Here’s how it opens: “This is the story of a man who did not appreciate his wife; also, of a woman who did him too great an honor when she gave herself to him. Incidentally, it concerns a Jesuit priest who had never been known to lie. He was an appurtenance, and a very necessary one, to the Yukon country; but the presence of the other two was merely accidental. They were specimens of the many strange waifs which ride the breast of a gold rush or come tailing along behind.”
The couple is Edwin Bentham and Grace Bentham. Edwin is a loser. Grace is a noble soul who makes her husband shine, though he doesn’t deserve it. Grace falls for a man called Wharton. They prepare to elope. The Jesuit priest who cannot lie warns her not to, evoking the prospect of her giving birth to a bastard son. She changes her mind. Just then her husband shows up at Wharton’s door. The priest lies to protect her hiding place. She goes back to him. It’s a strange story, the focus being more on the lie of the priest allegedly to protect her than on the lies he makes up to claim that she’d ruin her life if she runs off. Or are we meant to see both lies? Either way, the priest is all about oppressing women. He’d be an Eye in The Handmaid’s Tale.
Not heeding Jules Verne’s lesson, London traveled to the Klondike in 1897 to look for gold. He lasted a year. Scurvy wrecked him. He never found gold. He found Malamute Kid. “To the Man on the Trail” anticipates the familiar Isaac Singer set up: a group of men huddled against minus 74-degree cold, a stranger drops in, on a long trek, the stranger’s story follows. This one, Jack Westondale, an unlucky workhorse, married, with children, chasing after his team of swindlers, a man of “clean grit and stubbornness.” The man rests just a few hours then goes on his way, provisioned with food for himself and his dogs and Mamelute Kid’s respect. Fifteen minutes later the mounted police arrives, chasing after him over some issue. But the group of men thwart the policeman, giving Westondale time to make his escape: solidarity before submission to government authority.
Naked and afraid, in the Yukon. Or: l’enfer, c’est l’autre. Or: nature indifferently demolishes man’s pretentious claims to civilization.
The story starts: “When a man journeys into a far country, he must be prepared to forget many of the things he has learned, and to acquire such customs as are inherent with existence in the new land; he must abandon the old ideals and the old gods, and oftentimes he must reverse the very codes by which his conduct has hitherto been shaped.”
But here’s the effete, civilized Percy Cuthfert. His “evil star must have been in the ascendant, for he, too, joined this company of argonauts. He was an ordinary man, with a bank account as deep as his culture, which is saying a good deal. He had no reason to embark on such a venture, — no reason in the world, save that he suffered from an abnormal development of sentimentality. He mistook this for the true spirit of romance and adventure. Many another man has done the like, and made as fatal a mistake.”
Carter Weatherbee is no better. Together they’re a drag on the expedition brawny Jean Baptiste is leading to the Klondike, in search of gold. Conditions are harsh. They come across a cabin, “one of the many mysteries which lurk in the vast recesses of the North. Built when and by whom, no man could tell. Two graves in the open, piled high with stones, perhaps contained the secret of those early wanderers. But whose hand had piled the stones?” The graves are a portent. The expedition takes a vote, whether to stay or go on. Eight vote for going on. The two “incapables” decide to stay, to the relief of the others. But the two are sealing their fate by choosing to hibernate in isolation, at each other’s lazy throats, and the rest of the clan knows it. It starts quickly: ” The clerk was as sensuous as the other was aesthetic, and his love adventures, told at great length and chiefly coined from his imagination, affected the supersensitive master of arts in the same way as so many whiffs of sewer gas. He deemed the clerk a filthy, uncultured brute, whose place was in the muck with the swine, and told him so; and he was reciprocally informed that he was a milk-and-water sissy and a cad. Weatherbee could not have defined “cad” for his life; but it satisfied its purpose, which after all seems the main point in life.”
They stop washing. They stop cooking for each other. They become gluttonous. They get scurvy. “They lost all regard for personal appearance, and for that matter, common decency.” London chronicles the descent of these two men into isolation-induced madness, their civilized past turned illusion and mockery. It’s as close as they come to experiencing nothingness, le néant: “This was the Universe, dead and cold and dark, and he its only citizen.” The dead visit them in hallucinatory encounters. Cuthfert keeps a gun trained on Weatherbee. Weatherbee wields an axe.
What with the Fear of the North, the mental strain, and the ravages of the disease, they lost all semblance of humanity, taking on the appearance of wild beasts, hunted and desperate. Their cheeks and noses, as an aftermath of the freezing, had turned black. Their frozen toes had begun to drop away at the first and second joints. Every movement brought pain, but the fire box was insatiable, wringing a ransom of torture from their miserable bodies. Day in, day out, it demanded its food, — a veritable pound of flesh, — and they dragged themselves into the forest to chop wood on their knees. Once, crawling thus in search of dry sticks, unknown to each other they entered a thicket from opposite sides. Suddenly, without warning, two peering death’s-heads confronted each other. Suffering had so transformed them that recognition was impossible. They sprang to their feet, shrieking with terror, and dashed away on their mangled stumps; and falling at the cabin door, they clawed and scratched like demons till they discovered their mistake.
Finally, paranoia provokes a fight to the death. One shoots the other. The other slashes the first with the ax. One dies on top of the other, whose death seeps in more slowly as life and heat seep out of the cabin as Cuthbert hallucinates about his paradise regained down south, “Steak, and potatoes, and green things,” while the weight of Weatherbee crushes him. The story was published five years after Germinal appeared in English. That final scene owes Zola that of Étienne and Catherine in the dark of the pit of Montsou as the body of Chaval knocks against them, though Etienne survives as Cuthfert does not.
Jack London can make it too easy to like Jack London, as in this story crunching with the pleasure of fresh snow underfoot and the certainty of good grog afterward. McFane and Bettles, camp buddies, fight, one of them insults the other’s woman, and they decide to duel. There’s never been a duel in those parts. They can’t be stopped. There’s no law to speak of. But Mamelute Kid devises a plan: whoever survives the duel will be hanged. The men think it over and demur, just as a rabid dog attacks, allowing McFane to dog-block as the dog was heading for Bettles, and Bettles to fire the shot once intended for McFane into the rabid dog. Scores settled. Would the Kid have carried out his promised hanging of the survivor? “Well, as yet, I have n’t found the answer.” But there is ingenuity in the Kid, the ingenuity of isolation, the quick-thinking of survival that’s not always one’s own: caring is survival.