Never Absolute Zero
David Haddon on Jack London’s Failure to Keep Morality Out of “To Build a Fire”
Dr. Louise Cowan, longtime professor of literature at the University of Dallas, taught that an analysis of a work of literature is not complete until the critic has evaluated it not only at the literal, allegorical, and moral levels, but also at the anagogic level—the critic must evaluate the work’s relation to ultimate spiritual reality. Thus, at the two highest levels, we must compare the morality and metaphysics discernable in an artist’s narrative with the moral order discernible in what C. S. Lewis called the Tao (or Natural Law) and with the order of creation revealed in Scripture.
Such criticism can help us see that an artist’s vision may—even against his intentions—reach beyond his personal ideology. For example, Rob Moll, an editor at Christianity Today, credits atheist Albert Camus’s insight that “we all have the plague” (in La Peste) with ultimately turning him back to Christian faith. Cowan insisted that the artists who wrote the classics of literature sometimes rose above the limitations of their metaphysics and reflected a reality superior to it.
A surprising example of an artist whose implicit moral vision at least once surpassed his philosophical commitment is Jack London. Indeed, London’s philosophical naturalism is often so accentuated that Nancy Pearcey used an excerpt from his story “The Law of Life” as its literary exemplar in a chapter on the Enlightenment heritage (“Art Red in Tooth and Claw”) in her book Saving Leonardo. “The Law of Life” is a tale of an old Indian chief, abandoned by his tribe, who comes to accept his death as “the law of life” that he has observed among the animals. He therefore abandons his resistance to the encircling wolf pack, presumably to be eaten alive by them. While the unrelieved hopelessness of this story and other elements in it do raise questions about the adequacy of its worldview, its advocacy of amoral naturalism is unambiguous.
But the same cannot be said of London’s widely anthologized and critically acclaimed tale “To Build a Fire.” The life-threatening cold of its sub-arctic setting pervades this tale and has gripped generations of readers. Set during the Klondike Gold Rush of the mid-1890s in Canada’s Yukon Territory, the weather on the single winter day in which the story takes place is so cold that when the protagonist, an unnamed chechaquo (a newcomer to the Yukon) spits, his tobacco juice crackles as it freezes instantly in mid-air. From this, the man realizes that it is colder than 50 degrees below zero. Nevertheless, with only an unwilling husky for a companion, he travels on foot toward a camp some 30 miles away. But he never reaches it. Instead, he perishes in the frozen, sunless-at-noon, sub-arctic landscape that represents the hostile, survival-of-the-fittest universe of the naturalist author.
Advice on Ice
London blunts the story’s suspense by explaining to the reader in advance why the chechaquo must die: “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.” Thus, he was “quick and alert,” not stupid; but he failed to appreciate the dangers of traveling alone when it was colder than 50 below because of his lack of imagination—and for this he dies. But London’s proffered interpretation strangely ignores the real reason for his protagonist’s death, which the narrative itself makes apparent.
During his ill-advised solo trek to scout timber and then meet his partners on a Yukon River creek, the chechaquo six times recalls the old-timer who had warned him never to travel alone when it was colder than 50 below. The chechaquo first remembers how he had laughed at the old-timer when he told him how cold it could get in the Yukon; but now, faced with the palpable effects of the extreme cold, he begins to appreciate the extent of the old-timer’s knowledge. And when he suddenly breaks through the crust of snow and ice over a never-freezing spring, stepping in water halfway up to his knees, and must set to work to build a fire to save his life, his respect for the old-timer temporarily increases.
When he quickly succeeds in building the fire he believes will save him, however, he reverts to his original scorn for the old-timer’s “womanish” advice. Then, when the snow-covered spruce under which the chechaquo had ignorantly sited his fire dumps snow on it and extinguishes it, he thinks that “perhaps” the old-timer was right. When he encounters daunting difficulties in starting another fire, he finally admits that the old-timer was right: “After 50 below, a man should travel with a partner.”
With his feet already frozen, and unable to start another fire because of the stiffness of his hands and the shaking of his body from incipient hypothermia, he panics and starts running, stopping and starting several times and finally collapsing from exhaustion. Lying on the frozen snow, he drifts off to sleep and death seeing a vision of the old-timer “warm and comfortable and smoking a pipe.” Before losing consciousness, the chechaquo addresses him and confesses, “You were right, old hoss; you were right.”
The narrative itself reveals that the chechaquo died, not from a lack of imagination, but from his defects of character. Consider his conduct in relation to the classical virtues of justice, prudence, moderation, and courage. First, when he laughs at the old-timer who warned him about how cold it could get, the chechaquo fails to render due respect, thus exposing his vice of injustice. Then, when he realizes that it’s colder than 50 below, he disregards the old-timer’s advice and persists in his journey anyway, thus showing a lack of prudence. By traveling alone in such extreme cold, he also fails to adhere to the golden mean of moderation. Finally, having been bold to the extreme of rashness (instead of to the mean of courage), he finally gives way to cowardice, running in panic to exhaustion and death. Deficient in the natural virtues, the chechaquo shows instead the contrary vices of injustice, imprudence, intemperance and cowardice.
Seen from a biblical perspective, the chechaquo is the fool described in Proverbs: “The way of a fool seems right to him, but a wise man takes advice” (12:15). His chief vice and his fate are set forth in Proverbs 16:18: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” Indeed, even the Wikipedia editor gets it: “It is the man’s own folly and arrogance that cause his death.” The chechaquo dies, then, because, in his arrogance, he rejected the advice of an authority whose long experience had earned him the appellation “old-timer.”
Thus, there is a tension in London’s story between the author’s explanation of the chechaquo’s death, lack of imagination, and the explanation drawn from the story itself, this everyman’s hubris. Similarly, there is a tension between the meaninglessness of it all implied by London’s naturalism and the meaningfulness to be derived from the succession of the chechaquo’s thoughts about the old-timer and his advice. In his visionary apostrophe to the old-timer, the dying man admits that he was wrong. This is the moral crux of the story, where right and wrong are established by the chechaquo’s “deathbed” confession.
The penalty for his vice of arrogance is his fool’s death in 107 degrees of frost. The story’s obvious and absolute moral, enforced in the death penalty inflicted by Nature, contradicts the author’s naturalism. But the story’s moral of humility and prudent submission to the creation’s physical and moral order emerges, nevertheless, from the narrative itself. Thus, in this story, London’s artistic vision, if not his intellect, dwells within the Tao or Natural Law of creation.
So why does London try to explain his story in advance instead of just letting it speak for itself? Could it be that he realized that the arrogance of the chechaquo is so obvious that readers would draw the moral it suggests? Perhaps, since he rejected such morality himself, he tried to guide his readers to an amoral reason—lack of imagination—for the demise of his antihero. If so, London’s naturalism prevented him from properly understanding his own story.
Readers of “To Build a Fire” certainly dread the icy grave towards which the chechaquo inexorably hikes, but, in the end, they are not morally offended by his death because he is driven to it, not by naturalistic determinism, but by his own hubris. The wavering development and final conclusion of the thoughts of the chechaquo as he confidently travels solo, increasingly senses the profound effects of the cold, gamely meets reverses, fails to build the coveted fire, panics and runs, falls to the snow, composes himself to die, and finally confesses his error as he lies quietly freezing to death are what give human drama to the story and, indeed, are the ground in which the moral of the story is rooted: “Don’t be arrogant, but heed the advice of the wise.” The reader is reconciled to the dreaded death by the moral realism of personal responsibility: Moral character has consequences.
In this story, London’s gift as a storyteller transcends his worldview and bears witness to the truth. As Christians, we have access, from both creation and biblical revelation, to the truth about reality. Therefore, Christian critics should be ready to evaluate the morality and metaphysics of fictional works by the canons of virtue and by the revelation that the cosmos is a creation. Under the Christian meta-narrative, the “old-timer” represents the Ancient of Days, and the chechaquo is a rebel son of Adam.
Although this typology is foreign to London’s naturalistic worldview, the presence of such strong moral content in his artistic vision suggests the existence of a moral law and of a Lawgiver who has written his law on the hearts of all men, including this atheist-artist. Indeed, paraphrasing Paul, we might say, “When writers who do not revere the law write tales reflecting the law, they, too, show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts.” •
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“Never Absolute Zero” first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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