Jack London’s Marlboro Man
In Jack London’s short story To Build a Fire we learn a lot in a deceptively short amount of time. We learn some basic geography of the Yukon trail. We learn how to tell if the temperature is 50 below. We learn some basics of trail safety if you’re hiking in sub-arctic temperatures. And we learn a bit about canine instincts. With all this information flowing from the narrator, however, we learn deceptively little about the narrator himself. The clues he leaves us paint a picture of a brash, no-nonsense youth, fresh with masculine bravado that unfortunately leads to his downfall.
Our hero finds himself in the middle of the Yukon, alone, carrying only his lunch (London, ¶5) on a full day’s hike in the coldest parts of winter. He has gone against the advice of people much older, wiser, and experience than he who say “no man must travel alone in the Klondike after fifty below.” (¶25) We can see the brashness in this section due both to his masculinity, in assuredly calling such an advice giver womanly, as well as in his youth, in the constant references to the “old timer.” That he would go to such an extreme and abandoned place alone, with no emergency provisions when this is admittedly his first winter in the Klondike (¶3) is a foolishness almost characteristic of young men with something to prove.
It’s also quite amazing how headstrong he is. Countless times in the story he explains the world matter-of-factly, in a way that supposes he’s had much more experience than he admits to. He casually dismisses the potential freezing of his cheeks, saying it was only a bit painful and never serious (¶11), though in all reality this is probably his first time in negative 70 weather. He talks about hidden water beneath the snow with clinical precision, spending a great length of time to describe all the varied scenarios and what should be done about them (¶14).
He’s also a very, and perhaps impressively, willful. As the wet cold is soaking into his feet and his hands are “dead” from cold and non-functioning, he drives “the thought of his freezing feet; and nose, and cheeks, out of his mind, devoting his whole soul to the matches.” (¶33) and is able to, with this incredible force of will, to grab hold of his matches. Yet at the same time he is a character with a very poor sense of touch with his body, the most flagrant of which is when he stops for lunch and forgets not only about his “amber beard” but that he has not built a fire yet. (¶15) It’s almost an impossible sort of forgetfulness, if you’ve ever been in sub-arctic conditions like the dog he describes you dream of the fire. More than the food, which he salivates over at one point, it is the thought of warming yourself that you dream of. Again, this is probably a part of the masculine façade he has created for himself with the dog’s “weak” animal urges to hide by the fire or in the snow as a counterbalance.
That at the end the man would want to “die with dignity” by falling to sleep instead of fighting for his life, from such an arrogant machismo, is frankly no surprise. (¶43) Nor is his detached vision of himself telling the guys back home about it as he seems to be so trying to control the situation he’s lost connection with himself. He is Jack London’s Marlboro Man: in control of an image so rugged and masculine that he’s lost sense that these icons of masculinity are the very thing that’s killing him.
1. What was your purpose? What effect were you trying to achieve?
I really was quite overwhelmed with the stupid masculinity of the main character of the story and really wanted to focus in on how terribly damaging that was. We can chide him for not being better prepared, but all evidence in the story says that he was intentionally unprepared because he felt he was tougher than the wilderness.
2. What was interesting about the process you went through in writing this paper, and what did you learn from it?
I thought it was interesting that in the process of revision the paper basically flipped itself, with the original idea of the Marlboro Man ending up at the end instead of the beginning.
3. What was the most difficult aspect about this paper, and what did you learn from the attempt?
Connecting all the ideas and finding a good word flow with such a small word count and no secondary sources was quite the challenge. I think through this I’ve learned a bit more respect for brevity.
4. What do you see as the strengths of the paper, and what would you try to do if you were to revise it some more?
I rather like the idea of Jack London’s Marlboro Man and think it would actually be interesting to flesh out in comparison with some of the male role models in some of his other works.
5. What’s not a part of your paper that you think might help a reader understand or appreciate it more? What didn’t you put in?
A secondary source on the construction of masculinity, especially frontier masculinity, would have greatly strengthened my point but with the word count there was really no room to explore such a source
6. What kind of feedback or response would you like from your instructor?
I feel a bit confused concerning the order of facts and some feelings on if they were presented clearly would be useful.
What are your general ideas about writing now that you have taken this course?
I feel I have learned a new appreciation for the writing process from taking this course. In my life although I’ve written things in various forms I don’t feel I’ve really taken advantage of the revision process. Since taking this course the idea that writing really is a process and not as unrestrained or as set in stone as speech has been something I’ve greatly appreciated.
Has your writing process changed? Did you try anything new?
Since taking this course I’ve become much more aware of the strengths of a thesis statement and the focus and attention toward it is something that has changed greatly in my process in other courses.
Did you gain what you wanted, or something different that you find valuable?
Initially, I don’t know how much more than the correction of awkward grammar and typos I expected from revision. Honestly, as far as a class on the subject of writing goes I don’t know how many expectations I had except that it would be a way to stretch my linguistic muscles, but I feel satisfied with the work I’ve done this course and hope it extends into future endeavors.
London, Jack To Build a Fire. Retrieved May 16, 2009, Web site: