Naturalism and Naturalist Elements in Jack London's Short Story “To Build a Fire” (1908)

Seminar Paper 2010 15 Pages

Didactics - English - History of Literature, Eras


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Naturalism (1880s - 1940s)
2.1 History
2.2 Characters and Setting
2.3 Themes and Conflicts
2.4 Narrative Techniques and Naturalist Style

3 Jack London: “To Build a Fire” (1908)
3.1 Plot
3.2 Naturalist Elements
3.2.1 „Man vs. Nature‟-Theme and Determinism
3.2.2 Wilderness and Nature
3.2.3 Irony and Narrative Techniques

4 „To Build a Fire“ as a Naturalist Short Story

5 Works Cited

1 Introduction

The short story “To Build a Fire” written by Jack London was first published in 1908 and is seen as a “masterpiece of short fiction” (Reesman 39) and “his best short story” (Peterson 3). Jack London demonstrates in “To Build a Fire” a “strong narration, fresh fictional subject, and ability to create atmosphere” (Nuernberg XXXII). The story is furthermore claimed as his “most often cited example for naturalism” (Reesman 39), which came up in the 1880s and lasted until the 1940s. This literary movement is seen as an outgrowth of Realism with the addition of pessimistic determinism and was influenced by Social Darwinism (cf. Campbell). Thus the most characteristic for naturalist stories is the fact that people are helpless victims of unchangeable natural laws, a harsh environment and their inner “animal drives”. These attributes and the naturalist typical „man vs. nature‟-theme can also be found in “To Build a Fire” and other stories by Jack London, which is one of the most famous representative of naturalism. In the following pages the typical characteristics of stories written during the literary movement naturalism will be explained. Afterwards these elements will be pointed out in Jack London‟s story “To Build a Fire”. Last but not least, the question, whether “To Build a Fire” can be indicated as an example for naturalism will be discussed and finally answered.

2 Naturalism (1880s - 1940s)

The literary movement naturalism describes a type of literature that attempts to apply scientific principles of objectivity and detachment to its study of human beings. Charles Walcutt calls this literary movement, whose effects last until today, “a wonder, a scandal, and a major force” (3). Authors argue that it is an outgrowth of realism, because according to George J. Becker it is realism with an explicit philosophical position being one of a “pessimistic, materialistic determinism” (Pizer 1984, 10). In addition, naturalism can also be indicated as a reaction to different scientific developments which influenced the view of the world in the late 19th century. Naturalistic writers try to replicate a believable everyday reality ”with a greater sense of the role of such causal forces as heredity and environment in determining behavior and belief” (Pizer 1984, 10). Since naturalist authors attempt to determine scientifically the underlying forces influencing the actions of subjects, characters of naturalist stories can be studied by the relationship to their surroundings. Trough this objective study of human beings, naturalistic writers believe that the laws behind the forces that govern human lives have to be studied and understood and as a consequence they use scientific methods to write their novels. Furthermore, the belief of the authors that human beings are determined, reveals the influence of Social Darwinism on naturalism, which means that one‟s heredity and social environment determines one‟s character. But naturalism is not only limited to materialistic determinism. Especially Donald Pizer refers to naturalism‟s “affirmative ethical conception of life” (1984, 12), even though he and other authors criticize inconsistencies of this thesis in many common naturalist works. That is why “one begins to wonder just where one finds the novels that define the form”

(31), as June Howard said, which leads to the conclusion, that every naturalist author interprets naturalism in his own special way. A very concise definition of naturalism by Eric Sundquist can be found in the introduction of American Realism: New Essay: “Revelling in the extraordinary, the excessive, and the grotesque in order to reveal the immutable bestiality of Man in Nature, naturalism dramatizes the loss of individuality at a physiological level by making a Calvinism without God its determining order and violent death its utopia” (13).

2.1 History

The term naturalism itself was first invented by the French author Émile Zola, who claimed a „scientific‟ status for his studies of impoverished characters miserably subjected to hunger, sexual obsession and hereditary defects in Thérèse Raquin (1867), Germinal (1885) and many other novels (cf. Campbell). Naturalist fiction also aspires to a sociological objectivity, offering detailed and fully researched investigations into unexplored corners of modern society. This scientifically position of Zola influenced many American naturalists heavily. To this Donald Pizer notes in his book Twentieth- century American literary naturalism: “The work of Crane, Norris and Dreiser in the 1980s has many of the obvious characteristics of Zolaesque naturalism” (6). The American naturalism can be defined as a reaction to the realist fiction of the 1870s and 1880s, which was limited to middle-class topics with taboos on violence and sexuality. Furthermore, they thought that realism was not able to represent the ethnic mix of the growing industrialized American cities and were skeptical about the notions of bourgeois individualism characterizing realist novels about middle-class life (cf. Pizer 1982, 5). Naturalism, seen in a historical context, was affected by the American Civil War (1861 - 1865), which brought demand for a „truer‟ type of literature that does not idealize people or places (cf. Pizer 1984, 32). The invention of photography during the 19th century also supported these perceptions.

2.2 Characters and Setting

The characters in naturalist novels are “the poor, the uneducated and the unsophisticated” (Pizer 1984, 11), mainly from the lower middle class or the lower class. Their common life consists of the dull round of daily existence in which naturalist authors discover qualities of man. These are usually associated with the heroic or adventurous and “culminate in desperate movements and violent death” (Pizer 1984, 11). Naturalists, however, discover the traits of human nature in this theme. Furthermore, their lives are governed and controlled by the forces of heredity, instinct and passion. Their attempt at exercising free will or choice fails because of the forces beyond their control. This determinism of the characters in naturalist novels shows the influence Social Darwinism had on the authors and helps at the same time to explain the fates of the characters to the reader. The theory of Charles Darwin also illustrates the low standing of humans in the world and makes clear that nature does not care about them, which again shows the determinism of naturalist characters. These characters usually end up in desperation or death, but “they die not in bed, at home, of old age and natural causes, but in open boats, in Death Valley, in the electric chair […] [or] in the nowhere of the Yukon” (Sundquist 13). However naturalist authors describe not only his observations of determinism, but “create a living engagement between artist and subject matter which results in a fullness and complexity of expression rather than an emotionally sterile portrait of „forces at work‟” (Pizer 1982, 6). Moreover, the assumption of naturalists that the individual is a cipher in the world, leads the naturalists to find a “new basis for man‟s sense of his own dignity and importance” (Pizer 1984, 11). Besides the influence of this supposition on naturalist characters, the belief that every individual no matter how poor or socially disadvantaged he is, has the whole values of all life, including emotion and defeat can be seen as well (cf. Pizer 1984, 12). In the words of one of the most famous representative of American naturalism, Frank Norris, a “romance of the commonplace” (Pizer 1984, 12) is generated in naturalist novels. Since the authors wanted to represent the new growing industrialized and multi- ethnic American cities with their problems, which were in their opinion not appropriate represented by realism authors, the setting in stories written during naturalism is usually urban (cf. Campbell).

2.3 Themes and Conflicts

The themes of naturalist stories changed during the age of naturalism. In the following, the themes and conflicts of naturalism in the late 19th and the early 20th century will be described. At that time survival, determinism and violence can be identified as most common naturalist topics and as the “tragic themes which are the heart of American naturalism” (Pizer 1982, 6) as well. While the “theme of determinism, which is of course basic, carries the idea that natural law and socioeconomic influences are more powerful than the human will” (Walcutt 20), the theme of violence “grows with the transfer of emphasis from tradition to survival” (Walcutt 20). Furthermore, naturalist authors often deal with the dark harshness of life as poverty, racism, prejudice, disease, prostitution and filth in their stories. Especially “sex begins in their fiction to emerge as the great theme of modern art” (Pizer 1982, 7). Thus writers often were criticized for being too blunt and shameless. In addition, strong emotions such as lust, greed and pleasure as well as the fight for survival, are often used topics in naturalist stories. The typical naturalist conflicts „man against nature‟ and „man against himself‟ show nature as an indifferent force acting on the lives of human beings, which demonstrates the affect of the forces of heredity and environment on individual lives (cf. Pizer 1982, 7). Furthermore, naturalist writers often draw the picture of an indifferent, deterministic universe in which the failure of attempts of human beings to exercise free will is often ironically presented and so reveals free will as an illusion. Consequently, “the naturalistic tragic hero is a figure whose potential for growth is evident but who fails to develop because of the circumstances of his life” (Pizer 1982, 6). This is a direct opposite of the Aristotelian hero, who despite being a man of worth begins to fall (cf. Pizer 1982, 7). Additionally, another frequent topic in naturalist fiction is the problem of elusive and shifting knowledge. With the decline of belief and faith in the 1890s, the ability of man to carry one‟s life with hands by means of a clear sense in a changing world got disputable. Thus the yearning for knowledge and values of man in an unknown and doubtful world in himself was picked up by naturalist authors and was presented tragically as well as ironically (cf. Pizer 1982, 7).



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Title: Naturalism and Naturalist Elements in Jack London's Short Story “To Build a Fire” (1908)