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Updated February 7, 2021

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer Literature Analysis

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Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer Literature Analysis essay
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Distinguishing Traits of Author

Jon Krakauer is an American writer from Corvallis, Oregon. From a young age, his father, Lewis Krakauer introduced him to the dangerous yet exciting world of mountain climbing. Since then, Krakauer has attempted multiple climbs up Devils Thumb, the largest rock face in North America, and has written his account on the journey briefly in his book Into the Wild and Eiger Dreams. After the news regarding Chris McCandless’s death broke out, Krakauer wrote an article, but not satisfied with the short account, Krakauer dug deeper into Chris’s life to figure out the motivation behind the journey. In 1996, Krakauer published Into the Wild, a New York Times bestselling novel which shined a light on Chris McCandless’s motivations, his journey, and his consequent death.

Setting

Set in 1992, Krakauer begins to trace Chris McCandless’s steps during his two-year long trip leading up to the bus in Alaska where McCandless ultimately dies. From the very beginning of the novel, Krakauer introduces the location of Chris’s end, Stampede Trail. The bus 142 where McCandless had died “is parked beside a coppice of aspen, ten yards back from the brow of a modest cliff, on a shank of high ground… it’s an appealing setting, open and filled with light” (176-177). Throughout the novel, Krakauer introduces different places where McCandless had gone to before settling in Alaska; he was constantly living a nomadic life before dying in bus 142.

Brief Plot Synopsis

The novel, Into the Wild, focuses on two main points: Chris’s journey throughout North America ending in Alaska and his background that unveils the motivation behind his solo trip with minimal belongings.

As the novel opens, a group of hunters find the dead body of Christopher McCandless in an abandoned bus with no clue as to “who he was, where he was from, or why he was there” (14). This is the beginning of Jon Krakauer’s journey in unraveling the mystery of McCandless. Krakauer traces down the people that McCandless had crossed paths with such as Burres, Franz, and Westerberg and interviews them. He finds that McCandless would not be swayed and revealed little surrounding his past, but he was sociable to them.

Krakauer then decides to take a trip to find McCandless’s past and interviews his family members. He reveals the terse relationship that McCandless had with his father. With this information, it helped unravel one possible motivation for leaving Chris’s past: his anger for his father having a double life. In order to better understand the motivation behind the trip, Krakauer addresses other individuals such as Gene Rosellinin, John Waterman, and Everett Ruess, who just like Chris who “went into the country expecting to find answers to all [of their] problems” (72).

Since Krakauer has personal experience regarding doing something unconventional, he briefly talks about his experience climbing the Devils Thumb. Based on his own experiences, Krakauer realizes the similarity between him and McCandless since “[they] had a similar intensity, a similar heedlessness, a similar agitation of the soul” (155). Krakauer then points out the different views regarding Chris’s journey that other people had pointed out: that he was suicidal and ignorant. However, Krakauer refutes these points by explaining how long he had survived alone and how he died, through mold poisoning. The novel concludes with Chris’s parents, Walt and Billie visiting the bus and coming to peace with the fact that Chris most likely had been at peace not only with himself but with the world at the time of his death.

Brief Description of Characters

Christopher McCandless (Alexander Supertramp)

Chris McCandless’s free-spirited nature as a young child and the way that it had become more insistent as he got older gives insight into the motivation behind the journey to Alaska alone. As a young child, McCandless was brilliant academically and “was a high achiever in almost everything that caught his fancy” (108). However, no matter how brilliant he was, “he resisted instruction of any kind” since he did not like to be told what he was allowed to do (111).

As his college years were wrapping to a close, McCandless learns the deception regarding Walt’s double marriage bringing another reason to leave and pursue a journey alone. McCandless had always had a strong sense of injustice and ”the boy could not pardon the mistakes his father had made as a young man” causing a large split in their relationship (122). At the time of the beginning of his final destination in Alaska, McCandless who went by Alex was twenty-four-years-old, five feet seven and had “a wiry build”(4).

Since McCandless is not alive to explain the motivation behind living in Alaska, based on his possessions it can be inferred that “McCandless went into the wilderness not primarily to ponder nature or the world at large but, rather, to explore the inner country of his soul” (183). It is highly speculated that during his dangerous expedition, “his life hummed with meaning and purpose” since “McCandless distrusted the value of things that came easily” (184). He felt in control of his actions and he had a purpose in life since he had to work hard to survive.

After spending two months living in the bus, “Maybe he was prepared to forgive their imperfections; maybe he was even prepared to forgive some of his own. McCandless seemed ready, perhaps, to go home” (168). Chris McCandless was not planning on living forever alone, because although “he needed his solitude at times, but he wasn’t a hermit. He did a lot of socializing” (44). However, all of this is based on other people’s perception and his possessions, since he never lived to tell his tale.

Jon Krakauer

As the author and narrator of the novel, Krakauer also brings insight into McCandless’s purpose for the journey by using his personal experiences and theories. As he travels to different locations and meets people who have crossed paths with McCandless, he forms countless speculations and debunks some preexisting speculations regarding McCandless’s nature.

From personal experience, Krakauer relates to McCandless’s yearn to find meaning. On multiple levels, Krakauer has had similar experiences such as being “willful, self-absorbed, intermittently reckless, moody” as a youth (134). Krakauer also had a disagreement with his father and was angry over his father’s authoritative nature prompting him to leave for his own freedom. Just like McCandless, if anything caught Krakauer’s attention, he would pursue it just like how he went mountain climbing. He thought that by climbing “the world was made real” (134).

Therefore, he decided to climb Devils Thumb alone. After multiple attempts, he had successfully climbed Devils Thumb and looking back, Krakauer realized that he “was a raw youth who mistook passion for insight and acted according to an obscure, gap ridden logic” that anything you desire would happen (155). Both Krakauer and McCandless had “a similar intensity, a similar heedlessness, a similar agitation”, but Krakauer had survived his journey while McCandless did not (155).

Samuel Walter McCandless

More commonly known as Walt, Samuel Walter McCandless is the father of Chris McCandless. Chris did not like to be told what he could or could not do, but “taking control is something that [Walt] does unconsciously, reflexively” causing their ideas to clash (105). To add fuel to the fire, Walt had married Marcie and had five children when he met Billie and fell in love. Instead of filing a divorce, he continued to lead two lives until Billie had Chris and Carine. Since he could no longer support two families, he filed a divorce and married Billie. In total, Walt had two marriages and a total of eight children. Not only did their natures clash, but the concealed relationship was too much for Chris to handle and he could not forgive Walt potentially prompting Chris’s departure.

Wayne Westerberg

Wayne Westerberg “a hyperkinetic man with thick shoulders and a black goatee” met McCandless in his mid-thirties when he picked him up as a hitchhiker (16). He decides to give McCandless a job since he “owns a grain elevator in Carthage” (16). Westerberg had made a lasting impression on McCandless because he had his mail sent to Westerberg’s address and “told almost everyone he met thereafter that South Dakota was his home” (19). Westerberg did not bother prying into McCandless’s personal life, such as his actual name and his family’s problems, because he figured that he had a good reason.

Ronald Franz

An eighty year old man “nearly six feet tall, with thick arms and a barrel chest” who had met McCandless in January 1992 (58). Franz was “a devout Christian, [who] had spent most of his adult life in the army” (50). After his wife and son had been killed in an accident, “Franz started hitting the whiskey, hard” (50). Soon after, Franz decided to quit drinking and found purpose in life by “unofficially adopting indigent Okinawan boys and girls” by paying for their studies (50).

When he met McCandless, they spent a lot of time together and Franz even asked to adopt him. After “living a solitary existence for many years. He had no family and few friends”, but McCandless’s appearance in his life gave Franz something to live for (55). After McCandless had departed for Alaska, Franz took his advice and decided to live with minimal possessions and camped out. However, after hearing about the death of Alex, he could not believe that God could do something that cruel, so he relinquished his faith and resorted back to drinking.

Jan Burres

Jan Burres is another person that McCandless had met on the road and formed a deep connection with. She was “a forty-one-year-old rubber tramp who was traveling around the West selling knick knacks at flea markets” when she met McCandless “sixty miles south of the Oregon line, near the town of Orick” (30). She has a son around the same age as Alex, but he was estranged from her, so Burres decided to take McCandless in. Even though the time that they spent together had been short, McCandless continued to stay in touch with Burres for two years before heading to Alaska.

Symbols

Alaska

For McCandless and many other adventure seekers, Alaska is more than just a state. To them, Alaska is a place shrouded in mystic that supposedly “[patches] all the holes in their lives” (4). However, what most people forget is that just like any other wilderness, “the bush is an unforgiving place… that cares nothing for hope or longing” (4).

Alaska is a symbol of false hope and unfulfilled dreams that comes with a price. McCandless had believed that if he lived out in the wild on his own he could prove that “he could make it on his own, without anybody else’s help” (159). However, the price to that freedom was his life. Not only that, he believed that he was truly in the wilderness, but in reality, there were many sites of civilization just a couple miles away. For McCandless, he had believed that he was purely out in the wild and he felt as if he proved to himself his own independence without ever realizing that it was only a facade and that he had never truly escaped society.

Motif

Nature

The allure of nature is a prominent aspect throughout the novel; adventure seekers are convinced that all of their problems would be solved in nature, only to find that almost nothing had changed. The idea that nature brings false hope is shown multiple times through Krakauer’s own experience, McCandless’s death, and other adventure-seekers such as Ruess, Waterman, and McCunn.

Krakauer thought that by climbing the Devils Thumb, it “would fix all that was wrong with [his] life” only to find out that no one cared and that nothing had changed (155). McCandless had gone into Alaska, because “he had a need to test himself in ways… ‘that mattered’” only to be unable to leave alive (182). Although McCandless had known the risks involved with the expedition, he was unprepared for the fact that he could not leave whenever he wanted..

Whether he found the spiritual awakening that he had wanted or not, the cost was his life. Even though the other adventure seekers similar to McCandless had been expecting to find something, whether it was their spiritual awakening or their independence, the cost was worth more than the gain. Without ever being able to see the effects of their journey in the wilderness, they had died and were forgotten by most.

Allusions

McCandless had been heavily influenced by the authors of the books that he read. However, one of the authors that had a large impact on him was Thoreau. One of McCandless’s possessions that were discovered was Thoreaus’s Walden with a passage highlighted. The epigraph discusses how people choose to ignore nature instead of experiencing the true beauty because people are stuck in their routinely easy life.

McCandless was most likely inspired by Thoreau’s preaches and decides to follow his words and experience nature to the fullest extent. He preaches this idea of not settling in routine to Franz telling him to “move around, be nomadic, make each day a new horizon” since it only takes courage to seek adventure (57).

Even during his stay in Alaska, he continues to take the words of Thoreau to heart. Thoreau preaches about being conscious of what a person eats and the sacrifices made to eat. In McCandless’s copy of Walden, he writes “consciousness of food…Holy Food” (168). The heavy influence that Thoreau had over McCandless is another reason that McCandless had decided to embark on a solo adventure. McCandless had worshipped Thoreau’s every word and chose to follow them believing that it would lead him to a spiritual awakening and true independence.

Archetype

McCandless’s journey ending in a tragic downfall of death embodies the archetype of a “tragic hero”. Born from a wealthy family, McCandless seemed to be destined for greatness, especially since he was an academically accomplished and smart student. When McCandless first sets out on his two-year journey, his bravery and strong will to follow what he had set out to accomplish is an admirable trait. Many people who had crossed paths with McCandless had found his plans for the “Alaskan Odyssey” foolish yet admirable.

During the interview, Mrs. Westerberg reflects on her short encounter with McCandless and found his conviction admirable since “unlike most of us, he was the sort of person who insisted on living out his beliefs” (67). Most people do not have the courage to live in the unknown and stick to the comfort of life, but McCandless had the bravery to leave the comfort to venture and find who he truly was. However, he had the mindset of being reckless and was too adamant about living without any tools which consequently caused his death. If he had used a map during his “Alaskan Odyssey” then he would have survived since many shelters were surrounding the bus.

However, “when you are young, to believe that what you desire is no less than what you deserve” was McCandless’s mindset (155). He was too confident in his search for spiritual awakening and independence that he did not take any extra measures in ensuring his survival since he thought that he would find it and make it out alive. He most likely realized his mistake before starving to death, because he had known that he was too weak to be able to survive. McCandless’s life is the definition of a tragic hero that due to his stubbornness and confidence for complete independence had led him to his death.

Themes

Selfishness

One’s actions do not only affect themselves, but it also affects the lives of everyone around the person. Therefore, before making any major changes in one’s life, the person should always consider the effects that the decision will have on the people around them. If they are not fully prepared for what is happening, it will lead to pain for everyone.

Before deciding to set off on his two-year solo expedition, McCandless and similar adventure seekers like him did not consider the consequences and the worries that would fall on their loved ones. Instead, they focus only on one thing, themselves. As he went around the country, McCandless had touched the lives of many people, but without caring about their concern for him, he selfishly only thought about what he wanted. When Gallien asks “whether his parents or a friend knew what he was up to…Alex answered calmly that no, nobody knew of his plans” (6). Without even considering how worried his loved ones would be after not hearing a word from him in over two years, McCandless stubbornly refuses to contact his family. Although the selfishness McCandless displays is not the typical definition of selfishness for material items, McCandless’s version of selfishness is even worse. Only caring for what he wants, McCandless has caused endless worries and pain for his family.

When the news that McCandless had died, his sister, Carine “curled up on the couch in a fetal position, wailing without pause” (130). His parents also felt a “loss so huge and irreparable that the mind balks at taking its measure” (132). The weight of death is something that people have to carry with them for the rest of their life even if the one deceased is at peace. Without even being able to say any parting words, McCandless left his family broken-hearted. A person’s life is not only their’s; each person’s life will consequently affect another person, so before a person makes a decision that risks one’s well-being or another, people should consider the effects of their choices.

Comforts of Society

As society continues to advance, it becomes progressively easier to get comfortable with the life that is given without needing to venture out. Life becomes a routine and people conform to the routine. However, the only way to find oneself is by pushing oneself to the limits of one’s comfort zone.

One of the main reasons that McCandless had decided to embark on the “Alaskan Odyssey” was because he felt claustrophobic in the dull social life. McCandless wanted to become completely independent and have absolute freedom. However, this is not an uncommon wish. Many people want the same thing as McCandless, but most people are too afraid of the unknown. This is what is impressive about McCandless and other adventure seekers who have uprooted their comfortable life because “at least they tried to follow their dream… Not many do” (96).

Before he leaves, McCandless writes a note to Franz telling him that he “should make a radical change in [his] lifestyle and begin to boldly do things which [he] may previously never have thought of doing, or been too hesitant to attempt” (56). There is joy in life that does not come from the comfort of routine, instead, it comes from the unknown and if people dared to get out of the comfort then they would “discover all the wonderful things that God has placed around us to discover” (57). Most people know that they are missing out on the joys of life, but many are too afraid to uproot their comfortable life.

Memorable Quotes

  • “It is the experiences, the memories, the great triumphant joy of living to the fullest extent in which real meaning is found” (37).
  • “You are wrong if you think Joy emanates only or principally from human relationships. God has placed it all around us… We just have to have the courage to turn against our habitual lifestyle and engage in unconventional living” (57).
  • “Unlike most of us, he was the sort of person who insisted on living out his beliefs” (67).
  • “Chris McCandless was at peace, serene as a monk gone to God” (199).

Distinctive Characteristics of the Work

Krakauer utilizes many people, other works, and McCandless’s possessions as well as his own experience to depict the life of Chris McCandless. By incorporating his own experiences of climbing Devil’s Thumb, Krakauer is able to further emphasize why McCandless had gone on a solo expedition. Similar to McCandless he thought that “climbing the Devils Thumb would fix all that was wrong with [his] life” and would answer all the questions (155). By incorporating other people’s perception of their encounter with McCandless, he reveals many possible motives for McCandless’s solo journey. However, he does not clearly state one specific motive, since it is up to the reader to decide what the main reason was.

Comments

Although the book depicts the life of a person who had done the unthinkable for most people, it opens people’s eyes to the world of adventure. It urges the readers to step out of their comfort zone and find themselves through death-defying adventures or at least something that does not have definite success.

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