Crane’s “Open Boat” and London’s “To Build A Fire” imply that humans do not have free will. They are, in fact, powerless to shape their external environment and control events. “When it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important, and that she feels she would not maim the universe by disposing of him, he at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no bricks and no temples” (Crane 107 ). Such is the nature of Naturalistic literature, in which authors from this time period conceived of man as controlled by his instincts and unable to free himself from his place in the social and economic circumstances in which he finds himself.
Part I: The external environment in these two short stories is an indifferent universe where men suffer. Was there a point at which you began to feel their pain or relate to their situations? What does “The Open Boat” say about the perceptions and observations of men in a crisis (men facing death)? What does “To Build a Fire” say about man’s relationship to Nature? Can you find places in the stories where the authors communicate an overall message of despair or indifference about man’s condition?
Part II: Do you believe man has control of his fate? In other words, are our fates predetermined and the universe indifferent to us? Why do we, as humans and Americans in particular, fight so hard to prove we are “free”–to rise above our circumstances and to conquer things that hold us back?
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