The story is set in the depth of winter in the Northwest Territories, a place profoundly inhospitable to human beings. The plot is straightforward: On a single, sunless day, an unnamed man undertakes a nine-hour walk along a faint and little-traveled trail in brutally cold weather—75 degrees below zero, 107 degrees of frost. Bound for the mining camp, where his companions are waiting, he takes a roundabout way so that he can scope out the “possibilities of getting out logs in the spring from the islands in the Yukon” (2). Save for the clothes he wears, a watch, his lunch, some chewing tobacco, some matches, and a few pieces of birch bark, he takes precious little with him. He is, however, accompanied by a husky, who seems far more impressed and depressed by—and instinctively aware of—the “tremendous cold” (3). He starts his trek at 9:00 a.m., pauses at 10:00, arrives at his lunch destination at 12:30 p.m.—exactly the time he had set for himself—builds a fire, eats, takes a leisurely smoke, and resumes walking, aiming to make camp by 6:00 p.m. But suddenly, “it happened” (7): he accidentally steps into an icy spring. To dry off, he successfully builds another fire, but he does so under a “fully freighted” tree, whose boughs soon capsize their loads of snow and snuff the fire out (9). Despite the frost that has already affected his fingers, he valiantly attempts to build a third fire, but, alas, he fails. He then makes a couple of attempts to run before deciding to meet death “decently,” “with dignity” (14). He sits down and slips into a frozen sleep, watched over by the increasingly bewildered dog, who eventually wanders off and presumably makes his way back to camp.
Citizens from many nations, for quite different reasons, sought to penetrate the Northwest Territories. We can imagine, for example, a story like London’s about a French Jesuit priest losing his life while trudging through the Northern winter for the purpose of baptizing a newborn Huron Indian. We would be invited by such a tale to admire or even be inspired by the deep piety, the sacrificial spirituality, of such a Frenchman. We also have an historical British example in Sir John Franklin, who set out in 1845 with 129 men and two amply stocked ships to find the Northwest Passage, a route through the Arctic from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. Although his expedition failed and all aboard were lost, Franklin stood for many decades as a proud symbol of British naval prowess and national, even imperial, honor. Noble impulses, like piety and honor, still inspire. But Jack London’s anonymous adventurer is out on the Yukon River, all alone in the dead of winter, searching for a profitable business opportunity: Jack London’s man is clearly an American. So are the story’s larger themes. But before getting to them, we need to look carefully at the protagonist of the story: his character, his deeds, and his purposes. We will also want to decide what we think of him.
A. The Man
- Characterize the man, drawing on the descriptions of his attitudes, manner, and deeds.
- Compare the man and the dog. How do they differ?
- The man knows how to build a fire. What does this tell us about him?
- The narrator says: “The trouble with him was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances” (2). What does this mean? Is it inevitably a problem?
- Is this man recognizably American? Typically American? Why and how?
- What is the significance of the fact that the man is not named?
WATCH: Who is “the man”? Is the man typically American?
WATCH: Why is the man nameless?
B. The Man’s Surroundings
- Characterize the man’s surroundings.
- Consider the images London uses to set the scene—for example, “the spittle crackled . . . in the air” (2); the “muzzle of ice held his lips so rigidly that he was unable to clear his chin when he expelled the [tobacco] juice” (3); “the cold of space smote the unprotected tip of the planet, and he, being on the unprotected tip, received the full force of the blow” (8). What kind of moods and feelings do these images create?
- What attitude toward nature does the man display? What attitude toward nature do you, as reader, experience?
C. The Man’s Motives and Purposes
- What moves the man to act as he does? What fundamentally drives him?
- How do you explain his seeming indifference to the cold?
- Trace his changing attitude toward the old-timer from Sulphur Creek. Why does he resist the old man’s advice? Why does he acknowledge, as he lies dying, that the old man was right?
- Given the opportunity to make this journey again, under similar circumstances, do you think he would take it? Or do you think he learned something of significance from this experience that would alter his behavior or attitudes in the future?
- What do you learn from his experience?
D. Assessing the Man
- What do you think of the man? Do you regard him as an admirable hero—independent, resourceful, rugged, and resilient? Do you regard him as a reckless fool—proud, overconfident, unimaginative, and blind? As something in between? In some other way? Explain.
- Had he successfully made it back to camp, would your judgment of him differ?
- What do you think of the man’s purposes? Are they less worthy than those of other adventurers? Why, or why not?
- What do you think London thinks of his own protagonist?
- Might the unforgiving, frigid environment that London depicts—an environment that seems altogether to resist human intentions—provide a clue?
- Might London’s own stylistic devices—for example, his numerous repetitions of words like “cold,” “know,” “fire,” and so forth—provide a clue?
- Is the man (or a failing of his character) responsible for what happens to him? Or is he just an unlucky victim of an accident (“It happened”)?
- Is the man a tragic hero? Is the story an American tragedy?
WATCH: Is this story a tragedy?
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