The Cold Arrogance of Reasoned Isolation

Jack London’s short story, “To Build a Fire,” sets a man in isolation from societal culture as he treks across the Yukon trail. As he furthers himself from the trail, he is confident in his ability to survive through the means of his independent analysis, based on scientific data and technology, rather than experience. London’s arrangement of  time, diction, syntax, and urgency embodies a theme of arrogance leading to vulnerability. The story shows that an individual cannot overcome nature through science or technology alone and that the more one becomes dependent on these things, the less fit one is to survive. The story resolves that without hereditary natural knowledge, community, and respect for nature, man cannot endure the natural world. This resolution speaks to the reader today as the story’s effect is strengthened by the passage of real time.

To begin, the main character is placed between two themes quantified through the syntax of the sentence: “Day had broken (…) when the man turned aside from the main Yukon trail” (691). The man is embedded between natural time and heredity of knowledge. The trail represents hereditary knowledge because it is a passageway carved in nature through generations of experience. Man’s placement in the sentence works in the negative. He stands as an entity alone, isolating himself from both the eternity of time and the literal example of generational knowledge cutting through the land. Even though he is syntactically surrounded by time and tradition, he looks at a man-made device for information and turns from the trail. Even his action of turning is passive in the sentence creating a sense of vulnerability to the two themes surrounding him. Additionally, there is a sense of anthropocentrism as he is placed in the center of the sentence. This demonstrates the confidence man has in himself. He chooses isolation despite the tried and true principles of time and tradition. London also uses an unnamed character to strengthen this sense universality.

The theme of man’s disconnection from humanity or culture is contrasted by a character that transcends the individual. The stories protagonist is introduced, simply, as a man: “The man turned” (691). He has no calling, no name that reveals his origins. This technique allows the main character to endure time and place and gives the reader a chance to imagine any person, even themselves, as the protagonist, thus, bringing the reader up-close to the character. This bringing together of reader and character offers a higher resolution. Although the theme of the story is that man’s arrogance has pitted him against nature in a losing battle, the reader is experiencing this through a traditional passing of cultural knowledge, the passing down of information through stories. That the resolution is embodied by the telling of the story itself, puts pressure on the importance of the resolution, the need of tradition. The reader can learn from this man’s experience in a fictional story just as information is traditionally passed from community to community in real life. The story embodies its point that men must learn from each other and, as the author is helping the reader to see this, so too, must men help one another in reality.

This unnamed man is placed in the arctic, a frozen and barren landscape where very little can grow to sustain life: “The cold of space smote the unprotected tip of the planet, and he, being on that unprotected tip, received the full force of the blow” (696). The setting is an integral part of the story as it is nature that threatens the man’s survival. London’s choice of an arctic setting works both to propel the plot and, through thematic analysis, represent the overarching theme of isolation. This setting is a metaphor for seclusion and its inherent danger. Alone and embattled is the plight of a man who is arrogant enough to go it alone. There is no warmth or comfort except for a false sense of security that comes with scientific data rather than inherited knowledge. The urgency of this predicament is embodied by the sense of urgency in the story. In ten pages, the word cold is used a total of thirty-six times, the word fire is used forty-two times. This conflict weaves through the story and is integral to every aspect. This repetition grabs the reader and doesn’t let go, the reader is constantly reminded of urgency for warmth, the urgency for fire. This urgency elicits panic and calls out to the reader for resolve. The cold threatens death and isolation at every mention. The cold is natural, it is eternal, a built fire is a hereditary representation of the warmth of community and knowledge.

The setting is also a representation of the eternity of nature, despite man’s presence. The story begins with an introduction of time: “Day had broken cold and grey” (691). Time is not introduced by the hour or minute, but by whether it is day or night. Through this description of the moment, exact time is immaterial, it could be any time in history, any day. London promotes a universal truth through the representation of eternity. The significance of natural time is contrasted by the man checking his watch: “Looking at his watch, it was nine o’clock” (691). The sun is not visible, there is no giant clock in the sky. Rather than any naturally occurring means, the man uses technology to estimate the time. He even refers to the natural world in scientific terms when he thinks of “The absence of  sun” as “This fact” (691). He is wholly dependent upon his tools. This alerts the reader to his inability or refusal to read natural surroundings without scientific technology. The overarching theme introduced here is that the individual and nature are pitted against each other on the background of time. This suggests that a phenomenon of isolation from nature is ongoing and portrays the man as having lost a connection to a natural consciousness.

That it is the man’s dependence on technology and science that leads him to isolation is clearly stated with “Such fact impressed him as being cold and uncomfortable, and that was all. It did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty (…) and upon man’s frailty in general” (691). He doesn’t understand that to be dependent on statistical knowledge versus knowledge of generational experience is problematic. He doesn’t consider that this scientific knowledge is limited or separated from experience, because he has no ability to imagine the effect of these facts on the individual. That the facts are isolated in his mind is demonstrated by the man’s telling to himself: “told to the man by the man’s judgment” (692). There is satire here, the man’s own judgment “told” him. His data is a closed loop. There is no room for the knowledge of others in the man who is overly confident in his own judgment. These facts are not representational of experience, but rather of collected and disconnected data that remain in the hypothetical. This is similar to the cold isolation promoted by a metaphorical reading of the stories setting; the brain is a place of cold, unimaginative reason.

The strengths of inherited knowledge over scientific knowledge are displayed as a natural occurrence, as natural as a dog’s instinct: “But the dog knew; all its ancestry knew and it had inherited the knowledge” (695). That an animal knows more than the man is a direct statement on the unnatural and isolated path that the protagonist has taken in his life. That the dog knows to respect the cold, and the man does not, suggests that even though man may have higher-reasoning, it does not guarantee his survival and in this case impedes it.

It is clear that the resolution to the conflict rests in the tradition and society that exists in the story. The Yukon is a place where people survive through unity, not isolation. This is apparent through two stylistic methods. First, the isolated man must, literally, reach the camp of boys to survive:

“Maybe, if he ran on, his feet would thaw out; and, anyway, if he ran far enough, he would reach camp and the boys. Without doubt he would lose some fingers and toes and some of his face; but the boys would take care of him, and save the rest of him when he got there” (699).

That their unity and society can save him alerts the reader to the resolution of the conflict. The individual’s isolated attempts at survival are edified through the repetition of the word “he.” Instead of stating the subject once, followed by his numerous actions, London chooses to state each verb with its subject. Secondly, there is a hope sparked in the reader for the man as he remembers and appreciates the old-timer’s advice: “The old-timer on Sulphur Creek had told him about it the previous fall, and now he was appreciating the advice” (695). This glimmer of hope rests only in the man’s ability to follow advice from those who learn from experience rather than science. That the man is old represents the endurance of tradition and tells the reader where the resolution can be found. Rather than attain any inherited knowledge, the man scoffs at the generational knowledge. As he later realizes that the old man was right, he is too far removed from that advice.

As the man realizes he is too far from the camp of resolution, he decides that he must build a fire. The knowledge of building a fire is hereditary, just like the knowledge the old man passed down to him, and even the dog knows the importance of fire. However, the protagonist’s lack of imagination and earlier refusal of that knowledge renders him incapable of success. Time is working against him and he is fumbling with the matches (698). Metaphorically, the cold isolation of his brain has taken him from the warmth of community and tradition, and cold reason is figuratively embodied by his fingers and toes. As he realizes the old man was right, so too does he realize the urgency of fire: “He cherished the flame carefully and awkwardly. It meant life, and it must not perish” (698). This combination of fire and warmth with hereditary knowledge becomes his only hope, but his lack of imagination has rendered him incapable of reading the hazards of the world around him. He does not consider the weight of the snow in the tree branches and the fire, soon like is life, is snuffed out. All that is left to him is the numbing cold of death as he runs chaotically through the world: “[He has] no connection with the earth” (699). It is in the end that his own instinct finally flickers before going out: “He tried to keep his thought down, to forget it (…) he was aware of the panicky feeling it caused, and was afraid of the panic” (700). The total subversion of reasoning is the only comfort to him, the final metaphor of the man’s reason working against his survival is a positive or hopeful representation of overcoming thought.

The stories resounding resolution in both the narrative itself and in the meta experience of receiving information through story telling is a mixture of cold and warmth. The cold feeling of the  reading is the fear for the man, a man we as readers are brought close to, but the stories dramatic irony allows a slight feeling of warmth. We have watched his peril and have been indoctrinated through repetition and urgency, but as readers we are nestled in our houses or classrooms and are once removed from the stories reality. The reader is prompted to recognize his or her own sense of false security and to consider their connection to natural consciousness or the community of knowledge. The universality of the character resounds one hundred years after the story was written. There is no sense of disconnection from the time of the story, nothing in the story would give away its date and this is perhaps the most resounding effect. London’s promotion of instinct over modern technology is chilling because the story itself surpasses time. It’s as though old man London is able to speak to the modern reader and though some may scoff at this urge to instinct, none can say the story is outdated or irrelevant. The cold, isolating Yukon trail still exists. It is with time that London’s story has gained a higher effect.

Reference: Page numbers correlate to reader guide created by Vikram Chandra.