No Accidents In Jack London's To Build A Fire

2768 words - 11 pages

As the title implies, Jack London's 1908 short story contains within its narrative a literal set of sequential directions on how "To Build a Fire." London extends this sequential conceit to his fatidic vision of the universe. Unlike the dog in the story, who can rely on its pure-bred arctic instinct as it navigates through the dangerous tundra, the anonymous man possesses a duller, myopic instinct which is unable foresee the consequentiality of the environment. This instinctual flaw in mankind (relative to that of a husky) is a given, but the man fails to compensate by integrating intellectuality into his journey. Were he to use all his resources efficiently, as the dog does, the man could anticipate the chain of events that leads to his demise, and then alter his literal and figurative course. Such a deconstruction of a pre-ordained universe is possible, London suggests, since the reader is made aware - through parallelism, choice wording, and other stylistic and suspenseful devices - of the subtle ways in which seemingly disconnected events are causally-linked.

London prompts an investigation into the motifs of linkage in the first two sentences by crafting a landscape of connections, layers, and progression:

Day had broken cold and gray, exceedingly cold and gray, when the man turned aside from the main Yukon trail and climbed the high-earth bank, where a dim and little-travelled trail led eastward through the fat spruce timberland. It was a steep bank, and he paused for breath at the top, excusing the act to himself by looking at his watch. (462)

The care which London takes to produce a conjunctive atmosphere is delicate but insistent. The adverbial and prepositional clauses - "when the man turned aside from," "where a dim," "through the fat spruce timberland" - create a solid and mobile image in the reader's mind of the man's progression on a metaphoric ladder that extends horizontally as much as it does vertically. Even the modifying adverb "exceedingly" alters the first bleak "Day had broken cold and gray," cueing the reader to the probability that the temperature will worsen throughout the story (or at least the man's reaction to it will). Throughout the story the man can only repeat to himself "It certainly was cold," adding surety to his present observation rather than forecasting in the way "exceedingly" does.

London further capitalizes on this scenic moment to expose the man's status as a foil to the environmental chain, an unanchored participant who begins the story in stasis and will end in the same position. On high ground (verticality will play an important role later), the man "pause[s]" to check the time. Rather than continuing to merge with the fluid environment, his only definition of progression is a temporal, technological one, and not geographic. Viewing the world in numerical - the narrator, or the man, later gauges the main trail's unseen "dark hair-line" main...

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