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Into the Wild: Adolescent Angst Gone Wrong 

Into the Wild (1996) tells the story of an eccentric and headstrong young man, Christopher McCandless, who has a deadly interaction with nature.  Breaking away from society is what he intended, a mission like Thoreau’s Walden, yet in extreme conditions.  In his search for meaning, McCandless bit off more than he can chew.  Piecing together his journey and the harrowing final months of his life, author Jon Krakauer succeeds in telling McCandless’s story in a compelling, though unusual, narrative. 

A Rebel Without a Cause  

McCandless considered himself above the fray of American society.  He regarded the petty every day concerns of people with disdain.  Raised in a wealthy suburb of Washington, DC., McCandless  graduated from Emory University with good grades and good prospects in 1991.  His parents thought he would go to law school, evening offering to foot the bill.  McCandless chose an entirely different route.  Instead of a career or a girlfriend or more school, he opted to live the next two years as a vagabond.  At times, he lived like a hobo, at other times, a survivalist against the elements in nature. 

This off-putting sense of superiority, combined with the stench of a homeless man, did not win him any popularity contests with his coworkers.  

He was driven by a quiet self-confidence, a confidence he derived from his cherished books.  But if Christopher McCandless really had it all figured out, if he didn’t need money or a car, why does he burden other people who have money and cars by hitchhiking?  In this way, he did little to prove his point about the lack of meaning in ordinary life.  He was critical of the rat race, yet he failed to find a sustainable alternative. 

All the while, he worried his parents to death.  They didn’t know his whereabouts and became frantic upon receiving an unpaid ticket for hitchhiking for Chris sent to their home.  That was his one unkind contact with them during his two year absence.  His parents are presented as normal, middle class citizens in Into the Wild.  Certainly they appear as more sympathetic characters than Christopher himself.  

But it should be noted that a later publication by Christopher’s sister Carine, The Wild Truth, claims that their father was abusive. Into the Wild does not include this allegation.  It would change the story in terms of what motivated Christopher: Was he a philosophical wanderer or a fleeing victim of abuse?  This question, however, is outside the scope of Into the Wild, if it is taken as a literary work unto itself.  The book does not address the alleged abuse from his parents. 

McCandless hoped to survive by what he called “fruiting agriculture” (33), which is to say picking berries and such.  But the 24 year old continually imposes on those around him, only to earnestly thank them for their hospitality.  This is the crux: His mode of living doesn’t work without the generosity of other people who have to work for a living. 

In Arizona, McCandless was able to hold onto a job at McDonalds for a month or two, but left eventually when he got “itchy feet,” as he termed it.  It was too full of “plastic people” (43).  This off-putting sense of superiority, combined with the stench of a homeless man, did not win him any popularity contests with his coworkers.  

There were those whom he encountered who considered him to be smart, though some of these character testimonials are from itinerant people living on the margins themselves.  McCandless lectured to one such acquaintance, an elderly man, Ron Franz: 

“Look, Mr. Franz, you don’t need to worry about me.  I have a college education.  I’m not destitute. I’ve living like this by choice” (51). 

Mentally, McCandless was a rebellious teen, though he was now in fact an adult.  He resented his parents bitterly, blaming them for what he perceived as their tyrannical control of his live throughout middle school and high school.  Again, we have to keep in mind the allegations of physical abuse made by Carine McCandless after the publication of Into the Wild.  At any rate, what Christopher’s wanderings were at least in part about, then, was separating from his parents: 

“…with one abrupt, swift action I’m going to completely knock them out of my life.  I’m going to divorce them as my parents once and for all and never speak to either of those idiots as long as I live. I’ll be through with them once and for all, forever.” (64) 

Another family secret which is exposed in Into the Wild is McCandless’ father’s secretly maintaining two families.  This discovery led Christopher to be disillusioned; henceforward considering his father a “sanctimonious hypocrite” (122), especially should his father try to correct the behavior of his children.  We are to infer from Into the Wild that this secret family history is the cause of McCandless’ rather vitriolic sentiments towards his parents.

Based on the testimony of his sister and those that knew him, McCandless was a virgin and never had any intimacy with women.  If that is true, Krakaueur theorizes, he may have sublimated his sexual desire into his yearning to congress with nature.  Thoreau, as it happens, was also a virgin.  And like Thoreau, McCandless hoped to write a book about his adventures. But the evidence of his writing at the time of his death is minimal.  There was nothing in his possession at that time to indicate the diligent notetaking, outlining, or even brainstorming that is required to write a book. Instead, there is just his stated intention. 

McCandless as an adolescent held naïve, liberal beliefs.  He was interested in the cause of helping the homeless, recruiting a friend to pass out hamburgers in sketchy neighborhoods around Georgetown.  A pet liberal cause of the ‘90s, the plight of Blacks in South Africa was a focus for him.  Perhaps it was this moral streak, fairly typical in a young man, which led him so far astray.  In his moral fervor, he thought he knew a better way of living than the rest of us. 

Literary Aspirations 

McCandless had a grandiose manner of using the third person in journal entries: “Can this be the same Alex that set out in July, 1990?” he asks himself (37).   “Alexander Supertramp” was Chris’s pseudonym during his hobo travels.  He was creating a legend for himself in his own mind.  His sister Carine even gives him the unlikely moniker of “literary icon.” 

If I found him to be arrogant, I am not alone.  Krakauer explains in a piece for The New Yorker that many found him to be so, while others “applaud his rejection of conformity and materialism.”  Rejecting conformity and materialism is a worthy cause, yet McCandless is not necessarily the best evangelist for this mindset.  Others referred to McCandless as arrogant because he overestimated his survival skills and preparedness.  I found him to be arrogant in his intellectual pretentions.  

He modeled himself on Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, but in fact he was a confused young man arguably wasting an expensive education.  He “fulminated against the endemic idiocy in American life” (52). Those he met along the way described McCandless as kind and smart enough, but some suspected him to be lacking common sense.  

McCandless follows other eccentrics who have come before him and set out to break away from civilization.  Many of these characters ended up dead, as did McCandless.  Many were likewise inspired by literature.  In addition to Thoreau and Tolstoy, McCandless was inspired by Jack London.  He at least could appreciate good literature. 

Thoreau looms large for all who seek to flee society and find succor in nature and the human spirit.  Among McCandless’ remains was found a book by Thoreau, with passages highlighted which valorized “sincerity and truth” above money, fame, and even love.  One could see how McCandless might have misinterpreted this passage in a manner which led to his isolation. 

In Jack London’s The Call of the Wild the characters sled across “the frozen Northland” Alaska during the Klondike Gold Rush, surviving by hunting. This too served as an inspiration for McCandless.  Yet he did not prove to an outdoorsmen like the rugged characters of The Call of the Wild, nor did he realistically prepare for Alaska.  

McCandless never achieved the self-sufficiency which Thoreau or London extolled.  He attempted to live on edible plants and berries, but it was only through the kindness of strangers that he was kept going as long as he was in his adventures as a “Supertramp,” as he styled himself.  This moniker indicates, as Krakauer puts it, a “cocky” attitude, which only dissipates when he realizes he has put himself in mortal danger.  

When he abandons his vehicle in the Mojave Desert and burns his remaining 120 dollars, he proceeds to hitchhike, thus depending on others who chose to keep up with their vehicle registration, gas, and other mundane affairs which were so beneath McCandless.  After two years on the road and on the move, Christopher heads to the Alaskan wilderness. 

Alaska Voyage and Death 

In the early ‘90, a time before texting, postcards were McCandless’ preferred mode of communication.  His postcards attempted a literary styling: “I now walk out to live amongst the wild,” he wrote his former coworkers in 1992.  By this he meant Alaska, and by walking he meant hitchhiking.  Alaska is where many an eccentric before him sought to commune with nature and disassociate with human society.  Yet these would be ominous last words for McCandless.  

The mountain range at Denali National Park

His decision to go to Denali National Park (in Alaska) and live in the wild was foolhardy. He repeatedly referred to his scheduled trip as his “Alaskan Odyssey.”  Though he managed to survive tramping around the SouthWest of the United States and even the Gulf of Mexico, the freezing temperatures of Alaska were another thing entirely.  Armed with a rifle, some cooking ware, and his books, Christopher was ill-prepared for what lay before him. 

McCandless considered himself lucky to find an abandoned bus from a road project decades before with broken windows, a bed, and a stove. He feasted on what he could kill: porcupine, birds, squirrels, and a moose (which he had a tough time preserving and cleaning). 

In July, he sought to cross the river back to civilization.  Yet with the ice melted and rapid waters, crossing looked impossible.  There was a violent current with chest-deep waters, which would have likely killed him.  Ultimately the river trapped McCandless inside–or at least he thought he was trapped.  This caused his eventual starvation (declared the probable cause of his death) after living in the abandoned bus for four months. 

At the time of the discovery of McCandless’ body, his story was a national news item.  One of his former bosses heard Paul Harvey on AM radio report the case and called the police to share McCandless’s W4 info to help police identify him. 

Ironically, the part of the national park in which McCandless was camped out in the abandoned bus “scarcely qualifies as wilderness by Alaskan standards” (165).  Within walking distance, McCandless could have found four cabins, and to the south, hundreds of tourists and a road patrolled by the National Park Service.   

Criticisms and Conclusions

Around page 100 we jump back to the beginning, digging into McCandless’ family history, his father’s romantic adventures, even his pets. From here there are gratuitous digressions.  The author suddenly breaks into first person and describes his own adventures (in a boat, Alaska, mountainclimbing, whatever).  

At this point, the reader is already invested in the narrative of McCandless.  Krakauer shouldn’t presume that we now, after 150 pages, want to hear his own personal experience, altogether breaking away from the main story of his book.  It was a self-indulgent choice.  I frankly opted to skip this section, something I wouldn’t normally do.  The switch of POV to first person was abrupt and somehow without the reader’s consent.  

When Krakauer himself retraces McCandless’ steps in Alaska, this is a more welcome insertion of the author’s own experience, insofar as it further elucidates the main narrative of Into the Wild.  The book would have benefited from a chronological telling of the events without the digressions. 

At least Into the Wild ends on a high note of drama: McCandless’ family comes to Alaska to gather his remains in a plastic box following the identification of his body through his dental records.  They are blindsided to learn that he has starved to death in an abandoned bus in Alaska, and can only ask why he would embark on such a pointless endeavor.  

Finally, we get a fairly detailed examination of what might have caused McCAndless’ death, with theories other than starvation floated.  In the epilogue, Krakauer revisits the scene of McClandless’ death with McClandless’ family.  Touchingly, McCandless’ mom leaves a suitcase with a first-aid kit on the bus where McCandless expired, in order to prevent other hapless wanderers meeting a similar fate. 

Grade: A-

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2 responses to “Into the Wild: Adolescent Angst Gone Wrong ”

  1. Interesting analysis. You should read ‘The wild truth’ by his sister Carine. He probably falls somewhere in between given the nature of his parents and volatile upbringing and how it influenced a sensitive but stubborn kid to do what he did. Always well provided for but at a significant cost of abusive parents.

    Also took Krakauer a lot of time and effort to track his travels in pre internet days.

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