Free Essay About Character Communication And Courage In Jack London’s “To Build A Fire” And Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron”
Type of paper: Essay
Topic: Fire, Character, Harrison Bergeron, London, England, Night, Face, Protagonist
According to Henry James, a character is only as interesting as his response to a given situation. Both the protagonist in Jack London’s “To Build A Fire” and the main character in Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” have to face severe adversity. Though the trials they face are very different both demonstrate the strength of their character through their commanding response to the dynamic situations they face.
Harrison Bergeron is the exaggerated Alpha Male. He is physically enormous, excessively strong, and completely out of place in his own environment. Born into a society which works to make everyone equal in every way, Harrison stands out in physical ways, which truly cannot be handicapped. But, rather than finding a way to assimilate into society, Harrison pushes the boundaries. He announces “I am the emperor” destroying the television station’s sets and demanding fealty from the common, or handicapped, citizens.
His response to the unique set of challenges his body type, and the society in which he lives is arrogant, bombastic, and destined to prove his own limitations. The reality is that the government of the story could not afford to allow Harrison to publicly bring down the handicap system and proclaim his individuality, because doing so might encourage a greater uprising, and an overthrow of the system.
It is exactly the crux of this argument, or the motivation behind Harrison’s actions, that make the character so interesting. One must question why Harrison elected to act the part of the megalomaniac rather than quietly accepting the handicaps placed on him, as his father had. Is Harrison both insane and power-mad, or is he a strategic activist?
If Harrison truly saw his size and strength as a source of power, he might have been earnestly seeking to become the next totalitarian ruler. However, one could argue that Harrison was only acting insane, in order to demonstrate to viewers, who were watching his televised rant, that they did not have to bow down to the handicaps placed on them by the state. Unfortunately, Harrison’s life is cut short by a government gun long before this conflict is resolved.
In some ways, Jack London’s protagonist in “To Build A Fire” could be described as similar to Harrison Bergeron. Like Harrison, London’s protagonist is young, and ultimately dies for the choices he makes, but his motivation seems fundamentally different than Harrisons.
The young man in “To Build A Fire” is described as a tenderfoot, new to the wiles of Alaska, and yet he wants to appear very knowledgeable and skillful among his Alaskan peers. When he goes out into the wilderness on a night that is predicted to fall well below -50 degrees, there seems little doubt what fate he will find there.
However, what makes the character interesting is the ambiguity of his motivator when leaving town alone that night and venturing into the wilderness. While it is clear that London’s protagonist is arrogant and overly self-assured, one must wonder how much of his decision was based in his desire to one-up the old men in the community who recommended he should travel with a partner, or if his decision was firmly rooted in his own naivety.
Had the man truly understood that the roads could kill him that night, would he have listened to the old-timers and battened down for the night, or would he have continued to ride out independently into the storm risking death? This question is ultimately never answered before the character meets his death.
Both the young man in “To Build a Fire,” and Harrison from “Harrison Bergeron” are character forced to face the meaning of their own life. Both seem to lose their individuality, or the importance of what makes them uniquely themselves, purely because some other factor takes precedence. In “To Build a Fire the cruel environment supersedes both the man’s free well and his individuality. In “Harrison Bergeron” the government, and its policies supplant Harrison’s abilities and desires, because their ability to maintain control is deemed more important that his free will and personal identity. How each man responds to this deeming situation, however, is what makes ultimately makes him an interesting character to study. In each case, the reader must determine whether the man’s choice represents arrogance, and the manifestation of his arrogance, his ignorance, or rebellion against the state of his life, and the power that some other force was exerting over it.
London, Jack. "To Build a Fire." To Build a Fire and Other Favorite Stories. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2008. 1-21. Print.
Vonnegut, Kurt. "Harrison Bergeron." To Build a Fire and Other Favorite Stories. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2008. 37-49. Print.