Naturalism in Jack London's "To Build a Fire"

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About this sample


Words: 777 |

Pages: 2|

4 min read

Published: Jun 13, 2024

Words: 777|Pages: 2|4 min read

Published: Jun 13, 2024

The short story "To Build a Fire" by Jack London is a prime example of naturalism in literature. Naturalism is a literary movement that emerged in the late 19th century and early 20th century, focusing on the portrayal of life as harsh and indifferent, shaped primarily by natural forces. In this essay, we will explore the elements of naturalism present in London's story and how they contribute to the overall theme and message. Through an analysis of the protagonist's struggle against the harsh environment, the depiction of nature as an indifferent force, and the emphasis on survival instincts, it becomes evident that "To Build a Fire" aligns with the key principles of naturalism.

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The protagonist in "To Build a Fire" faces numerous challenges as he ventures through the frozen Yukon Territory. The extreme cold and hostile wilderness create a sense of danger and isolation for the character. The author vividly describes the protagonist's physical discomfort, such as the freezing of his cheeks and the numbness in his fingers, which highlights the harshness of the environment. London's use of descriptive language immerses the reader in the protagonist's struggle, emphasizing the power of nature to overpower human existence.

"Fifty degrees below zero meant eighty-odd degrees of frost... He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances."

This quote illustrates the protagonist's lack of understanding of the significance of the extreme cold. He is focused on the immediate tasks at hand, rather than contemplating the larger implications of his situation. This lack of awareness is a characteristic of naturalism, as it emphasizes the insignificance of human beings in the face of nature's power.

In "To Build a Fire," nature is depicted as an indifferent force that operates independently of human desires and intentions. The story emphasizes the idea that nature does not care about the survival or well-being of individuals. The protagonist's attempts to build a fire to keep warm are constantly thwarted by the harsh conditions, symbolizing nature's indifference to human needs.

"But the tremendous cold had already driven the life out of his fingers. In his effort to restore circulation, he stamped his feet and whirled his arms. No longer did he feel shame for the fire with which he had been obsessed. If he had thought the matter over, he would have known that it was not quite the proper thing to do, that it was a bit provocative of the gods to go and taunt them with the exhibition of such a burning thing made man's hands."

This passage highlights the protagonist's realization that nature is not to be provoked or taunted. His desperation to survive leads him to question his actions and understand the consequences of his defiance against the forces of nature. This depiction of nature as an indifferent and powerful force aligns with the principles of naturalism.

Survival instincts play a crucial role in "To Build a Fire." The protagonist's lack of experience and preparedness in the wilderness leads to his downfall. However, London also explores the idea that survival instincts are inherent in all living beings, and they can be the difference between life and death in extreme circumstances.

"It was this that made the man fight so madly for life. He was a newcomer in the land, a chechaquo, and this was his first winter. The trouble with him was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances."

This quote emphasizes the protagonist's lack of imagination, which contributes to his downfall. While he may possess physical strengths and skills, his inability to anticipate and imagine the consequences of his actions ultimately leads to his demise. London suggests that survival instincts encompass more than just physical abilities; they also require mental acuity and adaptability.

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In conclusion, Jack London's "To Build a Fire" effectively incorporates naturalistic elements to portray the harshness and indifference of nature. Through the protagonist's struggle against the harsh environment, the depiction of nature as an indifferent force, and the emphasis on survival instincts, London conveys the key principles of naturalism. This story serves as a reminder of the insignificance of human beings in the face of nature's power and the importance of adaptability and imagination in survival. By examining the naturalistic elements in "To Build a Fire," we gain a deeper understanding of the story's themes and the broader implications of naturalism in literature.


  1. London, Jack. "To Build a Fire." Project Gutenberg, 1908.
  2. Wood, T.J. "Naturalism in American Literature." The Cambridge Companion to American Realism and Naturalism: From Howells to London, Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 73-89.
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Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

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Naturalism in Jack London’s “To Build a Fire”. (2024, Jun 13). GradesFixer. Retrieved July 23, 2024, from
“Naturalism in Jack London’s “To Build a Fire”.” GradesFixer, 13 Jun. 2024,
Naturalism in Jack London’s “To Build a Fire”. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 23 Jul. 2024].
Naturalism in Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2024 Jun 13 [cited 2024 Jul 23]. Available from:
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