The Elements of Naturalism in the Short Story To Build a Fire by Jack London

Topics: To Build A Fire

“To Build a Fire” is a short story by author Jack London, and it relates to some admittedly dark subject matter. In said short story, a man and his dog become lost in the Alaskan wilderness, while they are trying to get back to a gold operation; the man does not follow the advice of a wizened older man he had met, who had provided advice on how to survive in the harsh nature of the wilderness. The man builds a fire, but through his own folly it gets smothered by snow, and in the conclusion the man considers killing his dog to survive, but ends up dying from exposure.

The dog then goes back to the camp after discovering the man is dead. Naturalism is a very prevalent factor in “To Build a Fire,” and it can be loosely paraphrased as a view of realism (a practical, uncaring view of the world) that depicts characters in a losing battle with a Darwinistic universe.

Naturalism is presented in “To Build a Fire” through the use of a rising action, a third person view, and a tone best described as somber and hopeless. Rising action is shown in “To Build a Fire” through the man’s lapses in judgement, namely placing his fire under a tree, wasting time trying to light matches, and and trying to light another fire. These actions show the idea that Naturalism depicts an uphill battle, and that the fittest in nature are the ones that survive, nature does not allow for mistakes.

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The man is always viewed through the views of an unknown outsider, to contribute to the fact the nature is cruelly just; moreover, if the audience was able to view through the eyes of either the man or the dog, we would not be able to understand exactly how nature treats its subjects. The idea that nature is clinically just is best shown in the juxtaposition of “The man drowsed off into what seemed like him the most comfortable and satisfying sleep he had ever known… The brief day drew to a close in a long, slow twilight.” (London 704). Nature does that care that the man is breathing his last, the day will continue to draw to a close regardless of his actions. The tone London approaches this story with is revealed in the fact that nature is uncaring, and that man is no better than other animals in the eyes of the third person narrator, and nature in general. The imagery of the man dying of exposure, and the last of the embers dying out contributes to the tone London is presenting. Naturalism is explained in this story due to all of the components that constitute it, as well as the subject matter.

In conclusion, naturalism is shown best in “To Build a Fire” because the story uses all of these elements to contribute to the tone and idea that nature is apathetic towards all, and only through a strong force of will can one survive. This is also explained through the definition of Naturalism in a Darwinistic sense as well. In “To Build a Fire” the dog was best suited to its environment, so it had the ability to seek aid, but as we can see, nature is unconcerned either way. “All of which counted for little.” (London 700).

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The Elements of Naturalism in the Short Story To Build a Fire by Jack London. (2021, Dec 23). Retrieved from

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