The two literary pieces I am going to be analyzing today are “The White Heron” by Jewett, and “To Build a Fire” by London. Both texts delve into the idea of city versus nature. With Jewett giving a gendered and allegorical contrast between nature and the city, and London approaching nature and the city in a more implacably neutral, and indifferent obedient way to its own law. “The White Heron” begins with young Sylvia, the main character of the story. Sylvia lives with her family in a bustling manufacturing town. However, Sylvia soon discovers that she’s moving to her Grandmother, Mrs. Tilley’s farm. Sylvia enjoys living on the farm with her Grandmother.
Thinking that the farm is beautiful and serene, Sylvia never wants to leave. She hasn’t felt more alive than she has since arriving at the farm, being unfulfilled living in the town. Sylvia is known to be entranced with nature, admiring the outdoors and the connection she has with it. She seems to blend in with her natural surroundings and has a special connection to the woods and wild creatures. When first arriving, Sylvia is tasked with finding Mistress Moolly, a cow she must bring back to her Grandmother’s farm to be milked. During this task Sylvia meets Hunter in the woods.
The Hunter is an ornithologist who studies, shoots, and stuffs birds. The Hunter is particularly searching for a white heron and asks Sylvia for help in finding it. When first meeting the Hunter Sylvia is wary and believes he might be dangerous. When approaching Sylvia, the Hunter offers her ten dollars for her help, and gives her a jackknife. Sylvia’s suspicion quickly fades, and she grows fond of him. When beginning her search for the white heron, Sylvia comes across a pine tree where the heron’s nest could possibly be, so she decides to climb it.
However, once at the top of the tree she comes to the realization not to go through with telling the Hunter the heron’s location. Sylvia is moved after experiencing the heron up close and personal when it landed on a branch beside her while she was atop the pine tree. She knows if she reveals the secret to the Hunter that he would kill the bird. Sylvia finds the Hunter appealing and was deeply drawn in by his offers, but in the end, she ultimately feels more loyalty to the heron. She realizes that her love for nature is stronger than her need for money and the approval of the Hunter.
“To Build a Fire” takes place in the Alaskan Yukon, with temperatures well below zero. A lone man and his dog take part on a journey across this barren cold Arctic. At the beginning of the story the man is warned by the natives that he should not venture alone in the extreme weather conditions, but he pridefully ignores their warnings proceeds on his own anyways. At first the man’s luck is good, and he successfully builds a fire to warm himself along the way. However, the man’s luck quickly runs out when he stops and attempts to build a second fire underneath a tree and is unsuccessful. At this turning point in the story the man’s fate is sealed. The man’s body temperature quickly drops, and his sense of security is lost, so he attempts to turn back to town.
At this point the man’s endurance and strength are completely gone, so he stops for a short rest with his dog. As he stops for a rest, he sits against a tree in the snow, eventually freezing to death. In the end the man’s dog realizes his owner has died and abandons the man, heading off to find a new caregiver. This shows the dangers arrogance can have on someone assuming they know everything, ignoring warnings because of pride. In the end the man could’ve survived if he had listened to the advice he was given.
“To Build a Fire” represents both realism and naturalism. “To Build a Fire” was based on London’s own first-hand account of the Yukon. The main character must face a challenge with nature in order to survive. The man character was warned by the natives, and knew that it was going to be cold, thinking he’d prepared enough for it. Later discovering that acting through a difficult struggle is a lot harder than simply thinking it through. Based on what he knew, the man had to plan out his trip strategically, even taking note of the sun’s positioning, knowing when and where he would have to set up camp each night. Luckily to add the man had his dog alongside him through the journey. This allowed them to share body heat during the night, which probably kept them alive through the frigid nights.
Throughout the story, the man and his dog had to fight through the bitter Yukon, proving that they were using all of their natural skills in surpassing the trials of nature, ultimately showing naturalism within the story. Realism is also present throughout the story. Rather than relying on God or others for strength, the man simply did what he believed was the smartest things to do at the time. He would note the freezing of his spit and the frost in his mustache. These realistic portrayals throughout the story proved that it was expressing realism. The man was his own hero throughout the story, which is another characteristic of realism, since he remained so strong and never gave up in order to accomplish his dream.
A strong aspect of realism is also present at the end of the story, when we tragically find that the man has died and left his dog alone. In life things often don’t always work out how we expect them to. Putting in the necessary determination and dedication towards a goal of survival is typical for realism. Although this is extremely tragic, it is very realistic. This shows that sometimes nature can even defeat the strength of humans who possess the most spirit and determination. London’s “To Build a Fire” portrayed both realism and raturalism as the main character struggled through the Yukon to reach his goal.