Literary Criticism: Psychological Effects in To Build a Fire

Updated on January 17, 2017

When reviewing characters in literature, it is always wise to consider the psychological effects the characters go through and how their environments impact or influence their emotional reactions. There are several perspectives and theories to base such an analysis on. Ordinarily, utilizing Carl Jung’s argument for archetypes in literature, the color white represents innocence, purity, cleanliness, and sometimes even an angelic sense when put to use. However, the cold color white in Jack London’s infamous short story “To Build a Fire” is ironic as it relates to the tragic hero’s purposeless, blank state of mind throughout the story, which ultimately leads to his downfall.

Literary criticism from Jung’s point of view focuses on prototypes and standards that have remained throughout the history of literature, such as common characters, themes, or significant symbols like colors and their hidden meanings. Generally the hero of a story is the main character, who approaches a conflict or must accomplish a journey of some sort. Oftentimes there are important clues including the character’s actions or the events surrounding him or her which allow the reader to shape and draw conclusions on the kind of character presented. In the tragedy of “To Build a Fire,” London slyly twists the use of color in order to create an ironic, psychological impediment upon the protagonist.

As the story is set up, the reader is immediately given the impression of an “exceedingly cold and grey” landscape covered in snow; while the sky is clear but there is “no sun nor hint of sun” (64). Much like an arid desert, the Yukon to the unnamed man is a desolate, “unbroken white” valley glassed in ice (65). Peculiarly, the narrator notes that neither the frigid air, nor the lack of sun, nor “the strangeness and weirdness of it all” had a noticeable impact on the man (65). The narrator then goes on to expose that “the trouble with him was that he was without imagination,” which is key to connecting the man’s surroundings with his psychological and emotional indifference (65). The man does not think critically about his purpose in life or humanity’s place in the universe—the cold “did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man’s frailty in general” (65). Though to him this is a masculine strength, it ironically is vulnerability.

Arguably, this deficiency in creativity becomes the man’s tragic flaw by the end of his journey across the Yukon. As the narrator consistently makes notice of the lifeless, bitter world around the man, the reader can parallel a vacant and bland mindset within him as well. The man is seemingly unable to think deeply about his situation. It is as if the cold has completely frozen his soul from the inside to where his very emotional, personal being is buried and solid too deep to melt. He is incapable of expressing anything except for his body’s natural response in acknowledging the cold: “Empty as the man’s mind was of thoughts, he was keenly observant, and he noticed the changes in the creeks…” (68). Here we see his experience and instinct in nature emerging, yet he never gives in to insight or significance in the details of his environment besides the obvious facts. Everything he does is based on knowledge of the wilderness and his familiarity with nature. But this proves to be inadequate.

In one sense, as white can often portray innocence, it can be said that the man is naïve when he ignorantly considers his circumstances and is therefore ill-prepared for the predicament that befalls him. The wintery white land is not a beautiful inspiration to the man because the artistic part of his mind is still quite premature. Thus, the quest is monotonous and uninteresting to him. The very description of the Alaskan environment feels dull and numb, just like our human extremities in the icy weather, and the man is an exact reflection of its dreariness.

The man’s name is never revealed, his dog is not a loyal companion by compassionate choice: “it was not concerned in the welfare of the man,” the entire area for miles is blank and void of color or life, and the cold hinders the man from thinking beyond his ritual and gaining an individual voice. Thus, he is a product of his environment. He thinks only when necessary to avoid danger in the elements. He occasionally recalls empty conversation with an old-timer but not once does the reader see him truly comprehend the depth of the advice he received; not until the end does he awaken to self-awareness and allow his inward feelings to coincide with his physical being as he understands, and fears, he is about to die.

Instead of using the color white to represent a dreamy, ethereal land of sweet innocence and beauty, Jack London paints a picture of despondency and loneliness. All life is covered in snow, and by the end we see that soon the man will be too. His meaningless existence is simply erased. The emergence of feeling and desire to live in the end arises too late for the tragic hero, for the absence of sensation in his physical being all too long held back his psychological being to portray human traits and emotions. The chilly, white, bare environment of the Yukon ultimately means not only a death to mental stimulation but most inevitably a fatality to the man’s physical life.

Citation:

London, J. 1902. To build a fire. https://americanenglish.state.gov/files/ae/resource_files/to-build-a-fire.pdf

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