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
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 increas-
ingly [in our reading] we meet only
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
Hillsdale College and is a Ph.D. candidate
at the University of Washington. He and his
wife Missy are the authors of Teaching the
Classics, the popular reading and literature
curriculum. They teach their children at
home in Rice, Washington. For more information, visit www.centerforlit.com.
1. C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, Canto
ed. (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 85.
2. Ibid., p. 19.
When we use a story
. . . to teach moral
lessons that the
author did not intend,
we tell a lie about the
author . . . .
The Epistle of James, which was in-
tended 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 surrendered you cannot
possibly find out.
What About “Non-Christian”
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 discuss the powerful, inspiring answer to this question in Part II.
Adam Andrews is the Director of the Center
for Literary Education and a homeschooling father of six. Adam earned his B. A. from