Up The Slide by Jack London Summary

Instructor: Richard Pierre

Richard has a doctorate in Comparative Literature and has taught Comparative Literature, English, and German

Jack London was known for writing stories about the classic conflict between humans and nature. This lesson will summarize the plot and structure of his short story ~'Up the Slide~', which tells Clay Dilham's attempt to tackle what he thinks is a simple task but turns out to be a test of the power of nature in the Klondike region.

Context

Known for novels like White Fang, The Call of the Wild, and The Sea Wolf, Jack London also wrote gripping short stories, including ''To Build a Fire'' and of course ''Up the Slide''.

Jack London
Jack London

All of these are informed by London's adventurous life, which included stints as a sailor and as a gold prospector in the Klondike region of Alaska, where there was a Gold Rush in the 1890s: the setting of ''Up the Slide''.

We know a few important things about the main character, Clay Dilham: he's young (seventeen) and arrogant. He's traveling with a man named Swanson to the village of Dawson to pick up mail. They've camped for the night when Clay boasts he'll be able to return with a sled full of firewood in just 30 minutes. This young whippersnapper is quite proud that he noticed a dead tree other travelers had overlooked. The only problem? It's high up on Moosehead Mountain, on a steep slide, or rock face, covered in snow.

No biggie, Clay thinks to himself. He knows the frozen river is below the tree and thinks that if he chops it down so it falls on the ice, the trunk will shatter into pieces: firewood ready-to-go. The older, more experienced Swanson just laughs at Clay's boldness. We have the sneaking suspicion that the opening of the story is a sign things won't turn out as planned, that this foreshadows, warning or indication, challenges to come.

Conflict: Man vs. Nature

As soon as Clay begins making his way up the slide, he realizes it's much steeper than he thought, and he regrets wearing slick-soled walrus-skin moccasins instead of more rugged footwear. He reaches a patch of snow-covered grass and keeps slipping on it. The only way he can make it through is by digging his bare hand into the snow and frozen dirt to slowly pull himself up. Finally, he makes it up to his tree, and chopping it down turns out to be the easiest part of the whole ordeal.

Clay looks at the way he came up the slide and realizes he'll just keep slipping and falling if he tries to climb back down. He starts to feel tired, but realizes if he stops moving, he'll freeze in the 30-below weather. Clay has underestimated some of the challenges nature can present and overestimated his ability to handle them. This makes ''Up the Slide'' a classic example of the literary conflict called man vs. nature.

Miners Climbing in the Klondike
Miners Climbing in the Klondike

Climax: The Avalanche

Stuck between a rock and a hard place, Clay gets a crazy idea: if he can't get back down, why not try to climb all the way up the slide and down its other, less treacherous side? He begins making his way up, but it's tough. His fingers are numb from being thrust into the snow. Every so often, he has to stop and beat them against his sides to keep the blood circulating and prevent frostbite. Clay is exhausted, and becoming clumsier by the minute. Finally, both of his feet slip out from underneath him at the same time. He slips down the snowy slide, creating a minor avalanche. As he falls, he tries to grab hold of something, but can't. He hits a rock outcropping that spins him around. Now he's sliding head-first. Clay knows that if he hits a rock head-on, he'll be doomed. He's finally able to roll over and use his arms like a brake and stop himself just in the nick of time.

The fall and avalanche are the climax of the story, the point where its action reaches its most intense point. Clay's initial optimism and arrogance are beaten down in the face of nature's power. He's shaken by his near-death experience: it's ten minutes before he can even start to move again. Clay creeps his way back up the slide, and it takes him a full hour just to get where he was before the fall.

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