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Jack London: To Build A Fire

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Introduction

Jack London had already established himself as a popular writer when his story "To Build a Fire" appeared in the Century Magazine in 1908. This tale of an unnamed man's disastrous trek across the Yukon Territory near Alaska was well received at the time by readers and literary critics alike. While other works by London have since been faulted as overly sensational or hastily written, "To Build a Fire" is still regarded by many as an American classic. London based the story on his own travels across the harsh, frozen terrain of Alaska and Canada in 1897-98 during the Klondike gold rush; he is also said to have relied on information from a book by Jeremiah Lynch entitled Three Years in the Klondike. Critics have praised London's story for its vivid evocation of the Klondike territory. In particular, they focus on the way in which London uses repetition and precise description to emphasize the brutal coldness and unforgiving landscape of the Northland, against which the inexperienced protagonist, accompanied only by a dog, struggles unsuccessfully to save himself from freezing to death after a series of mishaps. Involving such themes as fear, death, and the individual versus nature, "To Build a Fire" has been categorized as a naturalistic work of fiction in which London depicts human beings as subject to the laws of nature and controlled by their environment and their physical makeup. With its short, matter-of-fact sentences, "To Build a Fire" is representative of London's best work, which influenced such later writers as Ernest Hemingway.

Part I

"To Build a Fire" begins at nine o'clock on a winter morning as an unnamed man travels across the Yukon Territory in Northwestern Canada. The man is a chechaquo (cheechako), a Chinook jargon word meaning "newcomer." This is the man's first winter in the Yukon, but because he is "without imagination" and thus unaccustomed to thinking about life and death, he is not afraid of the cold, which he estimates at fifty degrees below zero. He is on his way to join the rest of his companions at an old mining camp on a distant fork of Henderson Creek, and he estimates his arrival time will be six o'clock in the evening. The man is traveling on foot; all he has by way of supplies is his lunch. It is not long before he realizes that the temperature is colder than fifty below, but this fact does not yet worry him.

Themes

"To Build a Fire" is about an unnamed man who embarks on a nine-hour trek across the Klondike's harsh winter landscape to meet his companions at a mining camp. Against the advice of an old-timer, the man makes the journey alone, except for a dog, and as a result of a series of disasters, he freezes to death before reaching camp. The man's behavior and his ultimate fate highlight the story's themes of survival in the wilderness, the individual versus nature, and death.

Survival in the Wilderness

Early in the story, it becomes clear that the odds are against the man's chances of surviving in the Klondike wilderness. He is a chechaquo, or newcomer to the region, and has never before experienced its extreme winters. Further, he is "traveling light"--on foot rather than by sled and carrying only a bacon sandwich, tobacco, matches, and some birch-bark kindling.

Style

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