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Male Voices: Themes Found in Early 20th Century Literature

Updated on April 12, 2018

Looking at early 20th century literature written by men, what are some common themes and what do they say about the 20th century man? I will be specifically looking at To Build a Fire, The Rich Boy, Billy Budd, and Hills Like White Elephants.

To Build a Fire by Jack London

There are many themes in To Build a Fire. For the purpose of this article I will be highlighting three: pride, perseverance and survival. The man, as he is unnamed in the story, is extremely prideful. He takes great pride in his skills and his ability to navigate the trail and in just being a MAN. A man's man, so to speak. He refused advice about the cold because of this. Although in the end his pride was his downfall, his perseverance was crazy. The good kind, of course. He kept trying despite being essentially numb and frozen. Even though he doesn't survive, I added survival and separated it from perseverance because the natural aspect of the story. It was man vs. nature and he underestimated nature. Once he realized it and his survival instincts kicked in, it was too late.

"His face would surely be frozen. He knew that and he was sorry that he had not worn the sort of nose guard Bud wore when it was cold. Such a guard passed across the nose and covered the entire face. But it did not

matter much, he decided. What was a little frost? A bit painful, that was all. It was never serious."

— Jack London, "To Build a Fire"

The Rich Boy by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The rich boy was a great story about a rich boy. Anson Hunter was the typical ladies' man of the early 1920s. Pride was also a theme in this story. A lot decisions he made recklessly because of his pride. He was also very dominant making male dominance a theme here also. In certain circles he overdid it with his air of superiority, even though it wasn't "an air" because he really considered himself superior. Another theme in this story is role playing. Hiding and/or denying any part of himself he considered weak was something Anson made sure to do. Im calling it role playing because one of his girls, Paula essentially saw him as two different people. My theory is that one was really him and the other was the facade. That facade went out of the window when she married someone else.

"Anson filled himself with whiskey that morning, and going to the office, carried on his work without a break--rather with a fear of what would happen if he stopped. In the evening he went out as usual, saying nothing of what had occurred; he was cordial, humorous, unabstracted. But one thing he could not help--for three days, in any place, in any company, he would suddenly bend his head into his hands and cry like a child."

— F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The Rich Boy"

Billy Budd by Herman Melville/Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway

The only theme I will mention from Billy Budd is the sense of duty that is prominent throughout the story. All of the men we encounter in this story have this sense of duty, even Claggart (although to what capacity is unknown) until his jealousy takes over.

In Hills like White Elephants we meet a man referred to as both "the man" and "the american" and a female named Jig. The man's interaction with jig creates the atmosphere and themes in this story. Therefore we are working with male dominance, assertiveness and most importantly the male/female roles at that time. Although I personally don't believe he was able to persuade he to abort the baby, I do believe he was able to put her in a place she didn't like, where he was dominant and she was more child-like than anything else.


What do all of these themes have in common? Assertiveness, dominance, pride, perseverance, survival, a sense of duty, and not showing any weakness are all characteristics of the alpha male. The Alpha male is strong, hardworking, confident, commanding, and a survivor. He is also prominent in all of these stories. He is the man in "To Build a Fire" and Anson Hunter in "The Rich Boy". He is the man in "Hills like White Elephants".

From this, I conclude that the 20th Century man is ideally the alpha male. I would also conclude, and this could be a slight ready, that based on their own life stories, these particular authors chose to voice this in their writing probably to show that it actually isn't easy being a man because you literally have to be perfect. A man spends his whole life proving he is a man. Any less of a man and you aren't man enough.


London, Jack. To Build A Fire. Century Magazine, 1908.

Melville, Herman. Billy Budd, Sailor. Constable & Co., 1924.

Fitzgerald, F Scott. Rich Boy. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1926.

Hemingway, Ernest. Hills Like White Elephants. New York: Scribner's Sons, 1927.


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