It is one thing to discuss the naturalism of Theodore Drieser and Jack London in their characteristic novels. However, when one turns to their canonized short stories, "The Lost Phoebe" and "To Build a Fire," mere naturalism alone is not sufficient to account for their staying power. "Lost Phoebe" opens with description of old, broken, worn-out things in the house; the loom on which the rug was woven is a "bony skeleton." The orchard is full of gnarled apple trees, worm eaten and covered with lichens, "so that it had a sad greenish-white, silvery effect in the moonlight." The old couple is described similarly; simple natures 'that fasten themselves like lichens on the stones of circumstances and weather their days to a crumbling conclusion." Henry Reifsneider and his wife Phoebe Ann. She sickens and dies and after five months of living alone "a change began."
Everything is disordered and it is all a terror to him.. Sometimes the moonlight in the kitchen and a certain combination of furniture, a chair with his coat on it, gave him an exact representation of Phoebe. He wonders if it is a ghost (this is the Hawthorne neutral territory metaphor) Wisps of mist in the yard almost make him think he sees her. he drams of her and thinks he sees her moving in bedroom. He gets the obsession that she is not dead. Dreiser says with the aged and feeble it is not a far cry from "the subtleties of illusion to actual hallucination." "His mind had gone.
In its place was a fixed illusion." He goes from house to house to look for her; people are sympathetic. He remembers that one day she said she would leave him. He now believes that she has over a little spat. People don't have him put away because of the poor condition of the institutions for the insane. After being rebuffed many times, he takes to hollering for her. "The process by which a character assumes the significance of being peculiar, his antics weird, yet harmless, in such a community is often involute and pathetic." (He becomes a character; note how Sherwood Anderson deals with this) In trying to determine which way to go at a crossroads, he has another hallucination, that Phoebe's spirit tells him which way by throwing his cane; sometimes when it points to the way he has come, he shakes his head philosophically, as if contemplating the unbelievable or an untoward fate..." He becomes famous.
Seven years he does this and one night in the vicinity of the Red Cliff, brought there by his cane. He sees w will of the wisp, fluttering bog fires bobbing gracefully among the trees; moonlight an shadows combined to give it a strange form and a stranger reality. He sees her as a gayer younger Phoebe as he knew her when she was a girl. He sees her across the cliff among a silvery bed of apple trees blooming in the spring. "and feeling the lure of a world when love was young and Phoebe, as this vision presented her, a delightful epitome of their quondam youth, he gave a gay cry of 'Oh, wait, Phoebe!' and leaped." He is found broken but elated, a smile of peace on delight on his lips. "No one of all the simple population knew how eagerly and joyously he had found his lost mate."
The basic critical fallacy of the various interpretations of Jack London's "to Build a Fire," claiming for it the status of mythic archetype or classical tragedy, is that the critics insist that the man's death has significance not because of any significance attributed to that death within the story, but rather because of the significance of death in the critical categories they have applied to the story. The man's death is significant because it symbolizes the frailty of unaccommodated man against cosmic forces, because it leads to psychic rebirth, because it is the tragic result of a tragic flaw and is confronted with "dignity." The "simple fact" of death is nothing but a simple fact if nothing is at stake but the "mere" loss of biological life, if the character who dies is nothing but a physical body killed to illustrate this "simple fact."
For Jack London, and consequently for the reader, the man in the story is simply a living body and cold is simply a physical fact. To insist that the story is a symbolic dramatization adumbrated in a symbolic polarity between fire as life and cold as death is to run the risk of saying that the symbolic protagonist's symbolic failure to build the symbolic fire results in his symbolic death. Of course, such a statement is true in the sense that every art work can be said to "symbolize" or "mediate" a reality that is not identical with the verbal construct of the work itself. But such a statement tells us nothing about Jack London's story. Surely Labor and Hendricks realize that both Frank O'Connor and Pascal in their references to human loneliness and the terror of infinite spaces meant something more than the simple fear of being physically alone or losing physical life.
London's central comment about the protagonist in the story itself clearly indicates the "naturalistic" nature of his Everyman: "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." London says that the cold was a simple fact for the man. "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 heat and cold; and from there it did not lead him to the conjectural field of immortality and man's place in the universe." If this comment "hardly ripples in the reader's consciousness," as Labor and Hendricks suggest, it is not because it is dropped so "deftly," but rather because London, like his protagonist, is without imagination in this story, because he too is concerned here only with the things of life and not with their significance. The reader may be led to meditate upon the physical limits of man's ability to live in extreme cold, but nothing in the story leads him to the metaphysical conjectural field of immortality and man's place in the universe.
A close look at the story itself without the lenses of a priori categories reveals that the most significant repetitive motif London uses to chart the man's progressive movement toward death is the gradual loss of contact between the life force of the body and the parts of the body: "The cold of space smote the unprotected tip of the planet, and he, being on that unprotected tip, received the full force of the blow. The blood of his body recoiled before it. The blood was alive, like the dog, and like the dog it wanted to hide away and cover itself up from the fearful cold... The extremities were the first to feel its absence." The man realizes this more forcibly when he finds it difficult to use his fingers: "they seemed remote from his body and from him. When he touched a twig, he had to look and see whether or not he had hold of it." The separation is further emphasized when he burns the flesh of his hands without feeling the pain and when he stands and must look down to see if he is really standing. When he realizes that he is physically unable to kill the dog, he is surprised to find that he must use his eyes to find out where his hands are.
Finally, realizing that the frozen portions of this body are extending, he has a vision of himself that the story has been moving toward, a vision of the self as totally frozen body, not only without psychic life, but without physical life as well. Picturing the boys finding his body the next day, "he found himself with them, coming along the trail and looking for himself. And, still with them, he came around a turn in the trail and found himself lying in the snow. He did not belong with himself any more, for even then he was out of himself, standing with the boys and looking at himself in the snow." The discovery of self in London's story is not the significant psychic discovery of Oedipus or the Ancient Mariner, but rather the simple physical discovery that the self is body only.
Anyone who sees this purely physical fiction as a story with metaphysical significance does so not as a result of the imagination of Jack London, but as a result of the imagination of his critics. One can grant that the bare situation of the story has metaphysical potential without granting that London actualizes it, gives it validity. It is possible that the great white silence in the story could have had the significance it has in Moby Dick, that the cold of space could have had the significance it has in Crane's "The Blue Hotel," that the nothingness that kills the man could have had the significance it has in "Bartleby the Scrivner" or Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place."
It is even possible that the obsessive concern with immediate detail could have had the significance it has in "Big Two-Hearted River." But without going into what makes such elements metaphysically significant in these true "masterpieces," it is sufficient to say that there is more in the context of these works to encourage such symbolic readings than in London's "To Build a Fire."