Comparing the Two Versions of To Build a Fire
“I am absolutely confident that beyond the motif itself, there is no similarity of treatment whatever” (544). Jack London, writing in December 1908, was responding to an inquiry from the Richard W. Gilder, editor of Century Magazine. Gilder, having just published “To Build a Fire” in his magazine, was worried when he came across another version published 6 years earlier. London’s explanation was that the first story was for boys and the new one was for men; the only similarity being the motif itself. Through careful analysis of the two stories, in light of this letter to Gilder, and another letter to Cloudesly Johns, it is apparent that although London claims no similarities (besides the motif), they definitely exist.
Before the similarities are discussed, it is necessary to look at the obvious differences that London explains are in the “treatment” (544). The 1902 version was published for boys, while the 1908 version was published for men. London explains that the motif was “not only very strong, but was very true” (ibid). It seems that he first published it for boys as a sort of educational story; teaching the youngsters about the dangers of the cold weather. Hence, after Tom Vincent learns his lesson, he makes it to camp and doesn’t receive any serious damage. Later, London was worried that he had given the motif “inadequate treatment” (ibid). Therefore, he handled the motif again, this time for men, adding a dog for good measure. Since this story was meant for an older audience, topics could be brought up that weren’t appropriate to be discussed in the first one: the man considered killing the dog and using his body for warmth. In addition, the most obviou…
…story they are reading.
Jack London has written a classic short story in the 1908 version of “To Build a Fire.” This is the classic story of man fighting nature. In most genres (e.g. movies, novels, short stories) the main character comes out on top, however unlikely that is. Jack London takes literary naturalism and shows the reader how unmerciful nature is. Much like Stephen Crane in “The Open Boat,” in which the one of the characters dies, London doesn’t buy into that “has to have a good ending” contrivance. Through analysis of two London’s letters (to R.W. Gilder and Cloudesly Johns) these two versions of “To Build a Fire” come alive with new meaning. Although there are many differences on the surface, both stories use his philosophy as expressed to Johns and both teach a moral lesson, one which will not soon be forgotten: “Never travel alone.”