Man Vs. Nature in “To Build a Fire”

In the early 18th century, as researchers, scientists and curious minds were exploring the world, new ideas and beliefs were forming. The evolutionary theory of Darwinism, developed by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace, is primarily focused around the idea of “survival of the fittest”. The core idea is that all species, from the smallest barnacle or beetle, to birds and monkeys (and as we now know, humans) develop through small, uncontrollable variations that either increase or decrease the individual’s capability to compete, reproduce, and survive. What brought the discovery to fruition was “the relationship between the environment and the reproduction of populations. Darwin reasoned that living beings compete over resources, and only the most fit for a given region survive” (hence, the coining of the term “survival of the fittest”).

While reading the short stories “The Open Boat” and “To Build a Fire”, the reader, with careful thought and examination, is able to see how both Crane and London brought the realist and naturalist perspectives into their writing. Realism focused on detached descriptions of real life, with the hope of shedding light on the true struggles of society. Naturalism often focused on the insignificance of humanity in the grand scheme of things, and how we truly have no control in our fate, as it is controlled by an uncaring universe. While loneliness and alienation are large factors in their writing, so is the solace we can find in the idea that we’re all “in the same boat”.

Stephen Crane highlighted these ideas beautifully and tragically in his short story. As the men slowly lost their faith and came to realize that nature (the ocean in this case) has no motivation or purpose, they realize that fate has not fair or logical and the best thing we can do is keep fighting and devoting ourselves to survival. We see both external and internal conflict as the men were fighting to survive and battling the sea, they were simultaneously attempting to find the meaning behind their struggle and life itself. “To express any particular optimism at this time they felt to be childish and stupid, but they all doubtless possessed this sense of the situation in their mind…On the other hand, the ethics of their condition was decidedly against any open suggestion of hopelessness.” (Crane, P. 1,050)

The oilers death, while confusing at first, I believe was a reinforcement of the “survival of the fittest” idea. Despite Billie being the strongest of the group, his choice to go it alone and rely on his own strength and not a more evolved strategy, is what finally did him in.

In “To Build a Fire”, Jack London was able to portray humanities relentless struggle against nature. He examines and questions what abilities humans and animals need in order to thrive, and where those abilities developed from. The man in the story was full of arrogance, and despite being warned he continued on his journey. His lack of foresight and inability to plan for the environment were what brought his doom. This is a perfect example of the idea that all individuals are born with certain traits, and depending on the environment we are placed in, our fate is predetermined. The dog in the story had instilled in him the genetic makeup and survival instincts necessary for that environment. “Something was the matter, and its suspicious nature sensed danger-it knew not what danger, but somewhere, somehow in its brain arose an apprehension of the man.” (London, P. 1,122)

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