For much of the century before Jack London started writing, Americans often wrote about how a return to nature would allow us to reach some sort of transcendent state or bliss (we're looking at you, Henry David Thoreau). London reacted to this tendency through a style known today as "literary naturalism," which depicted nature as a brutal force that was completely indifferent to humanity's existence or accomplishments. That's not to say that nature's an evil force in London's eyes. It just doesn't care one way or the other if humans are happy, or self-actualized, or, well alive. In "To Build a Fire," London plays this note constantly in his descriptions of the vast, brutal quality of the Yukon landscape, and the indifferent survivalism of the dog, who also couldn't care less if the guy lives or dies, as long as he can get his four paws near a fire.
Questions About Man and the Natural World
When Jack London represents nature as something that is cold and indifferent to human happiness or survival, does this mean that he hates nature?
Does the man have any say in his fate, or are all his efforts useless in the face of nature's brute power?
Do you ever get the sense that nature is actively trying to kill the man?
Does it mean anything that the dog howls at the man's dying, or is it just an instinctual response to the smell of death?
Chew on This
In "To Build a Fire," Jack London shows us that nature's true value lies in the fact that it does not care about humanity.
Whether he has imagination or not, the man's thoughts mean nothing in the face of the vast and cold Yukon.