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In each of the two short stories, “To Build a Fire,” by Jack London, and “A Mystery of Heroism,” by Stephen Crane, the author portrays life’s realism through the thoughts, actions, and descriptions of a central character. Both characters undergo harsh and dangerous, yet realistic circumstances while attempting to accomplish a particular goal. The authors ridicule Romantic tenets, unveil arrogance and ignorance, expose naturalism, and utilize impressionistic writing to manifest their central theme of realism.
London and Crane both scoff at Romantic notions in order amplify realism. For example, London undercuts every Romantic event his character experiences with reality: “There was the fire, snapping and crackling and promising life with every dancing flame…grew like an avalanche, and it descended without warning upon the man and the fire, and the fire was blotted out!” (502-503). London builds the reader up to this false sense of Romantic optimism in order to augment and dramatize the fall back to reality. Furthermore, London obliterates any notion of hope the reader may hold for the character, and, in effect, this unveils the harsh reality of the character’s situation. Furthermore, the nurturing fire seems incongruous in this frigid and heartless weather. This nameless character-nameless so he may represent humanity-should not survive this long in such low and dangerous temperatures, and, by destroying the fire, London pulls the reader back into the realm of reality. Similarly, Crane utilizes an analogous technique: “Sometimes they of the infantry looked down at a fair little meadow which spread at their feet. Its long, green grass was rippling gently in a breeze. Beyond it was the gray form of a house half torn to pieces by shells and by the busy axes of soldiers…” (488). Again, the “fair” and “green” meadow seems absurd in the current harsh conflicts and bloodshed. Still, these adjectives hold significance because they contrast the stark “gray” and “half torn” house. After looking past the Romantic view, the soldiers see the demolished house, which reminds them that they are currently fighting a war and nothing Romantic exists about war. Within undercutting Romanticism, Crane uses a different technique. As an impressionistic writer, Crane describes the landscape with very unpretentious words so the reader may merely grasp the outline of the story without venturing into details. This technique paints a realistic picture, because in reality, a soldier would not be meticulous in describing the scene; instead, he would flash a cursory glance while continuing to look out in his self-interest.
In addition, both authors ridicule man’s arrogance by providing the characters with preposterous goals and concluding with pessimistic outcomes. In London’s story, the character must rationalize why he stops to rest: “It was a steep bank, and he paused for breath at the top, excusing the act to himself by looking at his watch” (497). Instead of simply admitting his frailty in this freezing temperature, he sets his goal of reaching the “boys” at six o’ clock as a greater priority than his personal safety and well being. Furthermore, he challenges the advice of the elder about traveling alone with temperatures under negative one hundred and fifty degrees, which manifests his haughtiness even more. The character chooses to ignore this crucial advice and he suffers due to his stubbornness. On a symbolic level, this can represent humanity’s lack or loss of instinct to heed warnings. The realism here arises from London exposing the foibles of the character. In reality, no one can attain perfection, but those who think they can will suffer, which London lucidly demonstrates. Moreover, in the end, the character dies, which presents the harsh reality of life without the fluff and other Romantic views. Similarly, in Crane’s story, the character’s manhood feels threatened when his comrades taunt him about getting water: “Collins was shaking his fist in the faces of some laughing comrades. ‘Dern yeh! I ain’t afraid t’ go. If yeh say much, I will go!'” (489). Collins’ purpose in getting the water does not lie so much as to quench his thirst than as he covets to prove the others wrong, which is commensurate to the sign of arrogance displayed by the character in London’s story. Collins finally obtains the water, but stops when an injured officer asks him for water. Eventually, when Collins arrives back at his station, the soldiers find the bucket empty. Crane leaves this scene ambiguous, possibly to show life’s ambiguity. In addition, assuming the character obtains the title of a hero in the end because he gives the water to someone in need, Crane shows that heroes do not have to be and never are perfect. By using an inept character for the typical Romantic hero role, Crane effectively dissects the Romantic definition of a hero and inserts in its place a realistic hero, one who is not perfect but still significant.
However, London and Crane do not completely utilize the same realistic techniques in their stories. London focuses on naturalism while Crane’s story shows man possessing control over nature. In “To Build a Fire,” the character recognizes the factual information about the temperature but fails to comprehend what realistic importance it holds. However, the dog, which possesses natural instinct, proves to be much more pragmatic and discerning: “It knew that it was no time for travelling. Its instinct told it a truer tale than was told to the man by the man’s judgement” (498). This passage shows that instinct prevails over judgement, which simply disconnects humanity from the simplest of ideas, in this case, the true coldness. However, the dog, which possesses instinct, realizes that the coldness is overbearing and that they must seek fire and shelter. Still, the man holds too much pride and thus possesses no power over nature. Eventually, the character tries to grab the dog and use it as a warmth provider. However, because the unprepared character lacks the necessary tools, nature wins again. Furthermore, this scene shows that the man has a growing sense of panic, but it is too late, and, as in reality, nature is aloof to his pleas. Contrarily, in Crane’s story, humanity possesses control over nature: “For the little meadow which intervened was now suffering a terrible onslaught of shells. Its green and beautiful calm had vanished utterly” (488). In this case, humanity oppresses over nature. However, nature still regards man as incomprehensible because humanity fails to realize the pain and suffering it causes each other. Crane believes that in reality, nature is a spectator of man’s ignorance and foolishness. Furthermore, war holds no glory because the passage proceeds to describe nature solely being torn up and not any soldiers of the opposing army. This may show how nature mocks humanity for squandering resources and, in general, shows war’s emptiness and wastefulness.
In the end, London and Crane effectively manifest realistic aspects about life mainly through ridiculing Romantic views. In both stories, the characters confront difficult situations and demonstrate that pride or arrogance will not achieve anything. These authors show that life is not perfect, but if one prepares and uses instinct, he or she may fair better.
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