i'm just a literary tease, my reputation's on its knees.

The Fire Starter - EL 150

January 29, 2005

It is really easy as a human being to get lost in the belief that we are above nature, what with our climate-controlled living environments and fancy schmancy objects like solar panels and flashlights that never die. We forget, easily I think, the fact that like it or nature, nature could easily kick our asses. We walk outside, shiver and think, brrrr it's cold, when in fact, most of us don't know anything about the cold.

Jack London, however, is not willing to let us be so easily deluded. The man in the story "To Build A Fire" is really cold - his spit freezes on his face (gross!) and taking his mittens off for even a moment results in stiff fingers. From the very beginning of the story, you know dude is in for a bad time for several reasons:

A) it's really freakin' cold
B) he keeps emphasizing that fact that he has to meet the boys at 6
C) London tells us that the man doesn't have much of an imagination. Uh oh. This is man vs. nature at its finest.

( I am choosing not to think about what would happen in the story were the protagonist a woman instead of a man... ;c)

Valerie makes an excellent point when she writes,

"He uses such great detail to describe the situation of the man without an imagination. I can almost feel the cold (then again, I might really be cold, considering my dad refuses to let us turn the heater up), or taste the biscuits that the man has for lunch (mmm, bacon). There's also a lot of repetition (how many times are we told that he must get to the boys by six?).

Towards the end of the story, the man finally finds his imagination, wondering "if Mercury felt as he felt when skimming over the earth," or picturing himself with the boys, finding his frozen body in the snow. He dies shortly afterwards."

Although the line about Mercury stood out to me, I didn't really think about why. Go, Valerie, for making this excellent point.

Valerie wonders, as do I, about the symbolism of the dog. Here's what I think:

Generally, dogs are represented as "man's best friend." Dogs are happy loyal creatures whose joy in life is chilling with master. Just as we never really think about the danger nature can pose to our person, we don't really think of our animal pals as "animals" as in "wild creatures who will do what is necessary to survive." The dog knew it was too damn cold to be traipsing through the woods. Dog wanted to stay back at the fire where the men would feed it scraps and keep it warm. This, of course, proves that dogs are smarter than us.

The scene where the man actually considering dragging a knife through the dog's stomach and fantasizes about the warmth within shows that not only are animals "wild creatures who will do what is necessary to survive" so are humans. Maybe having the dog in the story is to somehow illuminate the animal-instincts shown by the man at the end of the story? Just an idea...

Moira at 09:57 PM :: Comments (7) :: ::

I was thinking that the dog symbolized something about human nature, but for some reason, it felt like that was too obvious to be the case...

Ooooh, "animal instinct"-I like that idea! It disturbed me that the man would have actually gone about killing the dog, had he been able to. Then again, I've never been in a predicament in which killing another life could possibly save my own. It makes me wonder: To what extremes would I go to save my life?

Does Foster's book have a section about animals or pets? I've noticed that animals have meant a lot in the first few stories we've read.

Posted by: Valerie Masciarelli at January 29, 2005 10:57 PM

My friend is fond of telling me that the human body will do whatever it can to survive. He suggests that even if you became very poor and were unable to buy food that you would do whatever it takes to get food be it steal or kill(he's a bit of a pessimist, I'm afraid).

You know, I'm not sure if Foster's book has a section on animals, but I think I might be suprised if it doesn't!

You wrote: "It makes me wonder: To what extremes would I go to save my life?"

Having the reader ask that question just might have been Mr. London's whole point! :c)

Posted by: moira at January 30, 2005 08:49 AM

About animals doing whatever is necessary to survive... the dog in the story doesn't stay with the man because the man is a loving friend, but rather, the dog feels that being with the man increases its own chances of survival. Rather than stay with him and curling its body against his, or running to get help like Lassie would, it turns its back on him without another thought, and trots off to find other men. The man, for his part, ignored the advice of the old-timer, and though he was new in these parts and unfamiliar with cold of this intensity, he seems to have something to prove.

Still, London doesn't hold up this man as an example of the the best men, so it would be perhaps hasty to make universal assumptions regarding gender.

Historically, the circumstances that would place a woman outside in this setting, in this kind of cold, would have to be extreme; but to this man it's a matter of pride and adventure.

An interesting thought.

Posted by: Dennis G. Jerz at January 30, 2005 09:28 AM

mostly i'm just "anti-snow" in that I just can't fathom someone thinking "hey it's 50 degrees below zero outside, i'm going to go for a hike!" you're right about the "having something to prove" it was almost like a pissing contest of man vs. nature... and we know what happened with that.

sorry about the misandristic tone of my text with woman comment (and i had to go to to find that word!)... i like to look at stories and imagine the gender switched because i do think it would change the outcome of the story.

yes, the dog is not like lassie... this isn't one of those happy animal stories.. maybe in "the runaway bunny" ? hah :c)

Posted by: moira at January 30, 2005 10:44 AM

Oh, I am anti-snow too. I wouldn't care about having to "prove myself"- I'd rather keep my fingers and toes thank you.

The dog has brought up a lot of interesting discussions on several blogs. (I myself am about to blog on the story and, probably, the dog thing again.) Maybe there isn't exactly one meaning. People interpret literature almost like art- lots of different meanings in one piece and no one wants to say they are 100% "right". The only way to really know I guess is to ask the author about what he was going for with the dog. But doesn't that take all the fun out of it then?

Posted by: Nessa at January 30, 2005 12:40 PM

Yes, vanessa, I too like my fingers and toes! :c)

You wrote: "People interpret literature almost like art- lots of different meanings in one piece and no one wants to say they are 100% "right". "

Yup! That's the fun of it! And the fun part of being an English major is that you read anything you want into anything you read as long as it's "textually sound" i.e. you can prove it. Plus, we don't have as many exams. Sweet! :c)

Posted by: moira at January 30, 2005 05:39 PM

Dr. Jerz, you brought up a good point about the theme of the story. Yes, the dog couldn't give a flying freak what happens to the man. It goes back to the naturalist survival views that people and in this case, animals, are narcissistic, self-centered and ego-driven.

I wouldn't blame the dog at all for taking advantage of the man's fires. If some ego-maniac dragged my ass out in the 50-below weather, I would take advantage of his fires too.

The story is deliciously pessimistic about human and even animal nature. It really makes you think about everything we as an American society value.

I'm not sure if this story was a response to the ever-increasing rise in capitalistism and individualism in America, or a call for personalism and collectivism. But it is an effective catalyst for questioning everything we value.

Posted by: Evan at January 30, 2005 10:09 PM
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