Literary characters oppose various evil forces, from human antagonists to hostile supernatural creatures, unfriendly ancient gods, and even dark mysterious phenomena. However, nature is one of the most common and most popular rivals of a human being, both in the real life and in a fictional setting. Natural calamities disturb people’s plans, interfere with their regular lifestyle, and produce tremendous tragedies. Too often, it happens because of people’s continuous desire to reorganize the world at their own discretion, regardless of the collateral damage done to other living beings and nature in general. In this regard, it is no wonder that the confrontation between people and their natural habitat is a recurring theme in many literary works, such as Jack London’s short story, “To Build a Fire” and Stephen Crane’s short story, “The Open Boat.” Both London and Crane explore the man-nature opposition, using symbols of life to emphasize people’s struggle, yet the results of this confrontation differ, causing death of London’s protagonist due to his carelessness and enabling most of the main characters in “The Open Boat” to succeed because of their common efforts and mutual support.
Fire, as a recognizable symbol of life, appears already in the title of London’s short story. For centuries, people managed to survive even in the most adverse external circumstances because they were able to make fire and keep it burning. Even a silent companion of the main character, the dog instinctively knows what the man has to do to stay alive, “to go into camp or to seek shelter somewhere and build a fire” (London 66). Whereas the man is alone, far from other people, in the cold wilderness of the Yukon, his life literally depends on his ability to find the right place for the fire. As long as there is the fire, the man remains alive. When the fire is gone, the man’s life is on the verge of death as well because “When it is 75 below zero, a man must not fail in his first attempt to build a fire” (London 71). The fire can save the man’s life and its absence equates the end for him.
In “To Build a Fire,” the main symbol is self-explanatory and does not require the audience to go deeper in the text and search for further meanings, “There was the fire, promising life with every dancing flame” (London 72). However, it does not undermine its significance. On the contrary, everything is exposed and evident. The man is on one side and nature is on the other side. It is a primeval confrontation with the man trying to survive, using fire as an immediate rival to the hostile environment.
Similarly, the boat with four survivors of the shipwreck becomes a symbol of life in “The Open Boat,” and this symbol appears already in the title of the story the way it does in “To Build a Fire.” The opposition of the fire against the frost in London’s narration turns into a confrontation between the boat and “the rough sea” in “The Open Boat.” (Crane 1), A human life looks extremely fragile amidst “frightfully rapid and tall” waves (Crane 1). The survivors can depend on “The six inches of boat” solely (Crane 1). This is their only chance to make it to the shore. Just as the protagonist of London’s story struggles to keep the fire as long as he can, if the main characters of Crane’s narration can keep their boat afloat until they reach the shore, they will survive.
Another common feature between the fire in “To Build a Fire” and the boat in “To Build a Fire” is that both symbols become active participants of the stories. Although they are silent and cannot do anything on their own, both can still be treated as separate characters. When London’s protagonist can build a fire, it becomes his friendly, supportive companion, “With the protection of the fire’s warmth he ate his lunch” (London 70). While four survivors in “The Open Boat” are trying to make their way to the shore, the boat seems to deliberately join their efforts and do whatever it can to save them. It is even referred to as ‘she,’ as if it is no longer a wooden vessel, “jumping and slipping and racing and dropping down, she steadied for the next threat” (Crane 2). In the battle between the man and nature, the fire and the boat appear to be on the man’s side. It does not guarantee that everyone will be saved, and nature will let them live. However, they still serve as an additional source of motivation and hope.
Although the main characters experience the same obstacles, namely they have to withstand nature, their battles end differently. It does not mean that it is easier to survive in the small boat in the rough sea as compared to going through the freezing Yukon unharmed. Certainly, having someone to help you rowing or simply saying a warm word in the middle of despair is a powerful instrument of encouragement. However, the main reason that the protagonist of “To Build a Fire” dies and three out of four survivors successfully make it to the shore in “The Open Boat” is a different one. As it often happens, when a person overestimates his or her capabilities, a tragedy can happen, even if it were not “107 degrees of frost” (London 66). Excessive self-assurance and arrogance cause death of London’s protagonist with the frost, the snow, the wind, and the absence of a human companion acting as supplementary, albeit adverse factors.
From the onset, the protagonist of “To Build a Fire” is a newcomer in the Yukon. He is inexperienced and unprepared to set off on such a dangerous journey with no one by his side. The lack of knowledge on how to act in the extreme temperatures and what to do to survive can hardly be called his flaw. Yet, his arrogance and overconfidence certainly are. Moreover, he is “quick and ready in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in their meanings”, making him an easy target for the cold and the wind (London 65). Although it does not take long for the man to understand the extent of his troubles, it is already too late to do something. He fails to build and maintain a proper fire. He takes off his gloves, thus making a fatal mistake and having his hands frostbitten. The dog is his last hope, but the animal can feel the man’s fear and leaves him in the search for “the other food providers and fire providers” (London 79). It is difficult to say, if everything would go well if it were not the man’s first winter and he were aware of the dangers waiting for a lonely traveler because nature can be deceitful even for the most experienced people. Yet, by underestimating his rival, the man significantly decreases his chances for survival.
Unlike London’s protagonist, four survivals appear in such situation against their will. Their ship crashed and the only thing they can do is to work together, keep their optimism, and hope that they will still have strengths, when they reach the shore. Unfortunately, the oiler drowns, but the other three men survive. Their ability to stay together and to join efforts helps them do it. In contrast to the man from the Yukon, they never forget to fear the rough sea, which acts as an efficient reminder of possible dangers on the way and keeps them on the alert.
When people confront nature under any circumstances, the results of such collision can differ. The protagonist of London’s story, “To Build a Fire” dies and three out of four main characters of Crane’s story, “The Open Boat” survive. It can equally be an outcome of someone being too self-assured and a game of chance. In any case, while nature is an impartial rival that never intends to hurt a human being, people should never underestimate its might and grandeur. At the same time, even the small boat with four brave and persistent men can become an equal opponent of the roughest storm, if people collaborate and do not lose hope.
- Crane, Stephen, and Josef Raith. The Open Boat. Hueber, 1971.
- London, Jack. To Build a Fire: and Other Stories. Zulma, 2006.