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.