To Build a Fire

Naturalism in “To Build a Fire” by Jack London

When it comes to literature, many people consider Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” as a great example of naturalism. This short story, published in 1908, explores the challenges faced by a man in the unforgiving wilderness of the Yukon during the Gold Rush. Through vivid descriptions and an engaging narrative, London depicts the might of nature and its indifference towards human existence. In this article, we will delve into the key aspects of naturalism portrayed in “To Build a Fire,” including how the protagonist fights against nature, how the environment influences them and the concept of determinism.

The Power of Nature

At its core, naturalism emphasizes that humans are subject to uncontrollable forces found in nature. In “To Build a Fire,” London vividly illustrates this by portraying extreme cold as an antagonist that constantly challenges the protagonist’s survival skills and exposes their vulnerability. London’s attention to detail when describing the cold leaves, no doubt that nature is an imposing force that shows no mercy.

“In reality, it was not merely colder than fifty below zero; it was colder than fifty below; it was colder than sixty below, than seventy below” (London).

The protagonist’s struggle against the cold reflects their battle against nature’s overwhelming power. Despite their determination, they ultimately prove no match for the harsh conditions.

This portrayal is in line with the naturalistic perspective that humans are simply animals, bound by the same laws and forces of nature.

The Influence of Environment

Another important aspect of naturalism in the story “To Build a Fire” is how the environment shapes the protagonist’s actions and decisions. Naturalists argue that the surroundings have a significant impact on human behavior, often leading to predetermined outcomes. In this tale, the man’s choices are dictated by his surroundings, ultimately sealing his fate.

The man’s arrogance and failure to acknowledge the harshness of the wilderness reflect his inability to grasp the influence of his environment. Despite being warned by an old man, he embarks on his journey alone, underestimating the dangers that lie ahead. This overconfidence, combined with his lack of awareness about the environment, leads him to make fatal errors.

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Determinism in “To Build a Fire”

Determinism is a crucial element in naturalism and suggests that external forces ultimately determine human actions and decisions. In “To Build a Fire,” this concept is highlighted through the protagonist’s struggle against nature. Although it may seem like he makes independent choices, they are influenced by both his surroundings and his animalistic instincts.

As he faces various challenges such as falling into a snow trap or struggling to start a fire, he responds based on his survival instinct. His desperation grows as he attempts extreme measures like considering killing his dog for warmth.

In moments like these, his decisions are not guided by logical thinking but by the innate urge to stay alive.

“The survival of the fittest at this point of the story depicts the connection to naturalism as well. In nature, there is no difference between man and animal, there is only predator and prey” (Kan).

London’s depiction of the man as a character who is bound by the laws of nature reinforces the theme of determinism in a naturalistic manner. Right from the start, it was clear that the protagonist’s destiny was sealed, as he found himself up against an environment that he underestimated and a force that was insurmountable.

The Role of Instinct

The concept of instinct, which is fundamental to naturalism, is also evident in “To Build a Fire.” Although the man heavily relies on his intellect and knowledge, he lacks the innate understanding of the wilderness possessed by his dog. The dog’s ability to sense danger and adapt to the harsh conditions sharply contrasts with the man’s intellectual approach.

Throughout the story, we witness how the man’s intellect fails him, ultimately leading to his downfall. His frozen fingers prevent him from striking a match and his attempts to build a fire under a snow laden tree prove catastrophic. On the other hand, relying on its instinct for survival, the dog buries itself in snow for warmth and navigates treacherous terrain effortlessly.

London portrays the dog as a symbol of instinctually to emphasize naturalistic beliefs regarding primal instincts power and necessity. Despite having an artificial sense of superiority due to his intellect, it is ultimately his lack of instinct that seals the protagonist’s fate.


Jack London’s short story “To Build a Fire” presents a captivating illustration of naturalism in literature. It delves into the protagonist’s struggle against the forces of nature, highlighting how the environment shapes their experiences and emphasizing the concept of determinism. Additionally, London explores the significance of instinct in this narrative, effectively capturing the essence of the naturalistic perspective.

The story serves as a poignant reminder of nature’s immense power and indifference, as well as the limitations humans face when confronted with uncontrollable circumstances. By delving into these thought provoking themes, London prompts readers to reflect upon their own position within the natural world and consider the delicate nature of human existence.


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