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Jane Doe

Professor Martin

English 1302 TS2

12 November 2004

                                   Every Prose Has Its Forms

       A story needs to be more than just a series of events, for even the most exciting sequence

possible means little without a purpose. On the other hand, the story needs to be subtle in

delivering the author’s message; otherwise, it is only an essay. As an example, consider “Young

Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. This story is quite obviously an allegory, bursting

as it is with symbolism of the darkness within the hearts of ordinary people. It would be very

different, however, if Hawthorne had stated in the first sentence, “Humanity is evil and

unredeemable.” Instead of a contemplation of the struggle of one man to hold on to the goodness

within himself, it would come across as moralizing diatribe. So to present the central theme in a

manner more appropriate to literature than oration, the author uses elements of imagery and

style, and skillfully assembles the shell of illusion with the utensils of literary technique. Still,

such a presentation is not restricted to fables and fantasy, and nor do all symbols need to be so

obvious. Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” comes from a different genre, and at first glance

would not appear to have any message at all. If not for the fact that the main character dies,

readers might be persuaded into believing the story to be a retelling of actual events. However,

on closer inspection it is evident that this adventure holds within it the author’s message,

couched in techniques similar to those of “Young Goodman Brown.” Although differing in style

and symbolism, these two stories in fact deliver very similar messages about the powerlessness
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of mankind, and the authors use similar literary techniques to present their messages in a manner

more entertaining to readers than would be possible otherwise.

       Indeed, it is that aforementioned difference in style that immediately catches the reader’s

attention when contrasting these two works. “To Build a Fire” seems easily categorized in the

genre of naturalism; “[t]he assumption of Naturalism… is that man is primarily a biological

living being in a natural world of objects and forces… this is precisely what the protagonist is in

London’s story” (May 22). Quite the opposite, “Young Goodman Brown” is a story dealing

wholly in supernatural forces. The presence of the devil as the antagonist sets the story far away

from naturalism. “The generic names in Hawthorne’s tale and the biblically allusive nature of

the temptations Goodman is subjected to seem sufficient proof of Hawthorne’s allegorical intent”

(Paulits 578). Allegories are noticed and defined primarily because of the blatant presence of the

symbolism in the story; naturalist tales are so noted for their apparent lack of said symbols. In

fact, it is possible to argue against the symbolic interpretation of “To Build a Fire.”

         For Jack London, and consequently the reader, the man in the story is simply a

      living body and the cold is simply a physical fact. To insist that the story is a

      symbolic dramatization adumbrated in a symbolic polarity between fire as life and

      cold as death is to run the risk of saying that the symbolic protagonist’s symbolic

      failure to build the symbolic fire results in his symbolic death (May 22).

       While this dissention seems to be constructed through the logical fallacy of a slippery

slope argument, it is still somewhat valid to consider that a naturalist story usually only contains

symbolism in the general way that all literature does. However, Naturalism as a category is even

symbolic in and of itself, as it is defined as the conflict of the biological being of man against the
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pitiless forces of natures and so the characters and events in any naturalist writing become

symbols for the struggle that defines the genre.

        It is within the primary interpretations of these symbols, both in the fantasy of “Young

Goodman Brown” and the plain nature of “To Build a Fire,” that we find the difference in

thematic intention of the two authors. Where Hawthorne seeks to demonstrate that man’s

weakness comes from the internal struggle with evil, London presents the differing viewpoint

that the frailty of humankind if primarily toward external forces, and that no amount of inner

strength can persevere over this opponent. Moreover, Hawthorne’s antagonist gives up the fight

when Brown abandons his ambivalent indecision and finally sets himself firmly on a path,

whereas London’s foe “is entropic, reducing the man to the purely physical by depriving him

initially of a will, then of desires, and at last of life itself” (Mitchell 80).

        As much as these messages differ, they still do share a common element. Both stories

emphasize the need for belief in oneself. This emphasis is plainly evident in “Young Goodman

Brown” as Hawthorne even goes so far as to ironically name the protagonist’s wife Faith. All of

Brown’s references to her and his attempts to draw strength from her place in his life show the

author’s stress on the importance of faith in the struggle against the darkness inside. “Clearly the

climax of Brown’s religious ordeal is a vision of sin in his wife Faith. Reflection suggests that

mistrust of Faith is also the origin of that ordeal” (Robinson 221). And when he finally abandons

his faith, “[t]he paradox results that an act of virtue – repelling temptation – throws him into as

inhuman a state as his yielding would have done” (Paulits 582).

        The symbols of belief are two-fold in “To Build a Fire.” There is first the calm self-

assurance that the man displays throughout the beginning of the story. Even when he gets

extremely cold, he still faces no doubts. But the story turns when his confidence fails him. Only
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after his fire is put out by his own foolishness does he first begin to believe that “[p]erhaps the

old-timer on Sulphur Creek was right. If he would only have had a trail-mate he would be in no

danger now” (London 169). Readers can also see the idea of faith echoed in the dog; truly, the

dog never doubts or questions the ability of the man to provide fire. Even in the end, after the

man died, the dog did not give up hope; instead, it moved its belief on to new humans, and

continued to survive. So in considering these two symbols can readers see an interesting contrast

presented by the author, that the one who doubts fails, but the one who never stops believing

continues on.

       Symbolic faith is not the only representation present in both stories. Perhaps oddly, there

is also a strong usage in both texts of water symbolism. It is no surprise that water, ice, and

snow are found in the frozen setting of London’s story; indeed, the territory makes these

elements almost commonplace. And yet still, the water is more than just scenery there, as the

moments of greatest tension come when the characters come in contact with it. Water brings not

only frozen feet and fur, but also it demolishes the fire and serves as a perpetual nuisance as it

constantly crystallizes in the man’s facial hair. Water is also used by Hawthorne to symbolize an

antagonistic force. One criticism by Joan Easterly focuses entirely on the water symbols, and

even more specifically the tear-related symbols, throughout “Young Goodman Brown.” Easterly

writes, “Hawthorne deliberately and ingenuously uses the image of dewdrops, suggestive of an

uncomfortable, chilling dampness from the earth (rather than, for example, raindrops, which are

associated with cleansing, warmth, and heaven), to reprove Goodman Brown.”

       Another similarity shared by these two stories, and indeed by all good works of literature,

lies in the application of writing techniques such as alliteration and assonance, and in the

selection of words for very specific and meaningful connotations. “Young Goodman Brown”
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often displays such practices in the monologues delivered by the devil, stressing the sins of

citizens with alliterative structures like “how hoary-bearded elders of the church have whispered

wanton words” (Hawthorne 1354) and in words chosen specifically for the dark meanings they

carry, such as in “brandishing his staff with frenzied gestures” (Hawthorne 1352). Both of the

word choices of “brandishing” and “frenzied” could have easily been replaced with synonyms,

but by choosing these words in this combination the author impresses the reader with a feeling

that Brown has become dangerously unhinged. London also uses these techniques abundantly,

and it is particularly evident in his closing paragraph. “Just as alliteration echoes a series of ‘l’s,

‘c’s, ‘b’s, and ‘t’s through to the final clause’s ‘f-p’s, so syntax compounds that phonic stutter by

trusting almost exclusively to the copulative – seven times in five relatively short sentences”

(Mitchell 77). As for word choices, London seems to take stance of avoiding any synonymies

for the simple words “cold” and “flame” and instead reuses and repeats them, presumably to

accent the very basic and primal nature of these elements. “’Cold’ appears in the first half of this

short story more than 25 times” (Mitchell 77) and “[t]he very invocation of flame five times in

seven sentences ensures not the prospect of fiery success, but rather ephemeral hope” (Mitchell

81). By not choosing synonyms for these two concepts, and indeed in using the most basic terms

that lack any strong connotations, London begins to personify “cold” and “flame” in the text,

turning those words from simple nouns into names for elements of the story; whenever he refers

to the “cold” of the “flame,” it seems as if he is referring to a personification of those items.

       On the surface, it would be difficult to imagine two stories so different as “Young

Goodman Brown” and “To Build a Fire.” Imagine them as movies in your favorite video store,

and you would expect to find the latter in the “Drama” section, and the former filed in “Fantasy.”

And yet, despite these surface differences, it is evident that they have a great deal in common.
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Both carry within them a message of the frailty of humanity, and both present their respective

messages with such talent and artistry, and sometimes subtlety, that they do credit to the talents

of their creators. In comparing these two works, an obvious conclusion can be drawn – That an

author is not limited in how the message is carried to just one form; there are many tools

available. A great author places the message in all aspects of the story. In fact, it is through the

utilization of these writing techniques that one author can distance himself from the pack of the

merely mediocre. Both Hawthorne and London demonstrate to their readers that in order to

build a truly outstanding story, it is important not only to have purpose and meaning, but also the

talent to make it intriguing and imaginative. Just as an incredible painting comes down to the

artistry of each individual brushstroke, so also the power of a story’s message come down to its

reflection in every detail.
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                                        Works Cited

Easterly, Joan Elizabeth. “Lachrymal Imagery in Hawthorne’s ‘Young Goodman Brown’.”

       Studies in Short Fiction 28.3 (summer 1991): 339-43. Academic Search Premier.

       EBSCOHost. Collin Co Comm College District, Plano, TX. Oct. 2004


Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Young Goodman Brown.” Making Literature Matter: An Anthology

       for Readers and Writers. Ed. John Schlib and John Clifford. 2nd ed. Boston:

       Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003. 1346-56.

London, Jack. “To Build a Fire.” 20 Great American Short Stories. Cheboksary, Russia: IPK

       Chuvashiya, 2003. 158-77.

May, Charles E. “’To Build a Fire’: Physical Fiction and Metaphysical Critics.” Studies in

       Short Fiction 15.1 (winter 1978): 19-24. Academic Search Premier. EBSCOHost.

       Collin Co Comm College District, Plano, TX. Oct. 2004 <>.

Mitchell, Lee Clark. “’Keeping His Head’: Repetition and Responsibility in London’s ‘To

       Build a Fire’.” Journal of Modern Literature 13.1 (March 1986): 77-97. Academic

       Search Premier. EBSCOHost. Collin Co Comm College District, Plano, TX. Oct. 2004


Paulits, Walter J. “Ambivalence in ‘Young Goodman Brown’.” American Literature 41.4

       (January 1970): 577-84. Academic Search Premier. EBSCOHost. Collin Co Comm

       College District, Plano, TX. Oct. 2004 <>.

Robinson, E. Arthur. “The Vision of Goodman Brown: A Source and Interpretation.”

       American Literature 35.2 (May 1963): 218-25. Academic Search Premier. EBSCOHost.

       Collin Co Comm College District, Plano, TX. Oct. 2004 <>.

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