R USSELL M. H ILLIER
Crystal Beards and Dantean Inﬂuence in Jack London’s “To Build a Fire (II)”
James I. McClintock has described Jack London’s classic short story “To Build a Fire (II)” as the “most mature expression of his pessimism” (116). In what follows, I wish to explore the possibility that there is a substantial element of spiritual allegory operative in London’s narrative. London originally conceived his tale as a moral fable and a cautionary narrative to American youth never to travel alone. To this end, London published the story in Youth’s Companion. In its ﬁnal version, though, the tale assumed decidedly darker and more sinister tones. In capturing the menace of the inclement northland, London was drawing upon his own travels in the Klondike, but I would argue that his narrative was also inspired by a fusion of his experience of the harsh and bleak environment of Dawson City with his encounter with the literature he read while he was sheltering in a winter cabin beside the Stewart River, in circumstances London’s biographer Andrew Sinclair characterizes as “a trap of cold and boredom, short rations and scurvy” (48). Sinclair describes the modest library with which London weathered that cramped and piercingly cold spell of ﬁve months and writes how, “In the tedious conﬁnes of the winter cabins, [London] settled down to absorb the books that became the bedrock of his thought and writing, underlying even the socialism which was his faith. These were the works of Darwin, Huxley, Herbert Spencer, and Kipling, Milton’s Paradise Lost and Dante’s Inferno” (48). The last two works Sinclair accounts for are of particular consequence. Between the pages of Milton and Dante’s epics London would have encountered fallen angels and unrepentant sinners who had been immured in Hell for committing crimes of hubris. Indeed, London transferred his fascination for the hubris of Milton’s Satan to his antihero Wolf Larsen in the novel The Sea-Wolf .1 Most importantly, though, London would have discovered, at the outer reaches of Milton’s Hell, “a frozen Continent [ . . . ] dark and wilde, beat with perpetual storms / Of Whirlwind
Jack London’s “To Build a Fire (II)”
and dire Hail, [ . . . ] all else deep snow and ice” (PL 2.587–89, 591); and, within the innermost circle of Dante’s pit of Hell, he would have found a frozen subterranean lake blasted by biting winds. Neither infernal vision would have been so very far removed from London’s own experience of the subzero temperatures and appalling conditions of the Klondike. Indeed, the inhuman cold that defeats London’s protagonist was as much an attribute of the traditional medieval idea of Hell as its notorious qualities of ﬁre and brimstone. The landscape of London’s revised tale is conspicuously preternatural— “the mysterious, far-reaching hair-line trail, the absence of sun from the sky, the tremendous cold, and the strangeness and weirdness of it all” (1302). Where Milton’s Hell is characterized by the paradoxical quality of “darkness visible” (PL 1.63), London’s comfortless northern world has “an intangible pall over the face of things, a subtle gloom that made the day dark” (1301). London’s protagonist is an anonymous “man,” a gold prospector who not only lacks the imagination to survive in the Yukon wasteland, but who is also oblivious to any metaphysical possibilities and unmindful of “the conjectural ﬁeld of immortality and man’s place in the universe” (1302). Incapable of companionability, the man always travels alone, except for his husky, an animal he treats with contempt and even with hostility. His disdain for the wise counsel that “the old-timer on Sulphur Creek” (1309) gives him to travel into the northland with a partner is a recurrent...