The subject of existentialism is not easy to define as it is impossible to explain the purpose of human existence in few sentences. However, according to American Heritage Dictionary (3rd edition), existentialism refers to a philosophy that lays emphasis on isolation and uniqueness of the individual in an indifferent or hostile environment. This can be seen as the underlying theme of the short story by Jack London where a man in solitude travels through unfriendly areas of Yukon which symbolizes indifferent and cruel cosmos. “ To Build A Fire” is a short story by Jack London which centers around a man travelling in Yukon. It depicts a tragic tale of a person who takes a decision to go alone in a hostile and dangerous natural environment of the sub-freezing Yukon where he fall victim to unforgiving and unrelenting power of nature. The incident that is at the heart of the short story is one where a man falls into the hot water of a hot spring through the ice sheet. This makes his feet wet, and due to extreme cold of -107 degrees, the chances of his survival depend on his ability to quickly light a fire (London, 1995). After a half-successful endeavor to build a fire and many unsuccessful attempts, the glaring reality of man’s lone struggle against all powerful and hostile natural conditions of the Yukon starts to show itself. After several desperate attempts to save himself from freezing cold, the man finally decides to meet his death in a dignified manner (London, 1995). The central theme of the story is one used by different existentialist writers. The theme is the man’s quest to find the meaning behind its existence portrayed by solitary existence of a man subject to relentless forces of nature. In this paper, it would be argued that “ existentialism” is the primary theme in the story ‘ To Build a Fire’ by Jack London.
Also, in the conclusion the man realizes that it is better to calm down and die with dignity instead of facing a cruel and meaningless death. It should be noted that the existentialism as the theme of “ To Build A Fire” is not accidental rather seems to be intended by Jack London. Charles Child Walcutt notes that ideas of men like Herbert Spencer, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Charles Darwin had great influence on Jack London that indicate that he was already familiar with existentialism.
The existential theme is emphasized by jack London at various points in the short story, the most prominent of which is the choice of Yukon as the place where story is set. London has put the solitary character of the protagonist among the wilderness of Yukon that emphasizes the existential theme but when this setting is combined with perilous and cruel winters of Yukon with freezing temperatures, hostile existential setting is created (London, 1995). The existentialist idea of man being alone in the universe is portrayed through the main character travelling without a companion in the remote areas of Yukon.
London has also used irony to stress and illustrate the underlying existential theme. The author has written that while passing through difficult and hazardous terrain of the Yukon, the man remains ‘ keenly observant’ (London, 1995). The author has also written that the man is cautiously looking for signs of danger that will warn him of an upcoming hazard. However, ironically, even after being so cautious and alert, the man ends up falling through the ice where there are no caution signs (London, 1995). The man faces more fury of impassive nature when the fire that he built, after a lot of toiling, to save his freezing feet is snuffed, ironically, by snowfall. The irony lies in the fact that man, with all his experience and knowledge, has no chance of survival against natural powers and natural forces (Hendricks, 1978).
According to Hendricks (1978), it is ironical that the man failed to survive in the cold weather while a dog which had no mittens, no earflaps, no coat, no lunch, and no fire succeeded in saving itself. To impress the existential theme of the story, the readers of the short story should keep it in mind that they should not confuse the presence of a dog with the presence of a travel companion. Instead it should be viewed as a mere extension of indifferent and uncaring natural setting. The dog cannot be seen as a companion as it cannot share the bitter existence of the man who is a lost soul in conflict with uncaring nature (Labor, 1974).
Jack London has succeeded in creating an exciting and tragic tale of a lost man that illustrates the modern theme of existentialism. The theme of the story illustrates the quest of the man to find meaning of his existence as a solitary individual facing indifferent and unforgiving universe. The artful placement of irony, choice of setting the story, and effective use of imagery are used as a tool to emphasize and impress the existential theme of the story: “ To Build A Fire”.
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