Jack London’s (January 12, 1876 – November 22, 1916) fame as a writer came about largely through his ability to interpret realistically humans’ struggle in a hostile environment. Early in his career, London realized that he had no talent for invention and that in his writing he would have to be an interpreter of the things that are rather than a creator of the things that might be. Accordingly, he turned to the Canadian Northland, the locale where he had gained experience, for his settings and characters. Later on he would move his setting to the primitive South Seas, after his travels had also made him familiar with that region. By turning to harsh, frontier environment for his setting and themes, London soon came to be a strong voice heard over the genteel tradition of nineteenth century parlor-fiction writers. His stories became like the men and women about whom he wrote—bold, violent, sometimes primitive. London was able to give his stories greater depth by using his extraordinary powers of narrative and language, and by infusing them with a remarkable sense of irony.
To Build a Fire
“To Build a Fire” has often been called London’s masterpiece. It is a story which contrasts the intelligence of human beings with the intuition of the animal and suggests that humans alone cannot successfully face the harsh realities of nature. The story begins at dawn as a man and his dog walk along a trail which eventually could lead them, thirty-two miles away, to a companion’s cabin and safety. The air is colder than the man has ever experienced before, and although the man does not know about the cold, the dog does. Although the animal instinctively realizes that it is time to curl up in the snow and wait for warmer weather, the man lacks the imagination which would give him a grasp of the laws of nature. Such perception would have enabled him to see the absurdity of attempting to combat the unknown, especially since an old-timer had warned him about the dangers of the cold to inexperienced men. With his warm mittens, thick clothes, and heavy coat, the man feels prepared for the cold and protected while the dog longs for the warmth of a fire. As the man walks along the trail, he looks carefully for hidden traps of nature, springs under the snow beneath which pools of water lie, since to step into one of these pools would mean calamity. Once he forces the dog to act as a trail breaker for him, and, when the dog breaks through and ice immediately forms on its extremities, the man helps the dog remove the ice.
At midday the man stops, builds a fire, and eats his lunch. The dog, without knowing why, feels relieved; he is safe. The man, however, does not stay beside the fire; he continues on the trail and forces the dog onward too. Finally, almost inevitably, the man’s feet become wet. Although he builds a fire to dry out, snow puts out the fire, and before he can build another fire, the cold envelops him, and he freezes to death. The dog senses the man’s death and continues on the trail toward the cabin, wherein lies food and the warmth of a fire.
The irony of the story is that the man, even with the benefit of all the tools with which civilization has provided him, fails in his attempt to conquer nature and instead falls victim to it, while the dog, equipped only with the instinct which nature has provided, survives. The story, representing London’s most mature expression of pessimism, stresses the inability of human beings to shape their environment and conquer the unknown. Unlike the dog, they cannot draw from instinct since civilization has deprived them of it. They are therefore unfit and totally unequipped to face the unknown and conquer the cosmic power.
Law of Life
“Law of Life” exhibits another recurring theme in London’s work, the inability of humans to assert positive values. It tells the story of the last moments of life for an old Native American. As the tale begins, the old man, son of the chief of the tribe, sits by a small fire with a bundle of wood nearby. The tribesmen are busy breaking camp in preparation for departure since they must go to new hunting grounds in order to survive. The old man, too old to benefit the tribe further, represents only a burden to the rest of his society and must therefore stay behind. As the man sits beside the fire, he remembers the days of his youth and an incident when he tracked an old moose. The animal had become separated from the rest of the herd and was being trailed by wolves. Twice the young Native American had come across the scene of a struggle between the moose and the wolves, and twice the moose had survived. Finally, the Native American witnessed the kill, the old moose dying so that the wolves might live. The moose-wolf analogy to the old Native American’s situation is obvious, and as the story closes, the old Native American feels the muzzle of a wolf upon his cheek. At first he picks up a burning ember in preparation for battle, but then resigns himself to the inevitability of fate and extinguishes it.
London uses several vehicles to express his pessimism. Like the protagonist in “To Build a Fire,” the old Native American is a man of limited vision. Encircled by an everconstricting set of circumstances, he waits by a dying fire for his own death. Finally, as the moose-wolf analogy has foretold, the inevitability of nature dominates. As the story ends, the fire goes out, the wolves are no longer kept at bay, and the reader is left repulsed by the knowledge of the Native American’s horrible death. London employs a number of symbols in this story as well. The fire gives light which symbolizes life, as does the white snow which falls gently at the beginning of the story. As the fire ebbs, the man remembers the grey wolves, and at the end of the moose-wolf analogy, London writes of the dark point in the midst of the stamped snow, foretelling the end of the fire, and thus of life.
Although London’s earlier stories embody a pessimism which reflects humans’ helplessness in challenging the unknown, his later ones mark a dramatic changeover. Following an intensive study of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, London began writing stories in the last years of his life which reflected his discovery of some unique human quality that enabled humans to challenge successfully the cosmos and withstand the crushing forces of nature. One of London’s last stories, also with a Northland setting, reflects this change of philosophy and contrasts markedly with the earlier “To Build a Fire” and “Law of Life.”
Like Argus of Ancient Times
“Like Argus of Ancient Times” begins as a largely autobiographical account of London’s trek to Dawson City with a man known as “Old Man” or “John” Tarwater. Unlike the unnamed protagonist of “To Build a Fire,” Tarwater is totally unequipped to face the rigors and challenges of the north. He is old and weak; furthermore, he arrives on the trail without money, camping gear, food, and proper clothing. Somehow he manages to join a group of miners, serve as their cook, and earn his passage to Dawson. Although the winter snows force the group to make camp until spring, Tarwater (who is also called “Old Hero” and “Father Christmas”) is driven by gold fever. He strikes out on his own, gets lost in a snowstorm, and falls to the ground, drifting off into a dreamlike world between consciousness and unconsciousness. Unlike London’s earlier characters, Tarwater survives this confrontation with nature, awakens from his dream, turns toward the “rebirthing east,” and discovers a treasure of gold in the ground. Couched in Jungian terms, the story is directly analogous to the Jungian concepts of the wandering hero who, undertaking a dangerous night journey in search of treasure difficult to attain, faces death, reaches the highest pinnacle of life, and emerges in the East, reborn. “Like Argus of Ancient Times” marks London’s return to the many stories he wrote in which the hero feels the call of adventure, encounters difficulties and confronts nature, battles with death, and finally achieves dignity.
Often called the successor to Edgar Allan Poe, an imitator of Rudyard Kipling, or a leader of writers emerging from the nineteenth century, London wrote stories which mark the conflict between the primitive and the modern, between optimism and pessimism. He created fiction which combined actuality and ideals, realism and romance, and rational versus subjective responses to life. More than a new Poe, imitator of Kipling, or new genre writer, however, London is a legitimate folk hero whose greatness stems from his primordial vision and ability to center upon the fundamental human struggles for salvation and fears of damnation.
Children’s literature: The Cruise of the Dazzler, 1902; Tales of the Fish Patrol, 1905.
Plays: Scorn of Women, pb. 1906; Theft, pb. 1910; The Acorn-Planter, pb. 1916; The Plays of Jack London, pb. 2001.
Novels: A Daughter of the Snows, 1902; The Call of the Wild, 1903; The Sea-Wolf, 1904; The Game, 1905; Before Adam, 1906; White Fang, 1906; The Iron Heel, 1907; Martin Eden, 1908; Burning Daylight, 1910; Adventure, 1911; The Abysmal Brute, 1913; The Valley of the Moon, 1913; The Mutiny of the Elsinore, 1914; The Scarlet Plague, 1915; The Star Rover, 1915; The Little Lady of the Big House, 1916; Jerry of the Islands, 1917; Michael, Brother of Jerry, 1917; Hearts of Three, 1920; The Assassination Bureau, Ltd., 1963 (completed by Robert L. Fish).
Nonfiction: The Kempton-Wace Letters, 1903 (with Anna Strunsky); The People of the Abyss, 1903; The War of the Classes, 1905; The Road, 1907; Revolution, and Other Essays, 1910; The Cruise of the Snark, 1911; John Barleycorn, 1913; Letters from Jack London, 1965 (King Hendricks and Irving Shepard, editors); No Mentor but Myself: Jack London onWriters and Writing, 1979, revised and expanded, 1999 (Dale L. Walker and Jeanne Campbell Reesman, editors).
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Cassuto, Leonard, and Jeanne Campbell Reesman, eds. Rereading Jack London. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1996.
Furer, Andrew J. “Jack London’s New Women: A Little Lady with a Big Stick.” Studies in American Fiction 22 (Autumn, 1994): 185-214.
Howard, Ronald W. “A Piece of Steak.” In Masterplots II: Short Story Series, edited by Charles E. May. Rev. ed. Vol. 6. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Kershaw, Alex. Jack London: A Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.
Labor, Earle, and Jeanne Campbell Reesman. Jack London. Rev. ed. New York: Twayne, 1994.
McClintock, James I. White Logic: Jack London’s Short Stories. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wolf House Books, 1975.
Reesman, Jeanne Campbell. “‘Never Travel Alone’: Naturalism, Jack London, and the White Silence.” American Literary Realism 29 (Winter, 1997): 33-49.
Stefoff, Rebecca. Jack London: An American Original. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Welsh, James M. “To Build a Fire.” In Masterplots II: Short Story Series, edited by Charles E. May. Rev. ed. Vol. 7. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.