A Comparison of the Idea of Lone Man in To Build a Fire by Jack London and Girl Gang in Foxfire by Joyce Carol Oates

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Jack London’s To Build a Fire tells the story of a single man versus nature, set in the northern winter tundra of the Yukon. This man is alone in the wild, trying to survive all by himself. Conversely, Joyce Carol Oates Foxfire depicts a girl gang, forming out of necessity and sisterhood to defend its members from harm. These two stories tell very different tales; Foxfire is a story about surviving together at any and all costs, while To Build a Fire shows that individual survival is nigh impossible.

The nameless man in London’s To Build a Fire is risking frostbitten fingers and his life to make a long journey in the deadly cold to a nearby camp. He does not believe that he needs a companion to help him on his journey, as he is new to the country and this particular winter is his first – and consequently last one in the area. A seasoned traveler, mentioned only as “the old-timer on Sulphur Creek” (London), warns the man of the danger of traveling alone in weather below fifty degrees, but the man takes no heed and continues on his journey. His trek is one of individual survival, with nothing but his wits and a dog to help him find his destination.

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His wits, however, do not serve him, as the man thinks, “Undoubtedly it was colder than fifty below how much colder he did not know. But the temperature did not matter” (London). This man had no common sense, and ignored the advice of those natives to the area he thought to be cowardly. He goes without a partner because he thinks that he does not need one, and that he is perfectly capable of surviving anything on his own. Even though the man had brought an Alaskan Husky, a dog “without visual or temperamental difference from its brother, the wild wolf” (London), these two entities were not surviving together. The dog understood the basic importance of fire; it was representative of warmth and life, and the man ignored these essential qualities in the pursuit of his quest. In the end, the man dies because he is an individual, alone and without help from anyone.

Oates’ Foxfire shows us the survival of the group wins over the survival of the individual. Throughout this story of self-discovery, support, and loss, we see the young women within this gang help each other with troubles in life, usually being sexual harassment. The first instance of this mutual support is the revenge of the harassment of Rita O’Hagan, a small, innocent, and plump girl who has no idea why these things happen to her. Mr. Buttinger, an older and rounder math teacher, consistently keeps her after school to “teach” her the things she has missed during the day, with his true intentions being to harass and grope her. The Foxfire girls take revenge on him by painting choice phrases on the side of his car, leading to his retirement and leaving of the city.

The group mentality shows itself over and over, with the group having to protect its members to remain the girl gang it always intended to be. After this incident, as Madeleine “Maddy” Wirtz talks to Margaret “Legs” Sadowsky about the incident, another member pipes up and says, “If Rita wasn’t there [Buttinger would] pick on someone else and if that person wasn’t there he’d pick on someone else till it got down finally to one of us”” (Oates 47). Foxfire would always take care of their own as a sign of unity, eliminating the idea of any one of the group being by themselves. Each member’s survival in the world would never have to be a lonely one, so long as the group lived.

The group again shows their unity and loyalty to one another when Maddy is molested by her own great-uncle, as “payment” for her receiving an old and worn down typewriter that was being disposed of. Maddy had come across this typewriter by chance, being thrown away by Walt “Wimpy” Wirtz. Wimpy continued to raise the asked price for the typewriter, working towards receiving sexual favors from Maddy. Maddy returns, and at the moment Wimpy intends to molest her, the rest of Foxfire comes in through the window and stops Wimpy. Foxfire again shows that there is strength in numbers, and that supporting each other is the only way to continue on in a world run by adults, particularly men. “FOXFIRE was a true blood-sisterhood, our bond forged in loyalty, fidelity, trust, love” (Oates 4). The group is an individual comprised of many individuals, all working with one another to support the group above the individual.

Despite all of the sisterhood bonds within Foxfire, members are still expelled for breaking rules. Maddy is expelled due to not being able to support Foxfire in their kidnapping venture, by suggestion of Legs (Oates 254). This expulsion helps to solidify the importance of the group over the individual, along with Rita’s expulsion. Rita is removed from the group after being seen having a relationship with a boy, when “V.V. caught Rita not just consorting with Enemies but actually going out with a guy” (Oates 277), a capital offense in the Foxfire handbook. Simple acts like these are removed with prejudice to prevent the group from failing, over the happiness and survivability of the exiled members.

Foxfire and To Build a Fire tell opposite stories of survival. In Foxfire, those who stay together live together, surviving as a group that supports each of its members. To Build a Fire shows the treachery of trying to survive without any around you to help. When a man goes out into the cold alone in below negative 50 degree weather, he doesn’t survive. In this, Foxfire is shown to have a very deep basis in group survival over the individual, as the group removes those members who are deemed unworthy of the group. While a man dies from the cold, a group dies in fire.

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A Comparison of the Idea of Lone Man in To Build a Fire by Jack London and Girl Gang in Foxfire by Joyce Carol Oates. (2023, Feb 26). Retrieved from


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