Jack London Essay – Jack London’s Stories As Shakespearean Tragedies

Here’s my damn paper, where I compare Jack London’s stories to Shakespearean tragedies for some reason, because it seemed like a good idea at the time. I turned it in today.

Both endings to Jack London’s “The Law of Life” and “To Build A Fire” are tragedies on a narrative, stylistic, and technical level as modeled by Shakespeare’s tragedies themselves, which have proven to be fit to the literary environment for centuries. London’s stories end in a tragic manner that leaves each of the protagonists with a moment of deeper understanding before their deaths. The narrative of these two stories are naturalistic and the deaths of the protagonists are brought about because of the characters’ deviation from the social order and unwillingness to accept that they’re not in control of their fates as human beings in the harsh reality of the cutthroat world of natural selection.

When writing so many tragic endings, an author’s stories can be compared to William Shakespeare’s tragic plays because Shakespeare’s work succeeded in surviving as models of literature and survived the hardest environmental factor of all, which is time. Shakespeare’s plays are “fit” for the literary environment and as a result they have endured the elements and have survived the scrutiny and analysis of scholars for centuries. Shakespeare’s tragedies typically involve a survivor to have “reflection[s] upon the significance of the life which has now ended” (Johnson). For Shakespeare’s plays to be considered tragic, someone has to survive besides the protagonist and a deeper understanding of a social issue has to be met. Jack London sets up both “To Build A Fire” and “The Law of Life” with a social order in place. Both of the stories’ protagonists deviate from that social order or law. As a result of that deviation, the protagonists experience their revelations and ultimately come to their tragic deaths.

In “The Law of Life”, London writes about a character named Koskoosh who has grown old and weak. Koskoosh can no longer keep up with his tribe and is left to die as the social order of his tribe allows. Koskoosh says, “It is well. I am as a last year’s leaf, clinging lightly to the stem. The first breath the blows, and I fall. My voice has become like an old woman’s. My eyes no longer show me the way of my feet, and my feet are heavy, and I am tired. It is well” (London 1044). The social order of Koskoosh’s tribe revolves around the idea of sacrificing the old and weak for the good of the young and fit, and because it is considered acceptable throughout the tribe, Koskoosh doesn’t dispute it. “He did not complain. It was the way of life, and it was just” (London 1044). This dialogue exchange is the meaningful reflection that gets carried back to the social order as his son leaves him.

Koskoosh changes his mind throughout the rest of the text, going back and forth between this acceptance of his fate and his urges as a human to fight for his survival. Koskoosh continues to feed the fire (London 1045) and think about his life. This feeding of the fire is just one of the ways in which Koskoosh succumbs to his human nature and gives in to his natural inclination to try to survive. These naturalistic ideas play out throughout the rest of the story until Koskoosh accepts his fate and goes against his own human nature to survive at the very end of the text when “Koskoosh droppe[s] his head wearily upon his knees” (London 1047). This ending goes completely against the idea that the human condition must fight to survive and that humans are not in control of the environment. Koskoosh controlled his own death in a meaningful way. Koskoosh was able to find order where there is only supposed to be chaos. In Johnson’s lecture, Johnson says that in order for an ending to be a tragedy, someone has to have a meaningful reflection. However, just that meaningful reflection isn’t enough; there must also be someone to carry that meaningful reflection onto the rest of the social order. It may seem that Koskoosh’s reflection is left out in the cold with him at the end of the story, however, the dialogue exchange between Koskoosh and his son (London 1044) does exactly that. The meaningful reflection is carried away at the beginning of the story (London 1044) and Koskoosh succeeds in his reflective goals of succumbing to his fate (London 1047). The inevitability of fate resembles the many tragic endings in Shakespeare’s plays.

In “To Build A Fire”, the unnamed protagonist is an arrogant man who believes that he is as fit to the environment around him as the dog is. The protagonist refuses to see otherwise until the very end of the story. The dog, on the other hand, bears witness to his troubles and leaves on a journey back to the rest of the social group. The dog may not have the mental capacity to understand completely what it’s witnessed. Even if it did, it wouldn’t have the ability to retell the story of the reflection that the protagonist had to the social group. However, symbolically, the dog represents that occurrence. Much like how the protagonist was powerless to stop the environment from overcoming him, the dog is powerless to tell the tale, but because the dog is fit for the environment, it doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is being fit.

In Ian Johnson’s lecture, he says that we care about tragic characters because “what matters is their willingness to suffer in the service of their own vision of themselves. They have set an emotional logic to their lives, and they are going to see it through, no matter how powerfully their originally high hopes are deceived”. The narrator in “To Build A Fire” states that “the trouble with [the protagonist] 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” (London 1048). This shows that not only does the protagonist in “To Build A Fire” has a single tragic flaw just as the protagonists in Shakespeare’s tragedies have, but it also shows that London specifically created a narrator to tell us that this protagonist is flawed. London wanted there to be no question of the protagonist’s tragic flaw. When the protagonist breaks the rules, rules like to not deviate from the main path (London 1048), to not go out when it’s fifty below zero (London 1048), and to never go out alone (London 1055), the protagonist endures suffering before he reaches his ultimate significant reflection that the rules shouldn’t have been broken. The protagonist imagines telling the old man back at camp that “you were right, old hoss; you were right” (London 1055). London’s stories follow the Shakespearean model of tragedy very closely, presenting itself as true tragedy, emulating the fit work of Shakespeare, proving again that fit work survives the ultimate test of time, and creatively showing how content mirrors form as naturalist fiction.

It could seem that this distinction of London’s work as naturalism goes against the ideas of fate that are flooded throughout pre-naturalism work such as Shakespeare’s. Shakespeare’s work was not as footed in the advancements of the scientific understanding of the world. It could be argued though, that naturalism is merely a scientific way of stating the same thing: that humans are not ever really in control of our own endings, much like the character in “To Build A Fire”. However, my reading of “The Law of Life” shows that this is not the case and that Koskoosh was in control of his ending. Both stories give a different end of the spectrum, of naturalism vs the traditional ideas of accepting fate. In a sense, London was doing his own comparative work with the two ends of the spectrum with each of these texts. “The Law of Life” is the story London uses to explore the ideas of fate in Shakespearean tragedy. “To Build A Fire” is the story that London uses to explore the ideas of naturalism in Shakespearean tragedy.

In Lee Clark Mitchell’s explanation of his reading of “To Build A Fire”, Mitchell shows that London’s story is naturalism because of London’s style: the grammar, the repetitive linguistics, and the other levels of repetition throughout the text. To say that a writer has successfully used a linguistic style to achieve an effect is praise that says, like William Shakespeare’s plays, London’s work will also survive the continued test of time. Mitchell continues throughout the rest of his chapter to show how the repetition of sounds, of words such as “cold” (Mitchell 39), “H2O” (Mitchell 38), and the narrated actions of him building and rebuilding the fire (Mitchell 37), work on these different levels to “diminish a capacity or personal control by … suggesting the workings of involuntary repetition” (Mitchell 40). This alludes to the nature in which natural selection involuntarily controls the human condition. Much in the same way that Mitchell is using London’s technique to show naturalism, London’s technique with the sounds and the repetition of words through the work also allude to a quality associated with that of Shakespeare’s plays. So not only is there evidence of a Shakespearean themed tragedy directly in the text stating that the protagonist has a single flaw of being “without imagination” (London 1048), but there are also allusions to a higher quality of text such as that of Shakespeare’s plays repeated throughout London’s stories, showing the fitness of Shakespeare’s text in the literary world and alluding the natural way in which things that are fit to their environment adapt to it. “The Law of Life” also has elements of repetition that help prove Mitchell’s point, such as the repetition of the dialogue “It is well” (London 1044). Again, this is the significant reflection (Johnson) that is needed for the story to be considered a tragedy and it repeats both at the beginning and the end of the conversation between Koskoosh and his son. The repeated elements throughout “The Law of Life” are just as important throughout the text as they are in “To Build A Fire”. What makes “The Law of Life” different is Koskoosh’s decision at the end to accept his fate, resulting in one story that shows a protagonist who makes a decision to accept his fate. “To Build A Fire” shows the results of what happens when a character is unable to control his fate.

Donald Pizer argues that the many levels of repetition in “To Build A Fire” is not a way to show naturalism, but merely a way to show dramatic irony “to buttress the story’s emphasis on the man’s weaknesses and limitations and thus his responsibility for his fate” (219). The protagonist is a “special type, that of the novice, and that he is thus especially vulnerable to the conditions he finds himself in” (220). Pizer’s reading of “To Build A Fire” places the blame of the protagonist’s ending directly onto the protagonist himself. This can be compared to an ending such as in Shakespeare’s Richard II. King Richard’s fatal flaw was his inability to see past his own conceitedness, resulting in his own tragic death. Just as “To Build A Fire” can be compared to one of Shakespeare’s tragedies, “The Law of Life” can be compared to the tragic ending of Romeo and Juliet, the fact that the tragedy between the two lovers was fate and destined by the stars as they are “star-crossed lovers” (Shakespeare 933), which implies a disastrous fate if their paths do ever cross (Greenblatt 933).

Shakespeare’s plays have a tendency to be very rich in literary techniques that sometimes can go over the heads of the audience or the readers of the plays as text. Shakespeare’s plays are also filled with dramatic irony throughout. Just because Pizer doesn’t see the calls to naturalism in London’s text doesn’t mean that it’s not there. Much like a literary quality like that of Shakespeare’s plays, it would be easy for it to go over the heads of the audience at first. I disagree with Pizer’s refusal of Mitchell’s reading. However, I do not disagree that the repetition serves as dramatic irony. When emulating a tragedy of the quality of Shakespeare’s, it is necessary for certain literary techniques to serve multiple purposes. London’s use of repetition serves as dramatic irony for the audience, as well as for emphasizing that “nothing can now be altered because everything has been so firmly set in place” (38), which works as a play on the allusion to the literary techniques that, like those in Shakespeare’s plays, can go over the audiences’ heads.

It is also difficult to argue that a story rooted so deep in naturalism is doing so to show that human beings are responsible for anything, let alone the protagonist’s ending in “To Build A Fire”. Surely in a story with a truly tragic ending that makes an effort to imply that humans are powerless to fate, the protagonist cannot be to be blame for his own demise. Maybe one could argue that the protagonist was to blame if he was the only character being described by the narrator, but having the dog in every moment with him even as he is running with no feeling in his legs (London 1056-1057) complicates this. Again, the dog is the witness to the protagonist’s fate and reflection. An ending as meaningless as the protagonist being to blame wouldn’t require a deeper reflection to symbolically be carried back to the social group. However, Pizer calls this kind of reading of a work of naturalism a mistake and that it results in “ignor{ing} the plain meaning of the text as a whole” (226). Pizer also says that these types of readings “do harm both on our understanding of the text and, in a large sphere of repression, to the profession of English studies” (226). This kind of close reading of a text is detrimental to an entire social order of English scholars. Pizer recognizes this deeper significant reflection and carries it with him back to the social order and into his own critique about Lee Clark Mitchell’s close-reading technique of Jack London’s “To Build A Fire”. Pizer’s only flaw is that he is unable to make the connection that Mitchell made with the multiple levels of repetition throughout the text, resulting in Pitzer’s inability to see how the text itself, with its sounds, its repeated words, and its repeated actions not only show dramatic irony, but also emulate a reoccurring theme of determinism and the inability of the human condition to alter its fate in the world of natural selection.

In conclusion, the endings to London’s stories, “The Law of Life” and “To Build A Fire”, are tragic on a narrative level, fulfilling the requirements of a tragedy as outlined in Johnson’s lecture. Koskoosh in “The Law of Life” comes to an understanding of significance and London places that understanding of significance at the beginning of the story to ensure that it’s carried back to the social group and that the narrative is considered a tragedy. Koskoosh accepts his fate at the end, much like many of the traditional Shakespearean tragedies such as in Romeo and Juliet. In “To Build A Fire”, the dog is the symbolic representation of carrying the significant understanding that protagonist has back to the social group, and much like nature and the law of natural selection, the dog doesn’t have to understand that he is doing so as long as the message will inevitably get back to the others. Mitchell pointed out the technical and stylistic repetition, which helped me to allude London’s style to that of Shakespeare’s plays. Pizer refuted Mitchell’s reading of the play, indicating that the repletion was used to show dramatic irony. I have argued that the repetition, like the Shakespeare plays that came long before London, serves both purposes and adds another level that the repetition is used for in London’s naturalistic stories. Pizer’s failure to understand Mitchell’s argument adds even another level of tragedy to the scholarly debate around London’s use of naturalism, and also fulfills the requirements of a tragedy by that misunderstanding being acknowledged in this paper and becoming a part of the conversation that is the social order of literary scholars and the world of literature. Whether London meant to pull inspiration from Shakespeare’s tragedies or not, he seems to have succeeded in doing so. These parallels to the work written centuries before London can give modern scholars a better understanding of London’s stories as tragedies. Understanding London’s stories as tragedies modeled after a high quality set of works helps to root them even further in naturalism by showing that even literature can emulate a deterministic path. Works that are fit for the environment of literature will ultimately survive, as shown in the evidence of allusions to a quality work such as Shakespeare’s plays in London’s texts.

Works Cited

Johnson, Ian. “Dramatic Structure: Comedy and Tragedy”. English 366: Studies In Shakespeare. Malaspina University College. Web. 12 Apr 2016. <http://www.siue.edu/~ejoy/eng208NotesOnComedyAndTragedy.htm>

London, Jack. “The Law of Life”. The Norton Anthology of American Literature Eighth Edition Vol C. Ed. Nina Baym, Robert S. Levine, Arnold Krupat and Jeanne Campbell Reesman. New York: W. W. Norton Company. 2012. 1043-1047. Print.

London, Jack. “To Build A Fire”. The Norton Anthology of American Literature Eighth Edition Vol C. Ed. Nina Baym, Robert S. Levine, Arnold Krupat and Jeanne Campbell Reesman. New York: W. W. Norton Company. 2012. 1047-1058. Print.

Mitchell, Lee Clark. Determined Fictions: American Literary Naturalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989. Print.

Pizer, Donald. “Jack London’s ‘To Build a Fire’: How Not to Read Naturalist Fiction.” Philosophy and Literature 34.1 (2010): 218-227. Project MUSE. Web. 14 Apr. 2016.

Shakespeare, William. Richard II. The Norton Shakespeare Second Edition. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, and Katharine Eisaman Maus. New York: W. W. Norton Company. 1997. 693-753. Print.

Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet. The Norton Shakespeare Second Edition. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, and Katharine Eisaman Maus. New York: W. W. Norton Company. 1997. 933-1000. Print.