Comparing the Two Versions of To Build a Fire
"I am absolutely confident that beyond the motif itself, there is no similarity of treatment whatever" (544). Jack London, writing in December 1908, was responding to an inquiry from the Richard W. Gilder, editor of Century Magazine. Gilder, having just published "To Build a Fire" in his magazine, was worried when he came across another version published 6 years earlier. London's explanation was that the first story was for boys and the new one was for men; the only similarity being the motif itself. Through careful analysis of the two stories, in light of this letter to Gilder, and another letter to Cloudesly Johns, it is apparent that although London claims no similarities (besides the motif), they definitely exist.
Before the similarities are discussed, it is necessary to look at the obvious differences that London explains are in the "treatment" (544). The 1902 version was published for boys, while the 1908 version was published for men. London explains that the motif was "not only very strong, but was very true" (ibid). It seems that he first published it for boys as a sort of educational story; teaching the youngsters about the dangers of the cold weather. Hence, after Tom Vincent learns his lesson, he makes it to camp and doesn't receive any serious damage. Later, London was worried that he had given the motif "inadequate treatment" (ibid). Therefore, he handled the motif again, this time for men, adding a dog for good measure. Since this story was meant for an older audience, topics could be brought up that weren't appropriate to be discussed in the first one: the man considered killing the dog and using his body for warmth. In addition, the most obvious difference between the two stories is the ending. In the 1908 version, the man dies without ever making it to camp. This ending more clearly illustrates the dangers of the Klondike. The first version is more a morality tale, ending with the moral of "Never travel alone!" (62). The second version is more of a good short story, with the ending that is, regrettably, all too common in that part of the world. The main character never gets a chance to change his ways and travel with a companion the proverbial "next time." He learns the lesson with the most severest of consequences: death. Another interesting difference is the fact that in the 1902 version the main character is Tom Vincent; however in the second version, the man has no name. This gives the main character in the 1908 version a feeling of universality.
In 1900, before either of these two stories was published, Jack London wrote a letter to a good friend, Cloudesly Johns, explaining his philosophy on good fiction writing. This letter is an invaluable resource when studying the work of Jack London, especially when comparing the two versions of "To Build a Fire." London emphasized quite a bit in this letter with many exclamation points and capital...