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Notes Jack London’s “ To Build a Fire” : Epistemology and the White Wilderness Common misconception has it that the dog’s survival in “To Build a Fire” metaphorically demonstrates London’s belief that man should, upon occasion, rely on his intuitive truths rather than follow his rational thought processes.1 The story is not all that simple, for London, even with his reverence for the canine, would not advocate a total giving over to primordial urges under any circumstances. Indeed, he knew that a regression of this kind would never lead to the Nietzschean superman he so often portrays in his most dynamic characters. Moreover, to accept an overly simplified exegesis denies London at his artistically complex best. For should London endorse such an epistemological position, he would necessarily have to create two equally en­ dowed representatives, confronting a common phenomenological concern. This London does not do; in fact, he devotes the entire third paragraph of his story to an assessment of the chechaquo’s rational limitations. Although a somewhat observant man, he is a man who does not penetrate beyond the obvious. And, as London emphasizes, he does not possess the ability to connect isolated phenomena, an essential act for valid inference: 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. Fifty degrees below zero meant eighty-odd degrees of frost. Such fact impressed him as being cold and uncom­ fortable, and that was all. It did not lead him to meditate upon his fraility in general, able only to live within certain narrow limits of heat and cold; and from there on it did not lead him to the conjectural field of immortality and man’s place in the universe. Fifty degrees below zero stood for a bite of frost that hurt and that must be guarded against by the use of mittens, ear flaps, warm mocassins,, and thick socks. Fifty degrees below zero was to him just precisely fifty degrees below zero. That there should be anything more to it than that was a thought that never entered his head.2 Moreover, he is a man who does not think a great deal. For example, right before lunch, London establishes this condition in terms which leave ^See, for example, Clell Peterson. "The Theme of Jack London’s ‘To Build a fire.' ” ABC, XVII (Novemtir, 1966), 15-18. "London's grimer story implies that man may have gone too far to save himself; and, yet, if escape is possible it may lie in surrendering upon occasion belief in reason and falling back upon the ancient, inarticulate guidance of instinct. The man does not comprehend this, but the reader does when he sees the dog’s instincts save it.” (17) •Jack London, The Sun-Dog Trail and Other Stories (New York, 1951), pp. 126-127. Subsequent references will appear in parentheses following quotations. 288 Western American Literature nothing to doubt: “He was not much given to thinking, and just then particularly he had nothing to think about save that he would eat lunch at the forks and that at six o’clock he would be in camp with the boys.” (129) This mental deficiency is coupled with and most likely responsible for the traveller’s forgetfulness. Not only does he forget the minor detail of starting a lunch fire in order to thaw out the “ice muzzle” which formed across his mouth so that he may eat his biscuits, he forgets to build his life-preserving fire out in the open: It was his own fault, or, rather, his mistake. He should not have built the fire under the spruce tree. He should have built it in the open. But it had been easier to pull the twigs from the brush and drop them directly on the fire. . . High up in the tree one bough capsized its load of snow. This fell on the boughs beneath, capsizing them. This process continued, spreading out and involving the whole tree. It grew like an avalanche, and it descended without warning upon the man and the fire, and the fire was...


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