) is a given, but the man fails to compensate by integrating intellectuality into his journey. Were he to use all his resources efficiently, as the dog does, the man could anticipate the chain of events that leads to his demise, and then alter his literal and figurative course. Such a deconstruction of a pre-ordained universe is possible, London suggests, since the reader is made aware – through parallelism, choice wording, and other stylistic and suspenseful devices – of the subtle ways in which seemingly disconnected events are causally-linked.
London prompts an investigation into the motifs of linkage in the first two sentences by crafting a landscape of connections, layers, and progression:
Day had broken cold and gray, exceedingly cold and gray, when the man turned aside from the main Yukon trail and climbed the high-earth bank, where a dim and little-travelled trail led eastward through the fat spruce timberland. It was a steep bank, and he paused for breath at the top, excusing the act to himself by looking at his watch. (462)
The care which London takes to produce a conjunctive atmosphere is delicate but insistent. The adverbial and prepositional clauses – “when the m…
…ight, old hoss; you were right'” (477). He certainly was right.
Works Cited and Consulted
“Existentialism.” The American Heritage Dictionary. 3rd ed. New York: Dell, 1994.
Hendricks, King. Jack London: Master Craftsman of the Short Story. Logan: Utah State U P, 1966. Rpt. In Jack London: Essays in Criticism. Ed. Ray Wilson Ownbey. Santa Barbara: Peregrine, 1978. 13-30.
Labor, Earle. Jack London. New York: Twayne, 1974.
London, Jack. “To Build a Fire.” Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry and Drama. 6th ed. Ed. X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia. New York: Harper Collins, 1995. 118-29.
McElroy, Davis Dunbar. Existentialism and Modern Literature. Westport: Greenwood, 1968.
Perry, John. Jack London: An American Myth. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1981.
Walcutt, Charles Child. Jack London. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1966.