The Existential Theme of London’s “To Build A Fire"
Jack London’s short story, “To Build a Fire,” is the tragic tale of a man who decides to travel alone through the hostile environment of the Yukon in sub-freeing temperatures and falls victim to the unrelenting and unforgiving power of nature. During his journey, the man gets his feet wet as he falls through the ice into the water of a hot spring (London 122). Because of the severity of the cold, some “one hundred and seven degrees below [the] freezing point,” the man’s life depends upon his ability to promptly light a fire to keep his feet from freezing (122-23). After one, half-successful fire-starting endeavor, and several other pitiful attempts, the hopelessness of the man’s lone struggle against the hostile environment of the Yukon begins to become apparent. After a lengthy episode of panic in which the man tries desperately to return the feeling to his extremities by “running around like a chicken with its head cut off” (128), the man at last “grows calm and decides to meet death with dignity . . .” (Labor 66). The story’s central theme is one portrayed by many existentialist writers—that man lives a solitary existence which is subject to the relentless, unforgiving forces of nature; an ever so subtle part of this theme is that it is man’s goal to find meaning in his existence.
The word existentialist, as well as the subject of existentialism itself, evades definition. Davis McElroy points out this problem by comparing the act of defining existentialism to the act of trying “to explain human existence in a single sentence . . .” (xi). For the sake of brevity, perhaps a short, simple definition would be best; according to the American Heritage Dictionary (3rd ed.), existentialism is “a philosophy that emphasizes the uniqueness and isolation of the individual in a hostile or indifferent universe” This statement defines the theme of Jack London's short story—the lone man traveling across the bleak, unfriendly expanse of the Yukon can come to be seen as the solitary individual who inhabits a cruel and indifferent cosmos. At the conclusion of the story we finally see the man come to the realization, in a round about way, that it was best to meet his fate with dignity, thus giving meaning to an otherwise meaningless and cruel death. This existential theme in “To Build a Fire” is not likely to be a mere coincidence, but instead appears to be part of London’s intentional design. According to Charles Child Walcutt, Jack London was greatly influenced by the ideas of such men as Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, and Friedrich Nietzsche, all prominent thinkers of London’s time (5). So it is no accident that at the heart of the story lies an existentialist theme.
London emphasizes the existential theme in “To Build a Fire” in several ways, the most important of which is his selection of the setting in which the story takes place. The story is set in the wilderness of the...