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The Gold Rush - Jack London, Literary Naturalism and Free Will

The decline in literary realism at the turn of the 20th century gave rise to a number of experimental literary phenomena. A subgenre of the waning realist tradition, Naturalism saw a great focus on the place of man in nature, highlighting the animalistic elements of human behaviour and questioning the possibility of free will in such a system (Pizer, 1995). Naturalism found its greatest exponents in Frenchman Émile Zola and in American short story writer Jack London. London emerged in the late 1890s and early 1900s as one of the prototypical American Naturalists: he worked in odd jobs as a sailor and a labourer, took part in the Klondike Gold Rush in Alaska, and cultivated an image of himself as a stereotypical American roadman, drinking heavily and adultering across the country (Kershaw, 2013). Much like Ernest Hemingway or Jack Kerouac to come, London portrayed himself as a living endorsement of his writing, a man whose actions would be indistinguishable from his personal philosophies. Consequently, many of London’s most famous works spring from his direct experiences. Despite the popularity and affection some of these works have achieved in popular culture (e.g. White Fang, Call of the Wild), Naturalism itself has largely fallen out of critical consideration. It is now regarded as little more than an aberration or failed byproduct of larger movements like Social Darwinism and the transition from literary realism to literary modernism, schools of artistic and political thought which achieved far greater impacts on culture and history. Yet, Naturalism still presents a fascinating case study of literary analysis, exhibiting a far greater level of linguistic sophistication and a wider engagement with the philosophical ideas of its time than it is often given credit for. This essay will use London’s short story To Build a Fire (1908) to discuss Naturalism’s use of language and the questions of determinism and free will with which the genre is preoccupied.

Naturalism emerged as a subgenre of Realism at the end of the nineteenth century. A period of rapid technological development revolutionised the way of life for many in America and Western Europe: industrialization transitioned these societies into predominantly urban settings as factory-work replaced agriculture as the principal labour of the working-class. This process was aided by increased capabilities of rail and steam-ships as modes of mass public transport, fuelling immigration to ever-growing cities not only from rural areas but also from abroad: cities in the American east (particularly New York but also Boston, Chicago, and New Jersey) developed vast immigrant populations, from whom some of the prominent Naturalists like Theodore Dreiser would emerge (Pizer, 1995). These advancements had several cumulative effects on the growth of Naturalism: great interest was taken in the objective impact of this great demographic shift from rural to urban areas, and in how this shift would impact human behaviour; and these changes also contributed to a growing confidence in the ability of science and objectivism to advance mankind. From this confidence sprung, a greater acceptance of Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution put forward in his book On the Origin of the Species (1859), and the subsequent promotion of Social Darwinism:

They tried to discipline themselves to a level of objectivity, to match even that of the scientist… such that the ancestors of Homo Sapiens may include simians but not angels, that he may act less from sapience than from instinct, that life is a chancy process rather than a path toward redemption… (Pizer, 1995, p. 29)

Depiction of skeletons to illustrate man's evolutionary ancestry
Figure 1: Growing understanding of Darwin's Theory of Evolution profoundly changed how many people saw the world (Royal College of Surgeons, 1863).

The growing view held that mankind was no more moral or imbibed with great purpose than any insect or animal, essentially a slave to the physical conditions of his own biology and its interaction with the environment around him -a position that negated the foundational societal view of free will (Greenblatt, 2019). This manifested itself in radically different ways, some with rather grave implications: theories of eugenics and cognitive disparities between races were often supported by reference to Social Darwinist theories (Merriman, 2009). In literature, one of the results was the subgenre of Naturalism. Where Realism had stressed the intent to render the world exactly as it is, it did not do away with concepts of free will or the primacy of man. Naturalism took contemporary ideas of man's place in nature and took it to its logical conclusion, producing a literature that preached determinism and man’s inability to escape his status as just another animal, bound by biology and the influences of his given environment. In other words, humanity’s now-undeniable status as merely a part of nature demanded a fiction that truly captured the way of the world and our place in it. Naturalism produced a fiction that has been characterized as brutal and unsentimental, and strove towards a grim amorality.

'To Build a Fire' tells the story of an unnamed man in the Yukon valley in Alaska, crossing a dangerously isolated tract of frozen forest alone. The Klondike Gold Rush was a symbol of man’s attempt to conquer nature by mining one of the planet’s least hospitable locations for its natural resources. Thus, it made a perfect setting for London’s brand of adventuring Naturalism. As the story progresses, the man’s ability to survive in the face of a cold, unsympathetic universeembodied by the vast and empty whiteness of the surroundingsis increasingly tested, and ultimately, he succumbs to the brutal conditions he has naïvely tried to conquer. On the surface, the story appears to be a straightforward sequence of tragic events; one in which a brave, individualistic hero of the classic American adventuring stereotype meets an unfortunate demise. Such a simple reading would support the often simplistic regard with which Naturalism has been regarded: a story where man is brave but ultimately incapable of overcoming nature, contrasted by an instinctual knowledge and connection to nature epitomised by the dog, who of course survives (Reesman, 1997, p. 43).

The dog did not know anything about temperatures. Possibly in its brain there was no understanding of a condition of very cold, such as was in the man’s brain. But the animal sensed the danger… Its fear made it question eagerly every movement of the man as if expecting him to go into camp or to seek shelter somewhere and build a fire. The dog had learned about fire, and it wanted fire. Otherwise, it would dig itself into the snow and find shelter from the cold air. (London, 1908, p. 3)

Camp of speculators in Alaska
Figure 2: The Klondike Gold Rush brought a mass influx of enterprising speculators in search of a fortune (National Parks Conservation Association, 1908).

To Build a Fire was in fact released in several different versions over the course of a decade, featuring drastically different endings depending on the place of publication. A 1902 version in The Youth’s Companion gave a far more optimistic tone for the audience of adventuring young boys (Kershaw, 2013). The 1908 version remained London’s finalised version for the remainder of his life, being the version that best illustrates the depth of his engagement with Naturalism and its themes.

Criticism of Naturalism has dismissed many of its writers as possessing a stilted style, or being too constrained or preoccupied by the movement’s aesthetic and philosophic concerns to the detriment of its literary quality (Pizer, 1995). However, a closer linguistic analysis of London’s prose demonstrates a very deliberate and precise use of language, one which is inseparable from the concerns of his writing. Throughout the story, a sense of rhythm is generated from repetition, be it of subject matter or of phonetic sounds:

The frozen moistness of its breathing had settled on its fur in a fine powder of frost. The hair on the man’s face was similarly frosted, but more solidly. It took the form of ice and increased with every warm, moist breath from his mouth. Also, the man had tobacco in his mouth. The ice held his lips so tightly together that he could not empty the juice from his mouth. The result was a long piece of yellow ice hanging from his lips. If he fell down it would break, like glass, into many pieces. He expected the ice formed by the tobacco juice, having been out twice before when it was very cold. But, it had not been as cold as this, he knew. (London, 1908, p. 4)

Mitchell goes on to describe the effect of this technique as ‘entropic’, reducing the man’s fate to an inevitable, cruel state of uncaring collapse (1986, p. 80). The numbing repetition reduces the causal link between the man’s actions and his fate close to zero, and the cyclical nature of the plot points begins to instil a grim sense of foreboding long before the man actually succumbs to death.

The paragraph’s verbal echoes remind us that the plot itself reiterates a few basic events… In turn, everything that contributes to those efforts is doubled and redoubled, iterated and reiterated, leaving nothing to occur only once. The reiterated concentration on the material lends a paralysing quality to the story’s events, which gradually draws into question the very notion of plot as forward progress. (Mitchell, 1986, p. 78)

American writer Jack London
Figure 3: Jack London remains the foremost popular example of Literary Naturalism (Library of Congress, 1906).

The repetitive nature of paragraphs like the above example are not symptomatic of a dearth of vocabulary or a poor sense of narrative on London’s part. They form instead a very deliberate impression, one where the significance of words isby their own sheer overusebeaten to a state of meaninglessness. Considering the central philosophical question at the heart of Naturalismthat of the existence of free willit is naïve to imagine these impressions being accidental on the part of the writer. London isironicallymaking a very deliberate, conscious choice of vocabulary and word placement to invoke the strongest possible impression that the unnamed character’s fate is entirely separate from his actions, and that he is instead merely a part of the natural world that surrounds him, and no more capable of escaping the cycles of life, death and instinctual behaviour as the dog that accompanies him, the trees that grow around him, or the snow that melts to water beside a fire.

What is curious in the case of London’s To Build a Fire is not merely the delicate prose arrangement that emphasises the belief system of Naturalist writers, but his willingness to engage with these ideas and not uncritically accept them. The processes of repetition and detachment from action and object make clear London’s views on determinism. Where the story becomes multifaceted is his admittance of certain moralising factors that allow the reader to perceive a sense of judgement against the man’s pride and hubris in travelling alone, and therefore imply also a sense of culpability and blame in the man’s actions.

A group of trekkers in Chilkoot Pass, Alaska
Figure 4: The inhospitable danger of the Yukon wilderness necessitated group travel for safety (Washington University Library, 1898)

Jeanne Campbell Reesman argues that the reason for the man’s death is the "discrepancy between the knowledge the unnamed hero possesses... and the knowledge that he needs" (1997, p. 40). The man had been warned by an ‘Old Timer’ at the outset of his journey ‘never to travel alone’ in the Yukon, especially below -50 degrees Fahrenheit. "Any man who was a man could travel alone", the journeyman tells himself, and this arrogant self-beliefhis decision not to follow the advice of the experienced older travellers who had gone before himthat ultimately costs him his life (London, 1908, p. 9). The man was indeed, as the repetitive paragraphs inform us, knowledgeable and observant of the world around him. He knew the procedure of how to construct a fire, and what dangers to avoid in the Yukon wilderness. He finds himself at the story’s conclusion in a place where his own actions have become irrelevant, but only through an earlier choice of what knowledge to utilise and what to ignore. It is a separation from natural knowledgethe instinct of the dog, but also the community of mankind as fellow-travelers and social animalsthat seals his fate.

If we return to the fate of the dog, this reading of London’s becomes more nuanced yet. We have stated that a simple reading of the dog’s survival might place the instinctual nature of the canine as a superior contrast to the hubris of man; yet the paragraph we examined earlier tells us that the dog had "learned of fire" (London, 1908, p. 4). London’s stance on determinism and fate will not permit so easy a contrast as that which critics would impose on the story. It is the application of will, in conjunction with circumstance, that shapes our futures. In this ability to recognise the contradictions and counterarguments to naturalist determinism, London imbibes his stories with a level of introspective depth that may seem to undercut his beliefs, but upon reflection mage instead to elevate them to a place in a wider discourse from which early, negative approaches to naturalist fiction would deny him.

Bibliographical References

Bowen, J. (1971). Jack London’s “To Build a Fire”: Epistemology and the White Wilderness. Western American Literature. (Vol. 5, No. 4). pp. 287-289.

Grayling, A.C. (2020). A History of Philosophy. Penguin.

Greenblatt, S. (2019). The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve: The Story that Created Us. W. W. Norton & Company.

Kershaw, A. (2013). Jack London: A Life. St Martin’s Publishing Group.

London, J. (1908). To Build a Fire. Century Magazine.

Mitchell, L. C. (1986). “Keeping His Head”: Repetition and Responsibility in Jack London’s “To Build a Fire”. Journal of Modern Literature. (Vol. 13, No. 1). pp. 76-96.

Pizer, D. (1995). The Cambridge Companion to American Realism and Naturalism: From Howells to London. Cambridge University Press.

Reesman, J. C. (1997). “Never Travel Alone”: Naturalism, Jack London and the White Silence. American Literary Realism, 1870-1910. (Vol. 29, No. 2). pp. 33-49.

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Seán Downey

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