[Widdicombe is a freelance editor of college textbooks who lives in Alaska. In the essay below, she examines the mysterious effect of the merciless cold in “To Build a Fire” and in everyday Alaskan life.]
The third paragraph of Jack London's “To Build a Fire ” offers a concise assessment of the personality and motivation of the story's unnamed central character as he embarks across the vast and snowy winter landscape of the Klondike:
But all this—the mysterious, far-reaching hair-line trail, the absence of sun from the sky, the tremendous cold, and the strangeness and weirdness of it all—made no impression on the man. It was not because he was long used to it. He was a new-comer 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. Fifty degrees below zero meant eighty-odd degrees of frost. Such fact impressed him as being cold and uncomfortable, and that was all. It did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man's frailty in general, able only to live within certain narrow limits of temperature; 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 moccasins, 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. (Excerpt from “To Build a Fire”
Referring to the above passage, James I. McClintock asserts that this “quick and alert” man tries to use reason instead of imagination to get him past his difficulties and safely to camp but that human rationality proves to be helpless against the Klondike's “killing landscape.” In the same vein, Earle Labor and Jeanne Campbell Reesman refer to the frozen landscape as a powerful enemy or “antagonist,” asserting that the man “falls into...