“To Build a Fire” by Jack London: Hanging Humanity by a Thread

There is a peculiar characteristic about the ice-bound regions of the world that renders them absolutely fantastic, absolutely fascinating, and absolutely forbidding. Hoary mountains, glacial vistas, snowy deserts, solid waters, fluid fires of aurora-borealis, and air that is too cold to breathe all give the distinct impression that men ought not to keep company with such august presences. Yet, there will always be some mysterious, mad reason why the holy places of Coleridge’s pleasure-dome were savage caves of ice. It could be the reason why the Vikings imagined that the first man was fashioned out of a glacier instead of the earth. Such a reason might explain why the hostility of the polar elements is the very thing that makes them irresistible. Somehow their unmerciful aspect reflects majesty, the divine—and it is terrifying.

Appreciating these qualities requires an experience beyond the range of literature, but sometimes literature must suffice. Jack London’s mesmerizing masterpiece “To Build a Fire” is a work that captures something of why the icy parts of the earth are the natural expressions of the truth that fear leads to wisdom, and that only fools despise such instruction and such wisdom. And a truly fearful tale it is too; one that turns a reader’s face into what Robert Service called a “map of horror.”

Written in 1908, “To Build a Fire” is as cruel as an icepick, delivered with the straightforward severity of a death sentence that marches with a creeping, inevitable doom, relentless as frost. It follows a nameless man traveling by foot through the frozen tundra of the Yukon to a claim where his companions await him at camp. It was a cold, clear, sunless day that wore the gloom of a pall. The man had made perilous journeys before, but he was a newcomer on that northern tip of the globe and it was his first winter. Never had he been exposed to such temperatures—seventy-five degrees below zero. The man realized that it was very cold; colder than any cold he had endured. He had never known tobacco expectorations to snap to ice before they landed. It certainly was cold.

But such it was, and onwards he went; for the man, though a survivalist, was not a transcendentalist. “The trouble with him was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, not in the significances.” To him, cold weather was cold weather and nothing more. It would never have occurred to him, at that moment as he plunged down the snow-scape between the spruce trees, to consider the ferocious indifference of Nature pitted against his insect frailty. The man was not one of philosophic or symbolic bent, and he failed to recognize the jaws of snow and sky, of mortality and eternity, closing around him. Onwards he went, rubbing his cheeks and nose with his mitten automatically, without that spiritual appreciation that inspires healthy, holy, and human fear.

Fear, however, struck with a vengeance. After several miles, the man broke through a snow-covered skin of ice, landing knee-deep in a pool of frigid water. With this, Death turned the hourglass and the race to build a fire began. As the man toiled, fending off panic and battling against his numb and increasingly lifeless extremities, his fears progressed from the prospect of losing a few toes, to losing his hands and feet, to losing his very life. If only he could build a fire. Thus, a cosmic apocalypse dawned in the feeble flickering flames and the incidents and accidents that arose to snuff and strangle them: man is nothing if he cannot build a fire. As this brutal, unsympathetic conflict of opposing elements, frantic ingenuity, and inexorable forces unfolds, suspense mounts to a perfectly feverish pitch to create a perfectly chilling story of man against Nature.

From his own northern adventures in the Klondike gold rush of 1897, Jack London knew well the devices Nature employs to dangle man above the abyss in a sickening display of fatality and finiteness that is no falsehood. The “white silence” of the Yukon, in his opinion, bore the starkest ability to inspire the stupefying smallness of man in no uncertain terms. It is in these colorless, iron-clad regions that a wise fear is struck in the heart, a timidity that is a humility, and a trembling that shakes the soul awake to the awful truth that, though man is the lord of nature, he is subject to it at the same time. It is there in that silence that, to quote London,

…the mystery of all things strives for utterance. And the fear of death, of God, of the universe, comes over [man]—the hope of the Resurrection and the Life, the yearning for immortality, the vain striving of the imprisoned essence—it is then, if ever, man walks alone with God.

And so should man walk with God, for Nature, and especially the Northland, does not care if man live or die. The pitiless, frozen faces that glare from these misanthropic expanses declare with white and wise silence that the frailer members of creation have little to no business clinging in their crags. But the tenuous tenacity of the human race has always merited reward; and so they have been, and still are, endured by the powers that be—for the time being. Nevertheless, their snowy peaks somehow reveal human civilization as the flash in the pan that it is, and suggest that, despite the progress of the modern age, it may be the case, in the end, that man is as fitting a resident among the frigid kingdoms as he would be at the bottom of the sea. It is part of the mystery of man to desire to exist where he cannot easily live. Acknowledging this suicidal tendency that has fathered heroes, perhaps there are places on this man-inherited planet where men are not necessarily welcome and ought not to trespass.

This hell-bent, do-or-die, Shackletonian tendency is not as prevalent or popular as it once was, and that—perhaps, or in part—because there is less necessity for it now. Man no longer need risk his life in order to live, and therefore the appetite for adventure, now widely labeled inconvenience, has lessened. The trend now tends not toward he intrepid, but the insipid. The existence of the average person is hardly ever threatened, and thus the value of existence itself is threatened. If people are not aware of the tremendous tenuousness of their lives, it is difficult to cherish life. If people are disconnected from those powers that overhang and overshadow the paltry powers of man, people will be lost in an illusion of superiority and security. And so they are lost. Illusion reigns. The world has lost its imagination and the ability to separate things from their significance. “By the breath of God is ice given,” proclaims the Book of Job, echoing through eternity, “and the broad waters are frozen fast.” Stories like “To Build a Fire” are jarring and uncomfortable for the very reason that man is jaded and comfortable, and so should they be read. The cold can invigorate as well as it can kill.


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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