To Build a Fire

To Build a Fire Themes


The movement of naturalism was greatly influenced by the 19th-century ideas of Social Darwinism, which was in turn influenced by Charles Darwin's theories on evolution. Social Darwinism applied to the human environment the evolutionary concept that natural environments alter an organism's biological makeup over time through natural selection. Social Darwinists and naturalists cited this as proof that organisms, including humans, do not have free will, but are shaped, or determined, by their environment and biology. Naturalists argued that the deterministic world is based on a series of links, each of which causes the next (for more on these causal links, see Causal links and processes, below). In "To Build a Fire," London repeatedly shows how the man does not have free will and how nature has already mapped out his fate. Indeed, both times the man has an accident, London states "it happened," as if "it" were an inevitability of nature and that the man had played no role in "it." The most important feature of this deterministic philosophy is in the amorality and lack of responsibility attached to an individual's actions (see Amorality and responsibility, below).

Amorality and responsibility

A curious revision occurs when London writes that the man's second accident with the snow was his "own fault or, rather, his mistake." While both are damning words, "fault" is much more serious; it implies an underlying moral responsibility and role in future consequences, while "mistake" suggests an isolated incident outside of one's control. Likewise, the man believes his first accident is bad "luck," another word that connotes lack of free will. "Accident," too, insinuates an unforeseen or unanticipated event out of one's power.

If naturalism maintains that an individual has no free will (see Determinism, above), as London's careful phrasing suggests, then it is logical that the individual should not bear responsibility for his actions: if humans are not even in control of our own actions, why should we take responsibility for them?

The answer is that one should take responsibility for one's actions if one can anticipate potential consequences. Since the naturalistic world is based on causal links (see Causal links and processes, below), it should be possible, to an extent, to predict the consequences of our actions. The man could not have anticipated his falling through the snow, and therefore it is merely bad "luck." However, he should have anticipated that his other action--building a fire under a spruce tree--could carry potentially significant consequences: the snuffing out of the fire. Only in this anticipatory sense is he somewhat responsible. That London revises his judgment from "fault" to "mistake" suggests the gray area in the man's responsibility; while he should have anticipated the results of his actions, and thus be held liable, he did not, so he cannot be held liable.

Instinct over intellectualism

Though the man is hardly an "intellectual," he exercises intellectual properties more than instinctive ones. He uses complicated tools (matches) to build a fire; he understand how cold it is through temperature readings; he identifies where he is (Henderson Creek, the Yukon) through language on a map. The dog, on the other hand, is pure instinct. It remains warm through its fur coat or by burrowing into the snow; it has an innate understanding of the cold and its dangers; it could not point out its location on a map, but it knows by scent where to find the nearby camp with men. In the Yukon, instinct is far superior to intellect. The man's intellect backfires on him. His ability to light the matches with his numb fingers suffers in the extreme cold, and both his fingers and the matches are examples of man's naturally selected advantage of intellect: man has fingers to operate tools, and his larger, more complex brain allows him to create such tools. The dog is much wiser, aware that the cold is too dangerous for them; it even knows when the man is trying to deceive it somehow (he wants to kill it and bury his hands in its warm carcass). Accordingly, only the dog survives, and though it may not be able to take care of itself fully, it instinctively knows to go to "the other food-providers and fire-providers" in the nearby camp.

Indifferent environment and survival

Naturalism not only maintains that the environment is deterministic (see Determinism, above), but indifferent. The environment does nothing to help its inhabitants; in fact, it is coldly indifferent to their existence and struggle. In "To Build a Fire," the Yukon would be bitterly cold without the man, as well, and it does not cease when the man struggles to stay alive. This indifference makes survival itself a critical goal for naturalist characters. As the story goes on, the man changes his goal from reaching the camp, to warding off frostbite, to merely staying alive. Naturalism thus elicits profound conflicts, man versus nature being one of them.

The objective power of numbers and facts

Naturalism maintains that the world can be understood only through scientific, objective knowledge. In "To Build a Fire," the reader receives a number of these hard facts. For instance, temperatures lower than negative fifty degrees Fahrenheit demarcate the danger zone of traveling alone. London tells us the exact amount of matches the man lights at once (seventy). Moreover, the man is preoccupied with the distance to the camp and the time he will reach it. These hard facts should arm the man with enough information to assess competently the deterministic environment (see Determinism, above), but he fails to do so before he is in mortal danger.

Naturalistic subject matter and language

Naturalist fiction writers devised new techniques and subject matters to convey their ideas. Generally, they focused more on narrative rather than character. "To Build a Fire" has a nearly nonstop narrative drive, and we only occasionally enter into the mind of the man--who does not even have a name in the story, indicating how little London is concerned with him as a unique person. Naturalists often used sparer, harder language to complement their plot-driven stories; this tendency can be seen as a verbal corollary to naturalism's preoccupation with objectivity (see The objective power of numbers and facts, above). Finally, naturalism usually turned its attention to the often-ignored lower classes. The man in the story is a lower- to middle-class drifter trying to strike it rich; no one with any wealth would risk his life in such brutal conditions.