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Thoughts on To Build a Fire

February 15, 2010

After a week in which nature effectively paralyzed our nations capitol, it’s as good a time as any to discuss what it means to read about a guy dying in the snow in Jack London’s “To Build a Fire,” which we were to read for American Literature this week.

I’ll admit, it isn’t a topic I can really relate to. I’ve felt cold, but not one hundred degrees below freezing cold. My impression is that London expected that the vast majority of his audience actually can’t relate, and that he could bring the awareness of the perils and power of nature to a wider audience through his writing. I can certainly appreciate his goal.

But this means doesn’t justify the end. It stands that reading about a guy dying in the snow is terribly boring.

In my experience, the fact stands that it is awfully hard to make a story with a single character work well. It can be argued that the husky in the story is also a character, but if this is the case, both characters are still singular. They scarcely communicate at all and when they do, it is through gesture and sound. That is to say, there is no dialogue in the story, and character development is driven purely by their environment.

Once again, stories like this, with as few as one or two characters and no dialogue, can work, but I found myself slogging through “To Build a Fire” as if it were three feet of snow, and when I finally finished, I was really, honestly glad. The story reads in the same monotonous, dramatic style throughout, as if delivered by a turn-of-the-20th-century Bear Grylls. I found that, living in a world with cars and central heat, I couldn’t really relate to the character’s struggles.

Which brings up an important question; is “To Build a Fire” simply an obsolete story? Are the issues it brings up even relevant anymore, in a world where no one has to trek along the Oregon trail in negative seventy degree weather?

Considering the recent earthquake in Haiti, The Kashmir Earthquake and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, The Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004 and other recent catastrophic events, it is obvious that nature pulls no punches and still poses a threat to people all over the world. Where “To Build a Fire” differs is that it deals with dangers of nature on an individual level, the aforementioned events are mostly collective concerns. However, it stands that collectives are made up of many individuals, and people should still be wary and educated about such dangers.

With that said, reading “To Build a Fire” is much like hearing a lecture from the old-timer on Sulpher Creek, and it is possible that what the story has to say could have more effectively been presented in the form of a public service announcement or a non-fiction article. And what I will say was positive about the story was that it replicated the traveler’s panic and helplessness in myself, at least for a few pages toward the end, and I’m definitely not going to go outside in one hundred below weather without a partner anytime soon. I’m sure as far as Jack London would still be concerned, whatever gets the point across is to some extent a success.

This post will be cross-posted on my American Literature class’ blog, You Made Me Theorize. Note the My Bloody Valentine reference. Know that this is awesome.

-ATB

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