If you have never read Jack London’s classic 1908 short story "To Build a Fire," you should put it on your winter reading list. This harrowing description of a man’s struggle for survival in the sub-zero temperatures of the Yukon Territory will make this season’s coldest day seem balmy by comparison.
The story’s protagonist (referred to only as the Man) has been warned about the dangers of extreme cold, and yet as the story opens he foolishly begins a day-long hike on foot toward a distant mining camp, accompanied only by his dog. As the temperature falls, the Man slowly realizes that he is engaged in a life-or-death struggle against the cold. It will take careful planning and foresight to survive.
Unfortunately, the Man is plagued with bad luck from the start. He accidentally steps in an icy stream. He builds a fire to dry himself, but stupidly locates it beneath a snow-laden tree. The fire’s heat dislodges the snow from an overhanging branch, which falls on the fire and puts it out. By the time he arranges wood for another fire, his hands are too cold to manipulate the matches.
A dull sense of dread overtakes him as he realizes that he has miscalculated the cold and his own powers to withstand it. He tries to kill his dog so that he can use its body for warmth, but the animal senses his fear and will not let him approach. In the end, the man quietly freezes to death while the dog slinks off to find another, wiser master.
A Common Approach
One day recently I taught this story to a class of Christian parents. At the discussion’s end, one parent approached me with a familiar reaction.
“This book does not seem to have any Christian lessons in it,” she said. “It’s disturbing and full of hopelessness and despair. Is there a way to redeem this story, or at least understand it better, by reading it from a Christian perspective?”
She was absolutely correct in her initial observation, of course. There aren’t any obvious Christian lessons in "To Build a Fire," because the story was written by an atheist as a faithful expression of his own naturalistic worldview. It is disturbing and full of hopelessness and despair because the author wanted it that way.
The parent’s question about redeeming the story revealed a common error, however: she assumed that the trick of reading “from a Christian perspective” involves finding Christian lessons in a story where none seem apparent at first. In other words, reading like a Christian means reading Christianity into everything you read.
We parents often do this when we mine classic literature for examples of godly character traits for our students to emulate, or ungodly ones for them to avoid. We do this when we use the Man in "To Build a Fire" as an example of some character flaw (laziness, lack of planning, carelessness, arrogance) – and say to our kids, “see what happens when you ignore good advice?”
I think this is a big mistake.
Obviously, it is important to work hard, plan ahead and heed sound advice. The problem with using "To Build a Fire" to teach these lessons is that they flatly contradict the point Jack London was trying to make with his story. The importance of diligence and humility are our ideas, not his.
London’s point is that the Man could not possibly have worked hard, planned ahead or listened to the advice offered him. He was doomed before he started by deterministic forces utterly beyond his control, from the merciless cold to his own inherited lack of imagination. Furthermore, the Man’s lack of character had absolutely nothing to do with his failure, because the concepts of character and morality appear nowhere in "To Build a Fire." London’s message is that you are stuck within the limitations of your species and there is nothing you can do about it but die – and your death will come all the more quickly if you fail to kill your dog.
"To Build a Fire" was intended to be a dark story, devoid of moral lessons. When we use it to teach such lessons anyway, we misread the story on purpose. In the process, we teach our students to ignore the author’s words and substitute words of their own, and eventually to remake every book they read into the sermon they heard last Sunday.
In his masterful book An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis warns us against this error in words that could easily have been directed to well-meaning teachers of "To Build a Fire" or any “non-Christian” story:
We are so busy doing things with the work that we give it too little chance to work on us. Thus increasingly [in our reading] we meet only ourselves. (Lewis, 85)
True Christian Reading
But why does it really matter if we use an author’s words for our own ends? We parents are trying to teach Christian morality to our students. Does not this all-important end justify whatever means we choose?
Not in this case, for the means involve breaking the Eighth Commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” When we use a story like "To Build a Fire" to teach moral lessons that the author did not intend, we tell a lie about the author, making him out to be someone he wasn’t. Worse yet, we make our students complicit in the lie, even teaching them to tell lies of their own. Some moral lesson!
The Epistle of James, which was intended to teach moral lessons, exhorts us to “be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath…” (James 1:19) This is the very heart of what it means to read like a Christian. Let the author say what he means to say, and don’t interrupt. Again, C.S. Lewis puts it best:
The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrenderd you cannot possibly find out. (Lewis, 19)
What About “non-Christian” Books?
You may well ask, what good is "To Build a Fire," then? If it is dark and depressing and hopeless but cannot be redeemed by reading Christian values into it, why in the world should we read it?
I’ll advance one answer to this important question in my next post. Until then, what do you think?