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Between the Lines "to Build a Fire"

Essay by   •  July 17, 2011  •  Case Study  •  1,990 Words (8 Pages)  •  1,114 Views

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Jack London's To Build A Fire has been mentioned at least several times before in my english classes, but I've never actually read it... I'm glad I was finally forced to, it was a good exercise in critical analysis, and a striking story besides.

Again, I have given first a general response to the story, and then gone into a little more depth, pulling out quotes to point out my discoveries and explain my thoughts.

[General Response]

At first, the plot seemed rather dull (I mean, a man walking through the wilderness, from point A to point B, seemed kind of boring), but as the man in the story finally gets into a battle with nature for survival, it gets much more interesting. I thought that the fact that the man is never actually named (or at least, I don't think he is) is significant... I would guess that London did this to keep the reader somewhat detached from him, in order to weaken the blow caused by his death, and make it easier to dislike him as a character. For some reason, I felt that the wolf was introduced into the story too late... Or perhaps without enough 'flow'. I think that it's appearance could have used better transitions, as it seemed to me that the man was walking along for a good while and then, suddenly, a wolf pops up at his heels out of nowhere.

The whole 'slave' bit between the man and the dog is pretty obvious and even mentioned in passing by London himself, probably because London wanted the 'deeper meaning' of this story to be more accessible... Because the story itself has, as I said before, not much action or suspense to keep the reader interested, especially near the beginning. I think it would seem kind of hollow if London hadn't pointed out the status of their relationship explicitly.


There was no sun nor hind of sun, though there was not a cloud in the sky. It was a clear day, and yet there seemed an intangible pall over the face of things, a subtle gloom that made the day dark, and that was due to the absence of sun. This fact did not worry the man. He was used to the lack of sun.

This little passage near the beginning immediately made me think of the man as some sort of vampire. It stresses the absence of the sun and the presence of darkness, as well as the "pall over the face of things" (like a pallid, vampire-ish skin tone). It even mentions that the man is "used to the lack of sun."

But all this---the mysterious, far-reaching hairline trail, the absence of sun from the sky, the tremendous cold, and the strangeness and weirdness of it all--made no impression on the man. It was not because he was long used to it. He was a newcomer in the land, a "chechaquo", and this was his first winter. 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, and not in the significances.

This passage further strengthened my equation between the man and a vampire... It repeats the bit about the sun, and adds to it, mentioning the "tremendous cold" (like the chill of death) and how "the strangeness and weirdness of it all--made no impression on the man" (it would take a lot to weird out a vampire, methinks). It goes on to talk about this being "his first winter," which made me view him as a fairly 'fresh' bloodsucker. His lack of imagination made him seem soulless to me... And finally, the fact that he is "quick and alert in the things of life, [but] ... not in the significances" gave me the impression that he is a predatory-type (much like a vampire), being physically agile but emotionally and perhaps even mentally handicapped.

... the conjectural field of immortality and man's place in the universe.

Here, London mentions immortality and "man's place in the universe" as things that the man does not bother to ponder, which seems to contradict my view of the man as a vampire.

At the man's heels trotted a dog, a big native husky, the proper wolf dog, gray-coated and without any visible or temperamental difference from its brother, the wild wolf.

Here is where the wolf makes its first appearance, and immediately I picked up on some references to it being similar to a black slave. It is deemed "the proper wolf dog ... without any visible or temperamental difference from its brother, the wild wolf"... I would venture to say that this wolf is being equated with slaves themselves, while the 'wild wolves' would be blacks still living in Africa.

He held on through the level stretch of woods for several miles, crossed a wide flat of nigger heads ...

I'm not sure, but I think that what London deems "nigger heads" are actually like moguls, those things that skiiers swerve through. This is kind of interesting... Maybe London is arguing that slavers went through the minds of slaves, sorta oppressing them in a mental way as well as a physical way (which, by the way, is a pretty valid point in my opinion).

Usually the snow above the hidden pools had a sunken, candied appearance that advertised the danger. Once again, however, he had a close call; and once, suspecting danger, he compelled the dog to go on in front. The dog did not want to go. It hung back until the man shoved it forward, and then it went quickly across the white, unbroken surface. Suddenly it broke through, floundered to one side, and got away to firmer footing. It had wet its forefeet and legs, and almost immediately the water that clung to it turned to ice. It made quick efforts to lick the ice off its legs, then dropped down in the snow and began to bite out



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