The intelligence of women is a controversial matter which has been debated for centuries. Although recent feminist movements have allowed for more equality between men and women, traits such as “emotional” and “worrisome” are perceived in a manner that allow women to be viewed as inferior. In To Build A Fire by Jack London, the independence of man is tested as he tries to survive through excruciating cold weather. The man fails various attempts at starting a fire, eventually leading to his death. Although the short story does not evidently introduce a female character, To Build A Fire exemplifies the discrediting of woman’s intelligence as a result of perception.
The attribute of vigilance which many women attain is often criticized and perceived as a sign of weakness. This notion is depicted when the man in To Build A Fire begins reflecting on the advice given to him before entering the cold. London writes, “He remembered the advice of the old man on Sulphur Creek, and smiled. The man had been very serious when he said that no man should travel alone in that country after 50 below zero. Well, here he was; he had had the accident; he was alone; and he had saved himself” (72). In this instance, the man in the story finds himself complete without a companion. This thought represents a viewpoint on the role of women in the life of men. In many cases, females aren’t recognized to be of value other than company; however, the man in this story does not even view the companion aspect as desirable.
At the time when To Build A Fire was written (1902), women’s suffrage had not yet been granted throughout the United States. In fact, California (London’s birth place), did not grant voting rights to women until 1911. Women were not considered anywhere near equal to men, furthermore represented through Jack London’s writing. The denigration of women in society is illustrated when London writes, “Those old men were rather womanish… All a man must do was to keep his head, and he was all right. Any man who was a man could travel alone” (72). London not only comments on the discrediting of women’s intelligence, but the perception that a “real” man does not need a woman at all. Indirectly, London also draws on some men’s egotistical values of being the dominant sex due to a higher intelligence level.
Although women may be thought to be less intelligent than men, many studies have proved otherwise. The intellect of women is often degraded as a result of emotionalism. When To Build A Fire was written, the intelligence of women was assumed rather than studied, but throughout the years, scientists have sought to determine the intellect of women in comparison to men’s. In 2012, there was an increase in women’s IQs, allowing that of women to surpass man’s. Alice G Walton (writer for Forbes magazine) comments, “Being more educated, more intellectually engaged, and more ensconced in professional life may all have effects on women’s IQ over time.” Not only has women’s intelligence increased significantly, but Walton implies the continuing growth of women’s IQ levels through the years to come.
In the past years, researchers have found a connection between perceived intelligence and IQ. In a 2014 study, researchers involved in the Department of Philosophy and History of Sciences in Charles University (Prague, Czech Republic), sought to determine the accuracy of perceived intelligence through the use of standstill photographs. In the study, all candidates were able to accurately assess the intelligence of the men’s pictures; however, “these results suggest[ed] that a perceiver can accurately gauge the real intelligence of men, but not women” (1). The study implies a higher intelligence level in women as opposed to men’s intelligence level.
Once being hit with the realization that he is in severe danger, the man in To Build A Fire is faced with a reevaluation of his decisions as a result of the ignorance given to the old man’s advice. London writes, “The man was shocked. It was like hearing his own judgment of death. For a moment he sat and stared at the spot where the fire had been. Then he grew very calm. Perhaps the old man on Sulphur Creek was right. If he had a companion on the trail he would be in no danger now. The companion could have built the fire” (73). The man in the story immediately begins to feel regretful of the consequences caused due to his disregard of the advice given to him by the old man in the story. At this moment, he begins to wish for a companion, in this case a woman. Through this event, London implies the significant role a woman has on the life of a man.
Overall, the intellect of women cannot be accurately assessed through perception. Vigilance and emotionalism, which are often seen as negative attributes, are one’s that contribute to the underestimated intelligence of women. London’s ideals on the inaccuracy of perception as well as the necessary role of a woman are clearly represented in To Build A Fire. The absence of a woman in the short story, ultimately leads to the demise of the main character. The journey (representative of life) which the man travels alone, is conclusively ended in destruction. Although the man in the story criticizes the need for a companion, he dies regretting his decision to travel alone, furthering London’s implication of the essential role of a woman in the life of a man.
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