“To Build a Fire” by Jack London, is a short story with one of my favorite antagonists ever. This may seem like an odd statement, because the story is about nothing more than a man going for a walk in the Arctic with his dog. Not much room for an epic villain there.
But it becomes apparent early on that the cold itself is the antagonist, an ever-present third character which has more impact on the story than anything else. The cold exists in every thought, every action, and every plan the man makes. It is always being measured and contemplated, and its slow, patient attack on life in this story is one of the best battles ever put down on the page.
London starts off with some excellent use of specific knowledge, we note the various levels of snow and ice, the general notions of extreme cold, and these are all dropped in smoothly and without much regard.
A perfect example of this is how London describes the strangeness of the arctic day, in which it is always light and yet the sun is never above the horizon. This fact made me reread the first few paragraphs a few times because I thought I had misread something. It sinks in easily enough that this story is taking place above the arctic circle, but the narrator places this detail so gently into the tale that it’s possible to think we’re on a different planet.
This brings us to the man. He is given no other name. Right away, we are allowed some strange glimpses into his personality. He is utterly calm about this crazy weather and permanent daylight. He doesn’t mind that the spit from his tobacco is making an icy muzzle around his jaws. He even expects his spit to freeze in the snow with a crackling noise when he expectorates. It is so cold that something like spitting has taken on bizarre new traits, but we are made to understand that the bizarre is normal for him.
This immediately gives him status over us. It is difficult not to view him as an expert on wilderness survival, because this strange landscape does not phase him.
And yet when his spit freezes in mid-air even he is taken by surprise. It turns out that this is vital information, but to the man that just means that the air is colder than he expected.
Just as we start to believe the man knows it all, we are given reason to doubt him. London does not give the man, who is observant and intelligent, the ability to think. He observes all and observes well, but he never goes beyond that to put what he observes into use, and he certainly never explores the relationship between the weather, his journey, and his mortality.
Meanwhile, acting at all times in opposition to this man, is the cold. It is always there, it is always discussed, and like many a great antagonist, it is unrelenting. It infiltrates every action the man decides to take. Even eating the biscuits he brought for lunch turns into an arduous task as the man has to beat his hand against his legs to get his fingers to work well enough to hold his lunch. In fact, as the story continues, our view of this man as being in command of this landscape as we first saw him, as knowing how to survive in this strange world, begins to dissolve and our doubt about him begins to grow. We start questioning his intelligence for putting himself into such a landscape. To him, it is cold. He is walking. He is alive. But none of those things interrelate. He never makes any connections, meanwhile the cold is revealed to be far more cunning, working every possible angle to its advantage. The cold influences the air, the animals, the trees, the way kindling branches lie on the ground, the way rivers freeze, the way snow covers holes, and, finally, the cold exerts its influence the man’s attempts to build a fire.
And while this villain, this cold, is one of my favorites, this protagonist, the man, is one of my least. I never know what to make of him. Jack London is often cited as being a voice of nature, of portraying a savage wilderness with contempt, if not indifference, for mankind. But what is London putting forth in this story? Is he chiding the man for not thinking, for not putting his brain to use and outwitting nature? Is this is a simple tale of a simple man who could not see his own mortality in the cold? Or is London condemning the reader, hinting that at heart, we are all like the man; that none of us possess the courage to look into the truth of our mortality for too long?