Survival in the Wild: Jack London's To Build a Fire and Arthur Gordon's Sea Devil
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Anxiety, suspense, hesitation, and death; these all revolve around survival, which lets humans go over their limits and see what they’re really capable of. Survival is a mix of physical, mental, and emotional challenges. Though there are many stories that challenges man over his abilities, there are two stories that show survival that question our dominance as human beings. “To Build a Fire” by Jack London and “Sea Devil” by Arthur Gordon are both about characters that have caught themselves in a battle between man and nature. In “To Build a Fire” the man is facing freezing temperatures and in “Sea Devil” the man is being pulled and swept along by a Manta Ray. These stories illustrate that to survive you need to always be thinking of what…show more content…
Another example in “To Build a Fire” shows how not to survive and lead to one’s demise is that the man is very arrogant and too self-confident in himself. The man thinks he can do anything and survive nature at its greatest, while not giving his body the proper care from the environment. The man is overconfident, which leads him to his death without the proper care for his body. This example shows the man’s lack of mental survival, and how he could’ve overcome it. It says in the text, “Fifty degrees below zero stood for a bite of frost that hurt and must be guarded……Fifty degrees below zero was to him precisely fifty degrees below zero. That there should be anything more to it than that was a thought that never entered his head.” (London 21). Therefore this quote tells that the man is being overconfident by thinking that fifty degrees below zero is nothing important and that he can withstand it. This shows how not to survive because the man is arrogant and thinking he can survive the cold, but he can’t. Since he made the mistake of thinking fifty degrees below zero is not important nor will it affect him, he dies at the end of the story. This shows his lack of mental survival because he is not thinking what would happen to him in these temperatures, and if he had thought straight he would have survived. He was attempting mental survival but failed in doing so. From these examples it is clear that “To Build a Fire” tells how not to survive and
daily life. He liked being the hunter, skilled and solitary and elemental. There was no conscious cruelty in the way
he felt. It was the way things had been in the beginning.
The man lifted the net down carefully and lowered it into a bucket. He put a paddle beside the bucket. Then he
went into the house. When he came out, he was wearing swimming trunks and a pair of old tennis shoes. Nothing
The skiff, flat-bottomed, was moored off the sea wall. He would not go far, he told himself. Just to the tumbledown
dock half a mile away. Mullet had a way of feeding around old pilings after dark. If he moved quietly, he
might pick up two or three in one cast close to the dock. And maybe a couple of others on the way down or back.
He shoved off and stood motionless for a moment, letting his eyes grow accustomed to the dark. Somewhere out
in the channel a porpoise blew with a sound like steam escaping. The man smiled a little; porpoises were his
friends. Once, fishing in the Gulf, he had seen the charter-boat captain reach overside and gaff a baby porpoise
through the sinewy part of the tail. He had hoisted it aboard, had dropped it into the bait well, where it thrashed
around, puzzled and unhappy. And the mother had swum alongside the boat and under the boat and around the
boat, nudging the stout planking with her back, slapping it with her tail, until the man felt sorry for her and made
the captain let the baby porpoise go.
He took the net from the bucket, slipped the noose in the retrieving rope over his wrist, pulled the slipknot tight. It
was an old net, but still serviceable; he had rewoven the rents made by underwater snags. He coiled the 30-foot
rope carefully, making sure there were no kinks. A tangled rope, he knew, would spoil any cast.
The basic design of the net had not changed in 3,000 years. It was a mesh circle with a diameter of fourteen feet.
It measured close to fifteen yards around the circumference and could, if thrown perfectly, blanket 150 square feet
of sea water. In the center of this radial trap was a small iron collar where the retrieving rope met the twenty-three
separate drawstrings leading to the outer rim of the net. Along this rim, spaced an inch and a half apart, were the
heavy lead sinkers.
The man raised the iron collar until it was a foot above his head. The net hung soft and pliant and deadly. He
shook it gently, making sure that the drawstrings were not tangled, that the sinkers were hanging true. He eased it
down and picked up the paddle.
The night was black as a witch's cat; the stars looked fuzzy and dim. Down to the southward, the lights of a
causeway made a yellow necklace across the sky. To the man's left were the tangled roots of a mangrove swamp;
to his right, the open waters of the bay. Most of it was fairly shallow, but there were channels eight feet deep. The
man could not see the old dock, but he knew where it was. He pulled the paddle quietly through the water, and the
phosphorescence glowed and died.
For five minutes he paddled. Then, twenty feet ahead of the skiff, a mullet jumped. A big fish, close to three
pounds. For a moment it hung in the still air, gleaming dully. Then it vanished. But the ripples marked the spot,
and where there was one there were often others.
The man stood up quickly. He picked up the coiled rope, and with the same hand grasped the net at a point four
feet below the iron collar. He raised the skirt to his mouth and gripped it strongly with his teeth. He slid his free
hand as far as it would go down the circumference of the net so that he had three points of contact with the mass
of cordage and metal. He made sure his feet were planted solidly. Then he waited, feeling the tension that is older
than the human race, the fierce exhilaration of the hunter at the moment of ambush, the atavistic desire to capture
and kill and ultimately consume.
A mullet swirled, ahead and to the left. The man swung the heavy net back, twisting his body and bending his
knees so as to get more upward thrust. He shot it forward, letting go simultaneously with rope hand and with
teeth, holding a fraction of a second longer with the other hand so as to give the net the necessary spin, impart the
centrifugal force that would make it flare into a circle. The skiff ducked sideways, but he kept his balance. The net
fell with a splash.
The man waited for five seconds. Then he began to retrieve it, pulling in a series of sharp jerks so that the
drawstrings would gather the net inward, like a giant fist closing on this segment of the teeming sea. He felt the
net quiver, and knew it was not empty. He swung it, dripping, over the gunwale, saw the broad silver side of the
mullet quivering, saw too the gleam of a smaller fish. He looked closely to make sure no stingray was hidden in
the mesh, then raised the iron collar and shook the net out. The mullet fell with a thud and flapped wildly. The
other victim was an angel fish, beautifully marked, but too small to keep. The man picked it up gently and
dropped it overboard. He coiled the rope, took up the paddle. He would cast no more until he came to the dock.
The skiff moved on. At last, ten feet apart a pair of stakes rose up gauntly out of the night. Barnacle-encrusted,
they once had marked the approach from the main channel. The man guided the skiff between them, then put the
paddle down softly. He stood up, reached for the net, tightened the noose around his wrist. From here he could
drift down upon the dock. He could see it now, a ruined skeleton in the starshine. Beyond it a mullet jumped and
fell back with a flat, liquid sound. The man raised the edge of the net, put it between his teeth. He would not cast
ata single swirl, he decided; he would wait until he saw two or three close together. The skiff was barely moving.
He felt his muscles tense themselves, awaiting the signal from the brain.
Behind him in the channel he heard the porpoise blow again, nearer now. He frowned in the darkness. If the
porpoise chose to fish this area, the mullet would scatter and vanish. There was no time to lose.
A school of sardines surfaced suddenly, skittering along like drops of mercury. Something, perhaps the shadow of
the skiff, had frightened them. The old dock loomed very close. A mullet broke water just too far away; then
another, nearer. The man marked the spreading ripples and decided to wait no longer.
He swung back the net, heavier now that it was wet. He had to turn his head, but out of the corner of his eye he
saw two swirls in the black water just off the starboard bow. They were about eight feet apart, and they had the
sluggish oily look that marks the presence of something big just below the surface. His conscious mind had no
time to function, but instinct told him that the net was wide enough to cover both swirls if he could alter the
direction of his cast. He could not halt the swing, but he shifted his feet slightly and made the cast off balance. He
saw the net shoot forward, flare into an oval, and drop just where he wanted it.
Then the sea exploded in his face. In a frenzy of spray, a great horned thing shot like a huge bat out of the water.
The man saw the mesh of his net etched against the mottled blackness of its body and he knew, in the split second
in which thought was still possible, that those twin swirls had been made not by two mullet, but by the wing tips
of the giant ray of the Gulf Coast,
The man gave a hoarse cry. He tried to claw the slipknot off his wrist, but there was no time. The quarter-inch line
snapped taut. He shot over the side of the skiff as if he had roped a runaway locomotive. He hit the water headfirst
and seemed to bounce once. He plowed a blinding furrow for perhaps ten yards. Then the line went slack as the
sea devil jumped again. It was not the full-grown manta of the deep Gulf, but it was close to nine feet from tip to
tip and it weighed over a thousand pounds. Up into the air it went, its pearl-colored underbelly gleaming as it
twisted in a frantic effort to dislodge the clinging thing that had fallen upon it. Up into the starlight, a monstrous
survival from the dawn of time.
The water was less than four feet deep. Sobbing and choking, the man struggled for a foothold on the slimy
bottom. Sucking in great gulps of air, he fought to free himself from the rope. But the slipknot was jammed deep
into his wrist; he might as well have tried to loosen a circle of steel.
The ray came down with a thunderous splash and drove forward again. The flexible net followed every
movement, impeding it hardly at all. The man weighed 175 pounds, and he was braced for the shock, and he had
the desperate strength that comes from looking into the blank eyes of death. It was useless. His arm straightened
out with a jerk that seemed to dislocate his shoulder; his feet shot out from under him; his head went under again.
Now at last he knew how the fish must feel when the line tightens and drags him toward the alien element that is
his doom. Now he knew.
Desperately he dug the fingers of his free hand into the ooze, felt them dredge a futile channel through broken
shells and the ribbonlike sea grasses. He tried to raise his head, but could not get it clear. Torrents of spray choked
him as the ray plunged toward deep water.
His eyes were of no use to him in the foam-streaked blackness. He closed them tight, and at once an insane
sequence of pictures flashed through his mind. He saw his wife sitting in their living room, reading, waiting
calmly for his return. He saw the mullet he had just caught, gasping its life away on the floorboards of the skiff.
He saw all these things and many others simultaneously in his mind as his body fought silently and tenaciously
for its existence. His hand touched something hard and closed on it in a death grip, but it was only the sharpedged
helmet of a horseshoe crab, and after an instant he let it go.
He had been underwater perhaps fifteen seconds now, and something in his brain told him quite calmly that he
could last another forty or fifty and then the red flashes behind his eyes would merge into darkness, and the water
would pour into his lungs in one sharp painful shock, and he would be finished.
This thought spurred him to a desperate effort. He reached up and caught his pinioned wrist with his free hand. He
doubled up his knees to create more drag. He thrashed his body madly, like a fighting fish, from side to side. This
did not disturb the ray, but now one of the great wings tore through the mesh, and the net slipped lower over the
fins projecting like horns from below the nightmare head, and the sea devil jumped again.
And once more the man was able to get his feet on the bottom and his head above water, and he saw ahead of him
the pair of ancient stakes that marked the approach to the channel. He knew that if he was dragged much beyond
those stakes he would be in eight feet of water, and the ray would go down to hug the bottom as rays always do,
and then no power on earth could save him. So in the moment of respite that was granted him, he flung himself
For a moment he thought his captor yielded a bit. Then the ray moved off again, but more slowly now, and for a
few yards the man was able to keep his feet on the bottom. Twice he hurled himself back against the rope with all
his strength, hoping that something would break. But nothing broke. The mesh of the net was ripped and torn, but
the draw lines were strong, and the stout perimeter cord threaded through the sinkers was even stronger.
The man could feel nothing now in his trapped hand; it was numb. But the ray could feel the powerful lunges of
the unknown thing that was trying to restrain it. It drove its great wings against the unyielding water and forged
ahead, dragging the man and pushing a sullen wave in front of it.
The man had swung as far as he could toward the stakes. He plunged toward one and missed it by inches. His feet
slipped and he went down on his knees. Then the ray swerved sharply and the second stake came right at him. He
reached out with his free hand and caught it.
He caught it just above the surface, six or eight inches below high-water mark. He felt the razor-sharp barnacles
bite into his hand, collapse under the pressure, drive their tiny slime-covered shell splinters deep into his flesh. He
felt the pain, and he welcomed it, and he made his fingers into an iron claw that would hold until the tendons were
severed or the skin was shredded from the bone. The ray felt the pressure increase with a jerk that stopped it dead
in the water. For a moment all was still as the tremendous forces came into equilibrium.
Then the net slipped again, and the perimeter cord came down over the sea devil's eyes, blinding it momentarily.
The great ray settled to the bottom and braced its wings against the mud and hurled itself forward and upward.
The stake was only a four-by-four of creosoted pine, and it was old. Ten thousand tides had swirled around it.
Worms had bored; parasites had clung. Under the crust of barnacles it still had some heart left, but not enough.
The man's grip was five feet above the floor of the bay; the leverage was too great. The stake snapped off at its
The ray lunged upward, dragging the man and the useless timber. The man had his lungs full of air, but when the
stake snapped he thought of expelling the air and inhaling the water so as to have it finished quickly. He thought
of this, but he did not do it. Then, just at the channel's edge, the ray met the porpoise, coming in.
The porpoise had fed well this night and was in no hurry, but it was a methodical creature and it intended to make
a sweep around the old dock before the tide dropped too low. It had no quarrel with any ray, but it feared no fish
in the sea, and when the great black shadow came rushing blindly and unavoidably, it rolled fast and struck once
with its massive horizontal tail.
The blow descended on the ray's flat body with a sound like a pistol shot. It would have broken a buffalo's back,
and even the sea devil was half stunned. It veered wildly and turned back toward shallow water. It passed within
ten feet of the man, face down in the water. It slowed and almost stopped, wing tips moving faintly, gathering
strength for another rush.
The man had heard the tremendous slap of the great mammal's tail and the snorting gasp as it plunged away. He
felt the line go slack again, and he raised his dripping face, and he reached for the bottom with his feet. He found
it, but now the water was up to his neck. He plucked at the noose once more with his lacerated hand, but there was
no strength in his fingers. He felt the tension come back into the line as the ray began to move again, and for half
a second he was tempted to throw himself backward and fight as he had been doing, pitting his strength against
the vastly superior strength of the brute.
But the acceptance of imminent death had done something to his brain. It had driven out the fear, and with the
fear had gone the panic. He could think now, and he knew with absolute certainty that if he was to make any use
of this last chance that had been given him, it would have to be based on the one faculty that had carried man to
his preeminence above all beasts, the faculty of reason. Only by using his brain could he possibly survive, and he
called on his brain for a solution, and his brain responded. It offered him one.
He did not know whether his body still had the strength to carry out the brain's commands, but he began to swim
forward, toward the ray that was still moving hesitantly away from the channel. He swam forward, feeling the
rope go slack as he gained on the creature.
Ahead of him he saw the one remaining stake, and he made himself swim faster until he was parallel with the ray
and the rope trailed behind both of them in a deep U. He swam with a surge of desperate energy that came from
nowhere so that he was slightly in the lead as they came to the stake. He passed on one side of it; the ray was on
Then the man took one last deep breath, and he went down under the black water until he was sitting on the
bottom of the bay. He put one foot over the line so that it passed under his bent knee. He drove both his heels into
the mud, and he clutched the slimy grass with his bleeding hand, and he waited for the tension to come again.
The ray passed on the other side of the stake, moving faster now. The rope grew taut again, and it began to drag
the man back toward the stake. He held his prisoned wrist close to the bottom, under his knee, and he prayed that
the stake would not break. He felt the rope vibrate as the barnacles bit into it. He did not know whether the rope
would crush the barnacles, or whether the barnacles would cut the rope. All he knew was that in five seconds or
less he would be dragged into the stake and cut to ribbons if he tried to hold on, or drowned if he didn't.
He felt himself sliding slowly, and then faster, and suddenly the ray made a great leap forward, and the rope
burned around the base of the stake, and the man's foot hit it hard. He kicked himself backward with his
remaining strength, and the rope parted, and he was free.
He came slowly to the surface. Thirty feet away the sea devil made one tremendous leap and disappeared into the
darkness. The man raised his wrist and looked at the frayed length of rope dangling from it. Twenty inches,
perhaps. He lifted his other hand and felt the hot blood start instantly, but he didn't care. He put this hand on the
stake above the barnacles and held on to the good rough, honest wood. He heard a strange noise, and realized that
it was himself, sobbing.
High above, there was a droning sound, and looking up he saw the nightly plane from New Orleans inbound for
Tampa. Calm and serene, it sailed, a symbol of man's proud mastery over nature. Its lights winked red and green
for a moment; then it was gone.
Slowly, painfully, the man began to move through the placid water. He came to the skiff at last and climbed into
it. The mullet, still alive, slapped convulsively with its tail. The man reached down with his torn hand, picked up
the mullet, let it go.
He began to work on the slipknot doggedly with his teeth. His mind was almost a blank, but not quite. He knew
one thing. He knew he would do no more casting alone at night. Not in the dark of the moon. No, not he.