BOOK STALL: TO BUILD A FIRE by Jack London

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Khidki (Window)

–Read India Initiative—

This is only an attempt to create interest in reading. We may not get the time to read all the books in our lifetime. But such reviews, talk and synopsis will at least convey what the book is all about.

    “To Build a Fire” is a short story by American author Jack London. There are two versions of this story. One published in 1902 and the other in 1908. The story that was written in 1908 has become an anthologized classic, while the 1902 story is lesser known. The 1908 version is about an unnamed protagonist who ventures out in the sub-zero boreal forest (located in the Arctic zone) of the Yukon Territory, along with his dog, to visit some of his friends. While doing so he ignores the warnings from an older man about the dangers of hiking alone. The protagonist underestimates the harsh conditions and slowly begins to freeze to death. After trying and then failing to build a fire, he slips into unconsciousness and dies of hypothermia—low body temperature.

    The 1902 version describes a similar situation, but with a different plot. Though the structure and storyline are similar in both. In 1902 the weather is not as cold and horrendous, and no dog follows the protagonist, the fire is not doused, and the man (named Tom Vincent) suffers only from permanent frostbite. And he survives to become a melancholic but wiser person.

    Whereas, the 1908 version of the story is an example of the naturalist movement that portrays the conflict of man versus nature. It also reflects what Jack London perhaps learned in the Yukon Territory. And it details as follows:

    An unnamed man sets out to hike through the forests bordering the Yukon River on a winter day when the temperature has reached -75°F (-59°C). Having ignored the advice of an old prospector against traveling alone in such weather, he is accompanied only by his large husky dog. The animal’s instincts warn about the dangers of the extreme cold weather. Yet, it follows the man unwillingly. And as they follow the course of a frozen creek, the man is careful to avoid patches of thin ice, hidden in the snow, that cover pockets of unfrozen water. His goal is to reach a group of prospectors (“the boys”) at their camp by 6:00 that evening.

    At half past noon, the man stops and builds a fire so that he can warm up and also eat his lunch. He shortly resumes his hike, when he breaks through the ice and drenches his feet and lower legs, forcing him to stop and build another fire. This one under a tree, in order to dry himself. But as he pulls the twigs, from the brush pile around the tree to feed the flames. The vibrations cause the snow to tumble down from the branches overhead and extinguish the fire. This creates a crisis. The man quickly begins to lose sensation in the extremities and hurries to light another fire. He now begins to premonition the life-threatening danger posed by the cold. He tries to light the fire by igniting all his matches and in the process he exhausts, all of it. Now with no more matches in hand, the man tries to kill the dog for warmth. But his hands are so stiff that he can neither strangle it nor draw his knife. Finally, he tries to restore his circulation by running towards the camp, but stumbles and falls in the snow. The man dies of hypothermia, imagining himself standing with “the boys” as they find his body. The dog leaves the body after dark to find food and shelter at the camp.

    The man and the dog’s relationship is followed throughout the story. The man is in absolute control of the dog, as explicitly mentioned by London. The dog is almost like a slave to him and is shown cowering before the man and following orders. However, there is no physical intimacy between the two. The man doesn’t pet the dog or treat him fondly. In fact, the man forces the dog to go ahead of him when he suspects the ice will break. This helps to build the idea that the man believes nature is intended to serve him. The man’s interactions, in this relationship, is how the reader discovers the man’s personality and character to be. By including the dog in the story, the author makes the man less likable. London even describes the dog as his “toil-slave”.

    “Man vs Nature” is one of the themes presented in this short story. The protagonist decides to face the brutal cold temperatures of the Yukon Territory, despite being warned by an older man. The short story depicts the protagonist’s battle of life and death while highlighting the importance of the fire.

    Another theme illustrated in the story is the man’s human sense of judgment contrasted with the dog’s animal instincts. Throughout the story, London hints that the dog has more knowledge of survival than the man. The judgment versus instinct theme is evident when the man builds the first fire. While the dog wants to stay by the fire to keep warm, the man is determined to keep moving. And as the dog reluctantly follows the man across a frozen river, the dog is more cautious than the man.

    The protagonist’s desperation is evident throughout the story. It is noticeable soon after the man falls into a frozen river. In order to save himself, he scrambles to build a fire but is too busy worrying about his health to notice the mistake of building a fire underneath a tree that has collected an enormous amount of snow. After the first fire is put out, his desperation becomes even more defined as he seemingly will do anything to survive. Including attempting to kill his dog for warmth and using all his matches at once in a final attempt to light his last fire. His desperation for survival and his fear of death causes his demise as he freezes to death at the end of the story.

    Another evident theme in the story is perseverance. Although the man makes several mistakes and is getting frostbite in his fingers and toes, he continues to fight for survival.

    Stupidity and arrogance are personified in the story’s protagonist. For example, he goes through the extremely cold territory alone, despite going for the first time. He laughs off the crucial advice of traveling with an acquaintance because he thinks he knows what he’s doing. This arrogance results in the protagonist putting himself in a dangerous situation that was preventable. At first, he thinks it’s nothing and that everything will be fine. By the end of the story, he dies as a result of his arrogance. Another example of arrogance occurs when the protagonist disregards the possibility that there may be situations he cannot overcome. The old man warns the protagonist of this and also seems to have a better understanding of the natural world, respecting the fact that there are some situations the man will be unable to control. Not only does the old man see the protagonist’s stupidity, but the dog notices the man’s lack of knowledge about the terrain and its obstacles after he fails to keep a fire going.

    Succumbing to death is another theme in the story: more specifically the peace that may be found in death. London foreshadows the death of the man early in the story, so it is not a surprise that the man dies. London depicts the death quite differently than many other authors do. The man drifts off into a calm and peaceful slumber devoid of suffering and pain. London’s use of relaxing words dissuades the reader from feeling a great deal of sympathy for the man, as the death is merciful and graciously anticipated, rather than sad. In contrast to more dramatic depictions of death, London’s depiction reveals death as a peaceful escape from tumult and pain.

    Individualism is another common theme London portrays in the story. The man only relies on himself to get him through the Yukon; he doesn’t believe that he needs any help. This theme can also be connected to the theme mentioned above of the man’s judgement, and the man’s arrogance.

Synopsis by Kamlesh Tripathi

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https://kamleshsujata.wordpress.com

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