Jack London's short story "To Build a Fire" pits human knowledge and judgment against the cruel powers of nature. Nature comes out the winner because the main character relies on reason rather than instinct. His overconfidence in his ability to rationalize his way out of any conundrum lulls him into a deepening unawareness of reality, resulting finally in his slow death in the biting-cold Yukon. In this haunting tale, irony is the fatal consequence of arrogance.
Arrogant Reason vs. Animal Instinct
The protagonist's confidence in his abilities to beat Mother Nature at her own game makes his tragic downfall ironic because it is the last thing he expected to happen. In contrast, there is nothing ironic about his dog because not only can a dog not think arrogantly, but a dog considers all possible outcomes according to his instincts. The dog simply obeys his instinct; the man rationalizes his instinct. But the story proves the man's intelligence useless as he should have disregarded it in favor of his instinct. Instead, the very power the man relies on and takes pride in ends up killing him.
The story reveals that the man's confidence in himself extends even beyond rational judgment into brazen foolhardiness. Dismissing the warnings of a local "old-timer" against traveling alone as "womanish," the man ignores reasonable advice from more experienced travelers in favor of his own unwavering belief in himself. He also ignores the scientific evidence that it must be colder than 50 below because his spit freezes instantly. "Any man who was a man could travel alone," he thinks to himself. Not until he lies dying in the snow does he admit his error: "You were right, old hoss, you were right." Not only does reason not aid him, but it tricks him about the real state of things.
The reader observes the man's ever-deepening delusion with ever-heightening suspense because the reader knows something the man does not: the true temperature. In a twist of dramatic irony, the narrator tells the reader that the real temperature is actually 75 degrees below zero, not 50, as the man believes. Even the dog senses something ominous about the temperature, but the reader watches tensely as the man continues in his ignorance, not realizing that he will surely die. The narrator states that the dog "knew that it was no time for travelling," and since "[i]ts instinct told a truer tale than was told to the man by the man's judgment," the reader knows the dog's foreboding feeling must be prophetic.
But although "To Build a Fire" illustrates survival of the fittest at its cruelest -- London was a Darwinist who admired the Nietschzian "superman" -- some critics have noted that the story contains a redemptive and almost religious narrative. Christian journal "Touchstone" points out that the protagonist actually fails on moral grounds and not from lack of instinct because he rebels against the wisdom of an elder and in the end undergoes a "deathbed confession" where he repents of his sin. The spiritual ending of "To Build a Fire" ironically undercuts the more obvious atheistic, Darwinist theme.
- Utah State University: Jack London: Master Craftsman of the Short Story
- Touchstone: Never Absolute Zero
- The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Sixth Edition; Ed. Nina Baym et al.
Nadine Smith has been writing since 2010. She teaches college writing and ESL courses and has several years experience tutoring all ages in English, ESL and literature. Nadine holds a Master of Arts in English language and literature from McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, where she led seminars as a teaching assistant.