Historical Context in To Build a Fire

Klondike Gold Rush: "To Build a Fire" is set during the Klondike Gold Rush, a surge of gold-mining activity in the Yukon region of Canada between 1896 and 1899. One-hundred thousand prospectors traveled to the Yukon to make their fortune. The majority came away with little or nothing to show for their efforts. In 1897, twenty-one-year-old Jack London sailed to the Yukon as a gold prospector. He never found gold and was soon stricken with scurvy, nagging hip pains, and a gum ailment that took four of his teeth. Despite these setbacks, his Klondike experiences provided him fodder for many of his early stories.

Literary Naturalism: As an offshoot of realism, the naturalist movement is the attempt to apply scientific principles to its fictional subjects, including detached narration, focus on observation over authorial conclusions, and the idea that events may be predetermined outside of human control. London’s choice to not give the characters names is explained by naturalist philosophy: by keeping his characters anonymous, he is able to remain impassive and simply a reporter of information. Likewise, the man’s fate would not have been a surprise for naturalists, many of whom were influenced by Darwin’s theory of natural selection, which hypothesizes that species best adapted to their environment will be the likeliest to survive. Since the man fails to adapt, he falls prey to the unforgiving landscape.

Historical Context Examples in To Build a Fire:

To Build a Fire 4

"niggerheads..."   (To Build a Fire)

This is an outdated term used to describe geological features such as large boulders or cliff faces. In 1962 the U.S. Board on Geographic Names eradicated such place names because of their racist and offensive connotations.

"The Yukon lay a mile wide and hidden under three feet of ice...."   (To Build a Fire)

In 1897, 21-year-old Jack London sailed to the Yukon as a gold prospector. He never found gold and was soon stricken with scurvy, nagging hip pains, and a gum ailment that lost him four of his teeth. Despite these setbacks, his Klondike experiences provided him fodder for many of his early stories.

"the main Yukon trail..."   (To Build a Fire)

“To Build a Fire” is set during the Klondike Gold Rush, a surge of gold-mining activity in the Yukon region of Northern Alaska between 1896 and 1899. One-hundred thousand prospectors traveled to the Yukon to make their fortune. The majority came away with little or nothing to show for their efforts.

"the man..."   (To Build a Fire)

In the original version of “To Build A Fire,” published in 1902, the protagonist is called Tom Vincent. London later revised the story, deepening his descriptions of the setting and the character while removing his name. In this second version, published in 1908, the protagonist remains unnamed throughout the story.