Comparison of Man vs. Nature in “To Build a Fire” and “The Open Boat”
Naturalism is a form of literature that applies objectivity and detachment scientific principles to study humankind. Specifically, naturalism explores the forces of heredity, nature, and the environment on people who must contend with those forces. The short stories To Build a Fire by Jack London and The Open Boat by Stephen Crane revolve around naturalism. Stephen Crane’s work revolves around four men who are adrift after their ship sank. Throughout the story, the four men struggle to survive while attempting to resist nature. As the story progresses, these four men realize that nature is uncaring and indifferent. The men start questioning God’s existence and their fate. As the story progresses, one man dies, and the three survive. On the other hand, To Build a Fire is a tragic narrative of an unnamed man who chooses to journey alone across the dangerous terrain of the Yukon in below-freezing temperatures. The man becomes a victim of the unforgiving and unrelenting power of nature. The man walks through severe cold, which is around “one hundred and seven degrees below the freezing point.” The man’s life rests on his ability to quickly start a fire to prevent his feet from freezing (Crane 122). The protagonist’s lonely struggle against Yukon’s hostile environment becomes apparent after the failed attempts to light fire, which causes his death. This paper compares and contrasts the theme of man vs. nature in The Open Boat and To Build a Fire. The two stories demonstrate how inferior humans are to nature. Crane and London attempt to prove that man has no free will and is completely controlled by nature.
In a struggle against nature, The Open Boat and To Build a Fire depict similar trends where man is seen to have no control over nature despite their efforts to overcome it. The main characters in “The Open Boat” struggle to survive from the very beginning. To showcase this narrator states that, “None of them knew the color of the sky” (Crane 338). Here, the narrator refers to the four protagonists: the oiler, correspondent, captain, and cook. According to this quote, everyone is totally concentrated on fighting for their survival while paying no heed to the waves. They struggle to survive as they battle the seas. Further, the narrator states, “A singular disadvantage of the sea lies in the fact that after successfully surmounting one wave, you discover that there is another behind it just as important and just as nervously anxious to do something effective in the way of swamping boats” (Crane 339). The waves symbolize uncaring nature and how it has overcome man. No matter how much the protagonists try to battle against the waves, nature always wins, and the waves continue to flow. The characters are, however, adamant about surviving. Even after realizing that nature is indifferent, they still have to contend with this external conflict.
Jack London also uses the theme of man vs. nature in his short story, To Build a Fire, to showcase how destitute man is when faced with the forces of nature. The struggle is depicted throughout the story. The struggle begins when the author writes, “Day had broken cold and gray, exceedingly cold and gray” (London 301). The adjectives describing the day are repeated to indicate the severe and difficult situation the man is about to face. Also, the author questions and examines the abilities that animals and humans require to thrive and where these abilities are developed. The story’s protagonist is arrogant, and his ego drives him to challenge nature by embarking on a journey despite his awareness that he would face adverse weather conditions. This is an excellent example of the idea that each individual is born with some traits, and based on the environment they are placed in, their fate is determined, indicating that man has no power over nature. Furthermore, even though the dog senses that the man is doing wrong, it does not warn him. Explaining this, the narrator explains that the dog had its instincts. This can be traced to the fact that the man considers it as a tool and something he needs to dominate over. After the man tries to light up the fire several times unsuccessfully, he ends up dying. The protagonist’s efforts to overcome nature are met with equal efforts from nature to defeat him, as seen by the protagonist’s inability to light a fire. After the man dies, the dog only stays around for a little while and goes to find other providers. Also, the dog is only concerned about the food and fire that the man provided, not about his death. This shows how nature is indifferent to man. Also, the powerlessness of man is evident in the setting of the story and his lack of identity. Thus, it is evident that Jack London’s short story To Build a Fire is a true depiction of the struggle between man and nature.
Although The Open Boat and To Build a Fire show how inferior humans are to nature and how nature constantly challenges the ability of humans to survive through the theme of nature vs. man, the presentation of this theme is done differently. The main difference is seen in the way the characters interact with each other within the stories. London presents the theme of nature vs. man with the use of a single character, the unnamed man, to showcase how the man is struggling to survive. Contrary, Crane uses the interaction between the four main characters and how these four are struggling to survive.
Overall, the two short stories: The Open Boat and To Build a Fire, primarily center on the struggle between human beings and nature. Although protagonists in the two stories strive to prevail over nature, it is evident that nature has full control over them and leaves them helpless. The stories clearly point out that the manner in which nature controls is not linked with any particular contempt or concern for human beings, but rather nature is completely indifferent to humankind. The men in both tales have a similar end since they are both discovered to be entrapped in uncontrollable natural forces.
Crane, Stephen. The open boat and other tales of adventure. Doubleday & McClure Company, 1905.
London, Jack. “To Build A Fire .”Richard Fay (ed) Stories and storytellers. Fourth Ed. Wellington: BLT, 2006. P. 301-312