In history, many extraordinary authors have written about struggles among two or more forces. Even in the earliest times, Homer, one of history’s greatest writer and philosophers, has written such pieces as The Odyssey, the fable of a common man who challenges elements he has no control over, and successfully overcomes them to achieve glory. Jack London, while a great philosopher in his own way, does not write about common mortal men overcoming fate, but instead focuses on many different categories of struggles, including man versus man, man versus nature, and man versus society. Examples of London’s intertwining of struggles can be seen in such stories as White Fang, The Call of the Wild, and “To Build a Fire”.
Jack London, whose life symbolized the power of will, was the most successful writer in America in the early 20th Century. His vigorous stories of men and animals against the environment, and survival against hardships were drawn mainly from his own experience. An illegitimate child, London passed his childhood in poverty in the Oakland slums. (Walcutt 8) At the age of 17, he ventured to sea on a sealing ship. The turning point of his life was a thirty-day imprisonment that was so degrading it made him decide to turn to education and pursue a career in writing. His years in the Klondike searching for gold left their mark in his best short stories; among them, The Call of the Wild, and White Fang. His novel, The Sea-Wolf, was based on his experiences at sea. His work embraced the concepts of unconfined individualism and Darwinism in its exploration of the laws of nature. (Walcutt 1-2) He retired to his ranch near Sonoma, where he died at age 40 of various diseases and drug treatments.
“To Build a Fire” has often been called London’s greatest masterpiece. It is based on the struggle of the intelligence of man versus the intuition of animal (Magill Survey 1810). “To Build a Fire” continuously expresses the man’s dwindling warmth and bad luck in his journey along the Yukon trail to meet “the boys” at camp. London associates dying with the man’s diminishing ability to stay warm in the frigid Alaskan climate. The main characters predicament slowly worsens one level at a time finally resulting in death.
The irony of “To build a Fire” is that man, with all the benefits and luxuries of society and civilization, fails in his attempt to overcome his creator, nature, and instead falls victim to it, while the hound, equipped with only his natural born instincts, survives. (Boone 25) This is clearly a conflict between Man and Nature, where nature prevails.
Another of London’s famous story, where the reader again sees the conflict of mankind versus nature, is White Fang. White Fang is a novel based on the concept of a wolf becoming domesticated and part of civilization (Walcutt 22) London describes White Fang as a strong, quick, and agile wolf, taken in and domesticated by society to better accommodate a human. White Fang took on a moral trait of man; suppress the weak and obey the strong (Magill Master Plots 582). Because of this, White Fang represents humanity and its attempt to tame nature. London ends the story by allowing the idea of man conquering nature, by allowing White Fang to become domesticated and life a luxurious life. (Walcutt 22)
In the story of The Call of the Wild, one of London’s earlier stories, he reverses the conflict and has a tamed dog become one of nature’s animals once again. The Call of the Wild relays a story of Buck, his struggle against humanity, and finally his return back to his roots. Buck was a well treated animal, but his instincts were just too strong for him to ignore. Because of this, when he later found out his master was killed by Native Americans, he stormed through the camp, taking many lives, and fled to the wilderness to join a wolf pack (Walcutt 22-23).
Man versus nature was not the only struggle that London expressed in his stories. In “The Minions of Midas”, a young wealthy businessman is blackmailed for twenty million dollars by men who have made his wealth possible. Man versus himself is the struggle in this story, as the millionaire refuses to give in to the men’s demands and indirectly causes a series of murders in the process. London shows that man has lost his sense of values in this story, as the man refuse to pay the money until the end, claiming that “it is an assault on his persona” (Walcutt 28). This story is brought on by London’s life time and the era he was living in. ( Ward 321 )
London again shows mans flaws and the inner conflicts they have among them in John Barleycorn. In this story, London writes about himself and his own struggles against alcoholism. This story about his own personal wars within him shows why he writes about so many different conflicts; he is constantly in conflict within himself and displays these conflicts in his stories. (Walcutt 41).
In “Burning Light,” London plays a hero facing off against the evils of capitalism. This is one of the only stories of London’s where the predominant hero comes out prevails over the capitalist pigs of the wealthy class of society. This shows a lot about London’s character and his own inner struggles as well (Walcutt 41).
In the short story “The Shadow and the Flash,” London writes about two rival scientists who become obsessed with the notion of discovering the secret of invisibility before the other does. Because of this, they both discover the invisibility secret and kill one another in the struggle. Clearly a man versus man struggle. (Wyler 300) One of the oddest stories London has written, it still has the same concept; man has lost sense of his roots and, therefore acts like a savage beast over petty differences.
In London’s story, “Before Adam,” London writes about three simian species that occupy the same evolutionary time and space and struggle against one another. (Wyler 299) Again, London exemplifies his beliefs in his story by stating that man cannot live in harmony with one another, much less nature.
In “Local Color,” London attempts to demonstrate how backwards society is by taking on the role of a philosophical homeless man, bent on the idea that it would cost the town more to convict him of peddling than it would to accommodate a tramp in the most exquisite hotel in town (Walcutt 29). London loved to insert these “twists” in his stories to make fun of society.
In the short story “Planchette”, London deices to take an alternate route to his normal writing and writes a bizarre mystery about two lovers and the reason they would not marry. A very unclear story told, London’s characters tend to be clueless and make no sense throughout the novel. The novel ends with one lover being mysteriously killed by a carriage accident. Although it is not clear in the story, the reader assumes that the ghost of the young man’s lover’s father pursues the horse to throw itself and the carriage off of a cliff. A mysterious puzzle indeed. While writing this story, London was in a bit of financial trouble with his ranch and needed to make money fast. The result comes out as one poor story thrown together overnight. (Walcutt 30)
In “The Leopards Man Story”, London writes about a tale of two circus performers; a lion-tamer and a knife-thrower. The story’s plot is told by the eyes of the jealous knife-thrower, as he takes revenge upon the lion-tamer for having an affair with his wife. The knife-thrower decides to put snuff powder on the lion-tamer’s hair before his show, so when the lion-tamer performs his grand finale, the lion would sneeze and decapitate the lion-tamer. This story shows a conflict between man and his emotions. Clearly a comical side of London being portrayed in “The Leopard Man’s Story” (Walcutt 29)
In London’s short story “Moon Face”, he adapts the writing style of Edgar Alan Poe and tells the tale of a man overcome by hatred for his comrade and his happiness. The neighbor takes revenge by killing his happy neighbor’s dog, burning his farm, and foreclosing his mortgage. London demonstrates a conflict of man versus man and man versus greed in the same story. (Walcutt 29)
In conclusion, London’s stories portray conflicts beyond some of his reader’s wildest dreams. London incorporated these conflicts because of inner conflicts among himself, and also because of the time period which he lived in, and the life in which he lived. Because of this, London’s stories and conflicts are some of the most intriguing and controversial in American Literature, as he seems to take a silent stand in all aspects of life through his novels.