Is Nature the Most Important Character
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According to Wayne (2002: Part 1) the naturalism literary movement developed in the late 19th century, and explores themes, such as; ‘the indifference of the environment; determinism over the free will; the depiction of characters in the survival of the lower classes; absence of the moral judgment; a fascination with processes; instinct over intellectualism; the emphasis of narrative over character’.
Written in this vein, is Jack London’s 1908 To Build a Fire, a compelling short story about a man who dared to defy the conventional wisdom on travelling through a spruce timberland during an exceedingly cold winter. His defiance is largely attributed to his ‘lack of imagination’. Moreover, his ignorance of the real and present danger of travelling alone towards an old claim, where his colleagues were camping, is a factor to his failure. Whereas he considers himself a ‘man’ for daring to travel alone, in the end, the ‘womanish’ old timers are proved right when the man succumbs to the cold, thus, his own character is what costs him his life.
Characteristics of the Yukon Trail Traveler
London draws a consistent picture thorough out the story about the man’s character flaws that contributed to his loss in the fight for survival. From the very beginning, the man hardly considers other than his own opinions, despite his ignorance of the terrain. The old timer warns him that ‘no man should travel alone at fifty below’; the ‘boys’ have used a safer route to get to the camp; and the dog instinctively knows when to take a break from the journey and stay close to the fire. These instances reveal that the man sees and acknowledges this wisdom, but somehow, his nature does not allow him to learn something from them. Consequently, the reader has a growing sense of doom, but cannot be overly sympathetic with the man. The reader questions the basis of the man’s confidence to traverse the timberland alone and without any prior experience. In life, those who have travelled the road know it better, and if one cannot learn from the experiences of others, he or she deserves the result of ignorance. Moreover, London’s choice to keep the man nameless, without a clue as to his history, desires, motivations and fears, makes his death at the end an expected, less than devastating blow.
On several occasions throughout his journey, the man proves that he is not a conscious thinker who lays out his plans and considers the pros and cons at every level. In fact, when he is warned that it would be dangerous to travel alone, he laughs. The reader wonders why he does not discuss the means of survival, if he were to get into trouble. Moreover, he begins to build a fire right under a tree laden with snow, without thinking of what would happen, should the snow fall on the fire. In the story’s latter part, having realized he is freezing and could die, he gives in to his panic and begins to run around ‘like a chicken with its head cut off’. This running around seeps all his energy, and so he can barely consider his surroundings to realize where he is, and then push himself the little distance to the camp. The camp seems a short way away, since after his death, the dog trots towards in the direction of the camp he knows. These instances show that he starts on activities without completely thinking them through. The value of this ‘thinking through’ is to avoid undesirable situations by foreseeing them before they happen. This helps one put in measures to make sure that one does not suffer the inconvenience occasioned by the undesirable occurrence. The man looses his life due to a series of circumstances that could have been avoided, if he had thought through his actions, especially since every action could make the difference between the life and death.
Dogs are known to be the man’s best friend, and have been reported to have saved their owner’s lives in various ways the world over. London’s inclusion of the dog in the story depicts another facet of the man’s character that might have led to the undesired end. The dog does not experience kindness or affection from the man; thus, it treats him with suspicion and indifference. As London (1908) puts it, "on the other hand, there is no intimacy between the man and the dog. The one was the slave of the other, as the only caresses it has ever got were the caresses of the whip lash and of menacing and harsh throat sounds which threatened the whip lash." WriteWork contributors (2003), noted that the dog was ‘not concerned with the man’s safety and that if there were any danger, ‘the dog would not willingly help him’. If he had been kinder, he would have endeared himself to the dog, and their relationship would have been friendlier, rather than the slave-master relationship that existed between the two. This is a critical consideration, especially because, if something untoward were to happen on the journey, the dog would be his only hope of salvation. This is proved at the end, when the man is dying, yet the dog sits watching him. Once he dies, the dog trots to the camp he knows, meaning the dog could have guided the man the whole time, but did not bother. The reader wonders why the man brings the dog with him on the journey, if it is not to be a companion through the arduous journey.
May (1978: 19-24) describes one positive attribute to the man’s character i.e. the man’s psychological strength. The man has the courage to defeat the nature, to travel alone through the timberland, something that had not been done and was ill advised. However, 123Helpme.com states that the man ‘may psychologically apt in his own eye, but weak against the nature and the physical elements’. The reader sees this character consistently displayed by the man’s actions. From the very beginning, he chooses to take the timberland on his own, ostensibly ‘to take a look at the possibilities of getting out logs in the spring from the islands in the Yukon’. Moreover, he consistently refuses to give in to his fear and thoughts of death, and this takes determination and self will. He ploughs ahead, despite the circumstances where many would give up, since it is easier to give up than to go ahead. This is commendable, but does not suffice to save him from the vagaries of the weather. Additionally, London bestows him with some intellectual property. Wayne (2002) states that ‘he uses advanced tools (matches) to make a fire; he realizes how cold it is through the temperature readings; he recognizes that he is in Henderson Creek, the Yukon by the language on a map.
As the adage goes, where there is a will, there is a way. This is the psychological strength, i.e. determination and self will that the man shows. However, in order to survive in difficult circumstances, one requires social, physical and intellectual ‘strength’, in addition to the psychological strength. London depicts a man who lacks the wisdom to learn from others and appreciate the value of their strengths and experiences. He dies due to lack of the other ‘strengths’.
In answer to the question, is nature the most important character, London describes a situation where the nature can mean life or death. It was the man’s nature that led to his death. Others survived, because by their nature they were social and relied on each other. Therefore, nature is the most important character.