In Jack London’s To Build a Fire, complex yet crucial literary tactics are used to portray a lesson of nature that would otherwise be left untold. Symbolism and point of view play a pivotal role in the development of the story’s concealed meanings. The author incorporates omniscient narration to subliminally paint a transparent mural of existentialism, revealing a commonly overlooked yet fundamental concept.
Unique tactics were used in To Build a Fire to strengthen the functionality of the story. One of the most advanced tactics London used in his work was omniscient narration. The narrator in this story described all of the travelers encounters and thoughts, while voicing his opinion on his actions. Jack London used one of the key advantages to the omniscient point of view, which is the extended ability to describe the experiences of the main character, without the individual thoughts of the character taking away from the action. This tactic is useful in To Build a Fire as it prevents the audience from developing sentimental feelings for the traveler. The narrator was not fond of the traveler’s intelligence, and as the story unfolds the audience is manipulated into similar negative feelings due to the bias inflicted by the omniscient narrator.
One of the many roles of the omniscient narrator was providing cues of symbolism throughout the story. Mentioned several times in the work as well as in the title, fire not only represented the opportunity to live but also the inexperience of the traveler. The traveler consistently leaves the fire despite the physical cues provided by his companion, and makes several mistakes based solely on his inexperience in the tundra. London also incorporated an additional symbol of life into his story, the traveler’s hands. Initially the man slips off his gloves to help his dog remove the ice from his paws. Due to his inexperience, he is surprised by the extent to which the ice caused numbness in his hands. After failing to select a functional spot to build his fire, his hands become too numb to build another. Once he understands that he cannot build the fire he attempts to kill the dog in order to warm his hands with its insides. It is clear that the lack of functionality in his hands impacted his fate, as now he could not build the fire which was the only factor protecting him from death.
Jack London uses complex strategies to emphasize the calamity that closes the story that ends in the unsuspecting traveler’s death by the force of mother nature. In a scholarly article composed by Donald Pizer, the story is analyzed from a unique standpoint in which he mentions the obscure style London uses in the story that is commonly acknowledged as determinism. The original idea of determinism being used in the story originates from a book written by Lee Clark Mitchell. Pizer argued that the story was not based on determinism in stating that:
“repetition is used throughout by London not to express a belief in a deterministic universe but rather as an obvious tool of narrative irony to buttress the story’s emphasis on the man’s weaknesses and limitations and thus his responsibility for his fate (Pizer)”.
Determinism is defined in the Merriam- Webster dictionary as the theory that occurrences in nature are determined by preceding events or natural laws and that people have no real ability to control what happens to them (“Determinism”). It is clear that Lee Clark Mitchell may have manipulated the definition of determinism to adhere to the story in order to form an analysis by choosing not to use the definition in its entirety; or there may be inconsistency in the definitions of Determinism based upon the sources available in modern day versus when Lee Clark Mitchell wrote his analysis. The official definition of determinism does not describe the story, as the narrator placed continuous blame on the traveler for making uneducated decisions resulting in his death.
Although the presence of determinism in this story is questionable, the occurrence of existentialism is not. According to the Merriam -Webster dictionary, existentialism is a philosophy that emphasizes the uniqueness and isolation of the individual in a hostile or indifferent universe (“Existentialism”). In London’s story, the man has the freedom and ability to avoid death by hypothermia considering that was previously warned. Existentialism places emphasis on the idea that when found in extreme conditions, one is presented with the opportunity to survive based only upon their choices; not fate. Continuously throughout the story the narrator mentions the dog accompanying the traveler. The dog did not want to embark on the journey and shortly before the man’s death the dog pushed to stay near the fire, the only source of warmth. The dog survived because he was naturally more prepared for a trek in the tundra; he was unique compared to the man, a concise example of existentialism. The man lacked the experience and natural ability of the dog, therefore his choices determined his death. Clearly, To Build a Fire highlights the unique traits of two separate individuals, a man and a dog in a hostile climate which projects the overall philosophy existentialism.
The unique combination of techniques that jack London used to create To Build a Fire acted as the foundation for the overall success of the story. The amalgamation of omniscient narration, symbolism, and the existentialist philosophy established a unique story that emphasizes the importance in making educated and reasonable decisions rather than being driven by pride and impatience. To Build a Fire is an extraordinary display of mature literary technique and life experience combined with one another to project an extremely relevant concept to for all to see.
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