ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes, and Reviews, Vol. 23, No. 3, 172–178, 2010 Copyright © Taylor & Francis Group, LLC ISSN: 0895-769X DOI: 10. 1080/08957691003712363 R USSELL M. H ILLIER Providence College Crystal Beards and Dantean In? uence 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 ? nal 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 ? e months and writes how, “In the tedious con? nes 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 172 Jack London’s “To Build a Fire (II)” 173 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 ? re 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 ? eld 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 reminder to London’s reader of the man’s improvidence, unsociability, and willful self-alienation. London’s own brutal ordeal in the Klondike had taught him the importance of having a trail-mate: when wintering by the Stewart River, London and Fred Thompson, journeying for supplies through the wilderness, had “backpacked all the way or they pulled heir own sled, for they owned no team of huskies” (Sinclair 48). In the case of the man in London’s narrative, the idea of working alongside or depending upon other creatures means no more to him than the enjoyment of the commodities he associates with them: “the boys” at the camp, for example, whom the man always keeps in mind throughout the tale, are, to the man, indistinguishable from the material comforts he hopes to gain from “a ? re” and “a hot supper” (1302).
The marked in? uence of Dante in London’s narrative, a crucial factor in one’s appreciation of the tale which, to the best of my knowledge, has hitherto escaped critical attention, helps to con? rm London’s infernal rendering of the unforgiving Yukon wasteland. In structural terms the story has a repetitive, nightmarish quality as “the man” makes three desperate ventures to build a ? re that are each time frustrated—? rst, by having the ? e “blotted out” by an “avalanche” of snow (1309); second, by having his book of sulphur matches extinguished in one fell swoop (1310–11); and, third, by having “the nucleus of the little ? re” snuffed out by a “large piece of green moss” (1311). Lee Clark Mitchell has drawn attention 174 ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes, and Reviews to the ominous, reiterative quality of the tale and to how “events [ . . . ] repeat themselves into an eerie signi? cance, as the man attempts over and over to enact the story’s titular in? nitive” (78).
The man’s predicament recalls the unrelenting fates of transgressors in the classical underworld—of Sisyphus, who pushes a boulder up a hill, only for it to roll down the hill’s other side, or of Tantalus, who fruitlessly reaches out to eat from a branch that is always eluding his grasp. But the man’s thwarted actions also mimic the commitment of Dante’s sinners to both the unending nature of the punishment they must suffer and the experience of their particular sin’s interminable round in each of the nine vicious circles built into the funnel of Dante’s Hell.
London underlines the infernal atmosphere of his tale. He is careful, for instance, to identify the old-timer on Sulphur Creek, who warns the man that a traveler should never venture alone into the Klondike in treacherous weather, with that essential feature of Hell, namely Hell’s sulphurate fumes. London further emphasizes this theme by having his antihero build a ? re with “his bunch of sulphur matches” (1310) that, when lit, emits an evil smell of “burning brimstone” (1311). On bungling his second desperate attempt to build a ? re, the man not only blunders and sets a? me all of his remaining seventy matches, he also sets alight his own hand, so that the burning of his ? esh by ? re becomes associated with the freezing cold that burns into the core of his being at the story’s climax. The freezing cold that literally chills the man to the bone is as apt a fate as a case of Dantean contrapasso, where the punishment of the sinner is appropriate to the nature of their sin. The man’s ethical insentience, his lack of a moral and metaphysical compass to direct his choices and regulate his attitude toward others and toward the universe of which he is a part, is re? cted in the deadening numbness that torments and ultimately destroys him. London includes in his narrative one small but revealing detail from Dante’s Inferno that gives the reader a key to unlock the moral of his fable. Because of the intense cold, the beard of London’s nameless protagonist, like the coat of the husky that reluctantly accompanies the man, sports an icy “appendage” (1303): The frozen moisture of [the husky’s] breathing had settled on its fur in a ? ne powder of frost, and especially were its jowls, muzzle, and eyelashes whitened by its crystalled breath.
The man’s red beard and mustache were likewise frosted, but more solidly, the deposit taking the form of ice and increasing with every warm, moist breath he exhaled. Also, the man was chewing tobacco, and the muzzle of ice held his lips so rigidly that he was unable to clear his chin when he expelled the juice. The result was that a crystal beard of the color and solidity of amber was increasing its length on his chin. If he fell down Jack London’s “To Build a Fire (II)” 175 it would shatter itself, like glass, into brittle fragments. But he did not mind the appendage. 1303) This curious “ice-muzzle on his mouth” (1304) elongates as the man progresses on his journey, so that “he continued monotonously to chew tobacco and to increase the length of his amber beard” (1304); later still, the “ice-muzzle” (1306) obstructs his mouth when he attempts to eat his meal. The “amber beard,” a vivid if admittedly bizarre feature of London’s tale, gathers in signi? cance if we recollect events in the ninth and ? nal circle of Dante’s Inferno. When Dante the pilgrim arrives at Hell’s bottom, he discovers a frozen Lake Cocytus that is swept by bitter, freezing winds.
As Dante ventures toward the heart of Lake Cocytus, where the ? gure of Lucifer weeps, gnashes his teeth, and beats his wings, he eventually arrives at the region of Ptolomea (Inf. 33. 124). In this place he ? nds wretched sinners buried up to their waists in ice: We went farther on, where the frost roughly swathes another people, not bent downwards, but with faces all upturned. The very weeping there prevents their weeping, and the grief, which ? nds a barrier upon their eyes, turns inward to increase the agony, for the ? rst tears form a knot and, like a crystal visor, ? l all the cup beneath the eyebrow. (Inf . 33. 91–99) The “crystal visor [visiere di cristallo]” (Inf . 33. 98) or “the hard veils [i duri veli]” (Inf . 33. 112) that form and clamp about the faces of these sinners offer an attractive source for the “crystal beard” or “muzzle of ice” that torments the countenance of London’s antihero. Just as the tears around the faces of Dante’s sinners solidify and accumulate to form visors or veils, so the tobacco spit in the beard of London’s protagonist encrusts, clusters, and builds to form an icemuzzle.
London’s ice-muzzle that shatters, “like glass, into brittle fragments” (1303), also seems to recall Dante’s frozen Lake Cocytus, which has the durability “of glass [di vetro]” (Inf . 32. 24). In his depiction of the Yukon London gestures further to Dante’s sinners, who are embedded in Lake Cocytus. Just as Dante’s Lake Cocytus is one solid block of ice, so the creek that surrounds the man “was frozen clear to the bottom, — no creek could contain water in that arctic winter” (1304).
Equally, just as Dante’s sinners are trapped in the ice, so various ice pools, covered with “a snow-hidden ice-skin” (1305), present “traps” (1304) that are concealed around the surface of the creek. It is through the ice-skin of one of these same traps that the man falls and, like Dante’s “wretches of the cold crust [tristi de la fredda crosta]” (Inf . 33. 109), the man “wet[s] himself halfway to the knees before he ? oundered out to the ?rm crust” (1307). 176 ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes, and Reviews
London’s allusion to Dante is all the more pertinent when we consider the nature of the sin for which Dante’s transgressors in Ptolomea are being punished. The inhabitants of Ptolomea are those offenders who have transgressed against their guests, hosts, or companions. London’s critics have acknowledged the man’s hubris as “an overweening con? dence in the ef? cacy of his own rational faculties and a corresponding blindness to the dark, nonrational powers of nature, chance, and fate” (Labor 63–64). Yet, as with Dante’s sinners con? ed in Ptolomea, the fatal ? aw of London’s antihero is as much his inability to understand the value of companionship or community. In this way the nameless man’s husky acts as a foil to its master. London characterizes the relationship between the man and his dog as that existing between a “? re-provider” (1309) and a “toil-slave” (1306), and, as such, he reveals that their union is based upon a ruthless pact of convenience and functionality rather than an accord of mutual love, respect, and sympathy.
The “menacing throat-sounds” (1307) of the man are, to the perceptions of the dog, as “the sound of whip-lashes” (1307), and the narrative con? rms the dog’s apprehensions in his master’s futile, last ditch effort to destroy man’s best friend and use its very lifeblood and vital warmth in order to save his own skin. London’s account of his protagonist’s failure to be companionate with his dog is a crucial index to the man’s inability to “meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man’s frailty in general” (1302).
His cruel treatment of his dog furnishes yet another example of his refusal to perceive his fellow human beings and the natural world surrounding him as more than “things” stripped bare of their “signi? cances” (1302). His aversion to companionability, which is equivalent to Dante’s sin of Ptolomea, is further re? ected in his refusal to heed the old-timer’s advice to foster human community and trust to a “trail-mate” (1309). London’s allusion to both the frozen wastes of Dante’s Ptolomea and the crystal beards of the sinners who reside in that nhospitable climate provides a convincing literary analogue for London’s haunting and gloomy depiction of the Klondike; the intertext also serves to highlight the nature of the tragic ? aw of London’s protagonist in placing his trust in a misguided individualism where “any man who was a man could travel alone” (1308). It may be the case that in the parallels between Jack London’s severe experience of being buried in the Klondike and Dante’s unforgettable vision of his cardinal sinners, buried in Lake Cocytus, London found a subject that he could not resist treating imaginatively, irrespective of his religious and political standpoint.
However, if, as I believe, London’s “To Build a Fire (II)” can be read as a moral fable of transgression and punishment that is heavily invested in the stuff of spiritual allegory and, in particular, relies upon the design of Dante’s Commedia, then our tidy, traditional understanding of London as a long-standing, dedicated Socialist who was condescending toward, if not scornful of, spiritual and religious matters becomes problematic or, at the very least, open to reassessment. Jack London’s “To Build a Fire (II)” 177
So that there can be no mistaking the tale’s literary debt to the Florentine master, London’s coda to his narrative contains a strong, though unsettling, allusion to the close of each of Dante’s three canticles. The allusion unsettles, because it bears London’s signature pessimism regarding an unresponsive universe. As, in turn, each canticle ends, Dante the pilgrim gains an increasingly clari? ed and luminous perspective upon the starry universe that proclaims God’s abundant love and His concern for Creation: in Inferno, while emerging from Hell’s pit onto the surface of the Earth, Dante is able to contemplate the ? mament and “see again the stars [riveder le stelle]” (Inf . 34. 139); in Purgatorio, from the peak of Mount Purgatory Dante is “pure and ready to rise to the stars [puro e disposto a salire a le stelle]” (Purg. 33. 145); and, in Paradiso, Dante is at long last granted a beati? c vision of his Maker and is ? lled with wonder “by the Love which moves the sun and the other stars [l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle]” (Parad. 33. 145).
In contrast, London’s powerful closing image of the husky, now masterless and “howling under the stars that leaped and danced and shone brightly in the cold sky” (1315), indicates a more indifferent and uncaring naturalistic universe than the ordered Dantean cosmos where God’s embosoming love moves the sun and the other stars. Perhaps, then, in London’s closing reversion to the bright, dancing stars and the cold sky of an unfeeling universe, James McClintock is correct in his critical judgment that, ultimately, London never truly abandoned his essentially pessimistic worldview in “To Build a Fire (II)”.
Notes I wish to thank my freshman class from the fall semester of 2009 for being a receptive audience to the ideas presented in this paper. Above all, I am grateful to Marek Ignatowicz, a poet and a true man of letters. Without his facility for illuminating discussion on all things literary, and without our memorable conversation on the subject of beards in fact and in ? ction, it is highly probable that the topic of this paper would never have occurred to me. 1 Milton’s Paradise Lost, and in particular the character of Milton’s Satan, is an inspiration to Wolf Larsen in The Sea-Wolf .
Larsen remarks of Milton’s fallen archangel: “But Lucifer was a free spirit. To serve was to suffocate. He preferred suffering in freedom to all the happiness of a comfortable servility. He did not care to serve God. He cared to serve nothing. He was no ? gurehead. He stood on his own legs. He was an individual” (249). Works Cited Dante Alighieri. The Divine Comedy: Inferno. Trans. Charles S. Singleton. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970. Print. ———. The Divine Comedy: Paradiso. Trans. Charles S. Singleton.
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975. Print. 178 ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes, and Reviews ———. The Divine Comedy: Purgatorio. Trans. Charles S. Singleton. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973. Print. Labor, Earle. Jack London. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1974. Print. London, Jack. The Complete Short Stories of Jack London. Ed. Earle Labor, Robert C. Leitz, III, and I. Milo Shepard. 3 vols. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993. Print. ———. The Sea-Wolf . New York: MacMillan, 1967. Print. McClintock, James I.
White Logic: Jack London’s Short Stories. Cedar Springs: Wolf House Books, 1976. Print. Milton, John. The Poetical Works of John Milton. Ed. Helen Darbishire. London: Oxford University Press,1958. Print. Mitchell, Lee Clark. “‘Keeping His Head’: Repetition and Responsibility in London’s ‘To Build a Fire. ”’ Journal of Modern Literature 13. 1 (1986): 76–96. Print. Sinclair, Andrew. Jack: A Biography of Jack London. London: Harper and Row, 1977. Print. Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.