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Human Nature Exposed

Realist literature seeks to tell stories that are true to life. It exposes human nature without condemning or glorifying it, and with no romantic rescues. It is frequently stark, often puzzling, sometimes intensely personal, and ripe for repeated readings. Two examples of this type are seen in Henry James’ “The Real Thing” and Jack London’s “To Build a Fire.” Both stories portray our natural tendency to falsely believe ourselves capable of doing things without any real understanding or experience.

James describes a story illustrator and his models, a newly destitute former upper class couple Mr. and Mrs. Monarch, attempting to sell illustrations for stories. The artist believes he can morph his drawings of the couple into the characters he needs to draw, while the couple thinks that they are the actual thing he desires to draw. However, the couple “had no variety of expression” (515). The artist tried placing them in “every conceivable position” but they would “obliterate the differences” (515). Mrs. Monarch was only capable of one character, “She was always a lady certainly… always the same lady. She was the real thing, but always the same thing.” (515). He began to see that he was unable to transform them into his imagined illustrations. The Monarchs learn that sometimes imagination cannot find its human equal.

London’s “To Build a Fire” is a portrayal of the harshness of the natural world, rather than society’s classes, in the story of a solitary traveler facing the deadly cold of the Yukon. He feels deceptively comfortable in his unseasoned skill as he “remembered the advice of the old-timer on Sulfur Creek and smiled. The old timer had been very serious in laying down the law that no man must travel alone in the Klondike after fifty below” (982). Despite the folly of rejecting long experience, the traveler smugly mocks the old-timer’s lifesaving advice, “he had had an accident; he was alone and he had saved himself. Those old-timers were rather womanish… All a man had to do was to keep his head” (982). A moment later he quickly realizes what a fool he has been.

 In both of these stories the characters display a self-deceptive view of their abilities. There is no romantic hero to save these people from their self deception. Real life isn’t that way. Some people are “insurmountably stiff” and will not yield who they perceive themselves to be in order to become what they could be (James, 515). The Monarch’s thought it was beneath them to be anything but a lady and a gentleman and always tried to be that no matter the setting. Unemployment resulted. The Arctic hiker felt very manly until he belatedly realized the old timer was not “womanish” but wise (London, 982).

These are personal stories with stark themes of survival in society and nature. They give us vicarious experiences and show us a hidden side of ourselves. These are the types of themes and values that Realist literature gives us, helping us understand ourselves.

Works Cited

James, Henry. “The Real Thing.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature Volume C 1865-1914. Ed. Nina Baum. 6th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. 2003. 515.


London, Jack. “To Build a Fire.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature Volume C 1865-1914. Ed. Nina Baum. 6th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. 2003. 982.


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