The Theme of Death in the Law of Life by Jack London

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The Theme of Death in The Law of Life by Jack London

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When put up against death, what extreme measures should one go through to survive? Often times we are unprepared for the events that are going to occur, leaving us with the two options of a fight or flight response. How we handle a situation has a lot to do with our primary instinct or our experience and overall characterization. In Jack London’s short story “The Law of Life” told by an unknown narrator, the readers are introduced to Old Koskoosh, described as being “last year’s leaf, hanging lightly on a branch” (London 32) he is presented as being in conflict with himself. The idea of man vs man is revealed as consequence of his desire to remain alive, but on the other hand accepting the fact that he is going to die. He has been abandoned by his tribe and put into this situation as repercussion of reaching old age and no longer being able to keep up with the rest. In respect to once being the chief of his tribe, he was very knowledgeable on the tribes traditions including, being replaced as chief by his son. One of the story’s key issues is whether individuals should act upon their initial instincts or their emotions to further delay the inevitable ending that awaits every individual, death. London’s extensive use of symbolism, atmosphere and characterization assist him in presenting the predicament Old Koskoosh is in. Does he fight for his life, or accept that he is unequipped to face the harsh environments and conditions of nature?

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Throughout the story, Koskoosh is reminiscing on the actions of his family members and tribe, his past experiences, and his view on life. As he is left alone to die in the cold, “he stretched forth a shaking hand which wandered over the small pile of dry wood beside him” (London 30) connecting him to the length of life he has left. The handful of wood that was supplied to ensured the fire was kept going, symbolized ing the life of Koskoosh, because everytime a stick was added to fuel the fire once more he had the strength to revisit a different memory each time. As Koskoosh listened to his surroundings, his first memory was of his granddaughter Sit-Cum. As he sat in solitude in freezing temperatures, he described her to be “too busy to waste a thought on her old grandfather” (London 30) symbolizing not only life but the harsh traditions of his tribe. She symbolized a new generation and the role women might play in the story. While he awaited the long trail of his death, life was calling out to her and the responsibilities of new life brought into the world, “to become the mother of [their] children…when a child cried, a woman calmed it with gentle singing…her task was done” (London 31-33) her fate was decided for her she would provide what man cannot and she to would be left as he had been left in the snow with a small pile of wood, claiming that was the tradition and law of the tribe. The desire to live outweighs his ability to accept his death in an instant, as he looks beside him and continued to recall memories from his youth. His grandaughter is mentioned again but this time to put blame upon her and claim that if “sitcum-ha had remembered her grandfather, and gathered a larger armful, his hours would have been longer. It would have been easy, But she was always a selfish child” (London 35) the internal conflict and the depiction of Old Koskoosh goes hand in hand creating the struggle of man vs man. Old Koskoosh is old, his sight is failing and the truth is being displayed everywhere, he grabs onto the idea of his last encounter, but later decides to put up a fight and he continues to place another stick to fuel the fire.

However, as the narrator presents the story and events begin to unravel further he foreshadows the outcome about the fate of old Koskoosh through a change in attitude on life. As he shifted the attention to his son-the chief, a leader, and a mighty hunter he revisited times other old tribesmen sons had not waited after the tribe had gone, unlike his son had, amongst them himself. The once chief of his tribe, was familiar with the law and the idea that it needed to be obeyed he knew the tribe was extremely old consisting of many prior generations stating that the old men he had known growing up had known many other old men before them who all reached the same ending whose final resting places remained unremembered, “they were not important, they were chapters in life’s story” (London 32) coming to the conclusion that death was inevitable. Immediately, the atmosphere becomes sad and vulnerable, he eventually realizes that nature does not care and all men must die noticing “the flashing forms of gray, the bright eyes the dripping tongues and the sharp teeth” (London 36) circling and moving closer and closer towards him. He acknowledged the presence of the animals and placed another stick upon the fire and returned to his thoughts. This time his attention was directed to a moment in which he was hunting alongside a friend of his, Zing-ha. He reflected on their various encounters with the creatures of the wild, noticing that when age “settled upon a rabbit it became slow and heavy… even the bear grew old and blind, to be dragged down at last by a small group of barking sled dogs” (London 33) connecting him to the situation he is in. His memories shifted from positive and motivating events that granted him a positive way of leaving earth to ones that were too dull and made him helpless putting him in a position that would lead him to depart with regrets and a list of things that could have been done differently to increase the time he has left on earth even if it meant, only minutes longer.

Although he was reaching his final point in life, he chose to use his final hours reflecting and ultimately accepting his fate and the law of life becomes clear to the reader.
However, there were instances in the story that suggested otherwise and the readers are demonstrated the predicament of Old Koskoosh and how “for a long time he recalled the days of his youth, until the fire grew cold and frostbite deep. He places two sticks in the fire this time” (London 35) developing his characterization. The elements that contributed to the theme of the story are not only the symbolism and atmosphere used to develop the plot and present the readers with possible reactions to various situations. The characterization of Old Koskoosh demonstrated that we could choose our own path because in the end it was the law of life. Eventually he was face to face with death, in which his primary instinct was to grab a stick from the burning pile and put it up against the beast. As a human our life’s goal is to remain alive and do what we can to insure our spot on earth “the beast drew back, raising a call to his brothers” (London 36) he was fighting and he was waving “his flaming stick, widely, but the beasts refused to scatter” (London 36) like any individual we react instinctively in the face of a life-threatening situation. Although he had been reminiscing and accepting his fate, it was a natural instinct to not hold back and do what he could to remain alive.

As he is head to head with death, and his only method of survival being the flaming stick. He lets go of the efforts for survival he has left and once again accepts his final fate. Old Koskoosh begins to question life, existence, and purpose of individuals asking, “Why should he so desire life?” (London 36) noting that there was nothing left for him. There was nothing that could fuel his desire to continue fighting like the sticks were fueling the fire, ” one by one they would go feed the fire, and just so, step by step, death would come closer to him. When the last stick had given all of its heat, the frost would begin to gather strength” (London 32) he asked and sought answers but eventually dropped the burning stick into the snow he described it to have made a slight noise and then there was no more fire. What was once a measure of his life no longer existed just as he would no longer continue to take a breathe, swept of his own existence. The continuous battle within himself said a lot about Old Koskoosh characterization. His perspective on the situation and the constant internal conflict he was up against allowed the readers to further appreciate the present and acknowledge what we possess. Although “nature was not kindly to the flesh, and had no concern for that single thing called the individual” Koskoosh was a fighter who knew when it was time to surrender and move on.

In conclusion, I believe it is important to take into consideration the critical role Old Koskoosh played. He made the story compelling and moved and interested most if not all individuals because the theme of death is something everyone who comes across Jack London’s “The Law of Life” will understand and be familiar with. Suggesting regardless of who you are nature is not making any exceptions for anyone. Everyone will come face to face with death but the only difference will be the way of doing so. Koskoosh, took the simple way out, although it was at the teeth of a pack of wolves he became understanding of the position he was in. As the final piece of burning wood was extinguished, Old Koskoosh life was being terminated as well representing when the time has come for us to depart, there is little we can do to prevent the inevitable. An event and idea in which the tribe is greatly familiar and relatively okay with leaving people for many generations to provide for themselves. Furthermore, Old Koskoosh characterization development teaches readers that life is a journey and everyone will make what they want of it, what is uncertain is the time and day of our death.

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