Sunday, August 25, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 124: Jack London, To Build a Fire (#61)

Jack London, "To Build a Fire" (1908) from Jack London: Novels and Stories:

Here's a general thesis: any story of Jack London will include some reference to the human machine or some such machinic/industrial metaphor. So here, when a man is freezing to death and his hands have gone numb, we hear
The wires were pretty well down between him and his finger-ends.
But that's about as close as London comes to making a joke here. The rest of this piece--17 pages!--is a man wandering around in a snowy waste with a dog. Like London's story "War," there are no names here, and at most an ambivalence towards the main character, whose primary attributes are that he's unimaginative and dedicated to survival. So when he's getting cold and needs to warm up his hands, he thinks of killing his dog and warming up his hands inside the dog, Hoth-style. Which is understandable, but not necessarily admirable.

And so the inevitable freezing to death end of the protagonist carries no real emotional charge and only a slight moral charge: when an old man who has lived with nature tells you to do something, maybe you should consider doing it. (In this case: don't travel alone; and don't go out when it's this cold.) Without that emotional heat, the story does primary duty as a mix of journalistic/environmental reporting (this is what happens to you when you get cold), with a slight side-line in instruction (this is how to build a fire).

Which is why I can totally see why London first tried this sort of story out in a juvenile market. (Though the LoA page does note how very different this story is from the 1902 juvenile story of the same name.)

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