Into the Wild Summary and Analysis
by Jon Krakauer
Soon after leaving Jan, McCandless sets up camp in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. One day while hiking back from a provisions trip he gets a ride from an eighty-year old man named Ronald Franz. Franz thinks that McCandless seems like a good person, and, thinking he’s an uneducated bum, wants to encourage him to get his life together, but McCandless tells Franz that he already has a college education, and lives this way by choice.
Over the next few weeks McCandless and Franz spend a lot of time together, and Chris tells Franz that he is biding his time until spring, when he will go to Alaska. Soon after Chris gets a ride from Franz into San Diego, where he hopes to earn some money for his Alaska trip, but he has trouble finding work. He hops trains north to Seattle still looking for work, but isn’t able to, so returns to California where he has Franz pick him up. McCandless has heard from Wayne Westerberg that he can work for him in Carthage, so Franz offers to drive him as close to it as he can without missing an appointment he has.
They spend a few days driving to Colorado together, and Franz finds himself very sad and lonely once McCandless leaves him, having become very attached to him. He gets a long letter from McCandless soon after, encouraging him to get out on the road and live like he does, and Franz takes this advice. Franz waits for McCandless’s return, but one day when he picks up two hitchhikers and tells them about his friend “Alex,” they tell him that they just read an article in Outside magazine about it, and he’s dead. In response, Franz renounces God, and buys his first bottle of whiskey in a long time.
McCandless turns up in Carthage looking for work, and once again is happy to do all of the least desirable jobs at the grain elevator. He becomes close to Gail Borah, Westerberg’s girlfriend, and tells her things he hasn’t shared with anyone in awhile. Westerberg doesn’t ask about McCandless’s family, but he has a feeling that, knowing McCandless, he just got stuck on something that happened with his father and couldn’t let it go.
In fact, both Walt and Chris are stubborn and high-strung, which leads to a great clash between them. Walt tries to control Chris, who is fiercely independent, and so he resents it deeply. Shortly before disappearing, Chris tells his sister, Carine, that he intends to soon cut off all relations with his parents, for good, disgusted by their attempts to control him and what he sees as their immoral lifestyle.
As McCandless prepares to leave Carthage for Alaska, he tells Westerberg that he will return there in the fall to help on the grain elevator again, and Westerberg gets the sense that his Alaska trip will be his last big adventure before he settles down, at least comparatively. Before leaving, McCandless has dinner with Westerberg’s mother, Mary, with whom he really hits it off, and goes out one last time with Westerberg’s crew. He then heads off to Alaska.
Krakauer explains that he received a lot of negative mail after the original article about McCandless ran in Outside magazine, largely from Alaskans who thought McCandless didn’t respect the wilderness, and acted stupidly and stubbornly. There were a few others notorious in Alaska for similar things, including Gene Rosellini, a brilliant man who had decided to see if man could still live as in pre-technology days, and survived without any tools but those he could make himself for over a decade, until he killed himself.
Another young man, John Waterman, is often compared to McCandless. He was a very talented young climber with a troubled relationship with his father, a tragic personal life, and a very eccentric personality. He became more and more unhinged, and eventually embarked on a borderline suicidal climb of Denali, during which he disappeared, and is presumed dead. Carl McCunn is also often compared to McCandless. He was an amateur photographer from Texas who moved to Alaska in the 1970s, and in 1981 arranged to be flown into the wilderness for five months, where he planned to mostly shoot pictures of wildlife. He forgot, however, to arrange to be picked up, and so ended up killing himself as he slowly and painfully starved and froze to death.
Everett Ruess was another figure who can be compared to Christopher McCandless. He was born in 1914 in California, and went on his first extended solo trip hitchhiking and trekking at the age of sixteen. With a few short exceptions, Ruess would spend the rest of his life on the move, living out of a backpack with very little money, often sleeping outside and making due with little food. He wrote many letters while doing this, which show his intense passion for nature and natural beauty.
Like McCandless, Ruess was very romantic, heedless of his personal safety, and undeterred by physical discomfort. He also changed his name, repeatedly, while journeying, finally etching “NEMO” into the sandstone at Davis Gulch twice, before disappearing forever at the age of twenty. His burros and their gear were found, but nothing else, and it is widely believed that he fell to his death while climbing on some canyon wall. Some, however, believe he just chose to disappear, and lived the rest of his life under a pseudonym. Ken Sleight, an expert on him, believes he drowned trying to swim across the San Juan River.
In this section, many of the important themes of the book become apparent. In Ronald Franz we see another example, probably the strongest one, of someone who quickly becomes very attached to McCandless. With Franz it is so extreme that he asks to adopt McCandless, and changes his lifestyle completely, following Chris’s advice. Yet this also, somewhat painfully, puts McCandless’s selfishness in stark relief—although he accepts a fair amount of help from Franz, he leaves him before too much can be expected from him, and McCandless’s death causes the old man to lose his strong faith in God, and to take up drinking again. This illuminates the actual costs of McCandless’s risky behavior, not just to himself but to those who care for him.
We also start to see some of the reasons for McCandless’s estrangement from his family. Although in some ways it seems like his choice to cut himself off from his family is an important part of his plan to have true freedom, it becomes clear in this section that in some ways it is intended specifically to punish them. He tells Carine soon before he disappears that he intends to cut his parents out of his life completely, because he resents their values, and their attempts to impose those values on him.
It is also interesting to see in this section how McCandless’s expectations for his parents are so much higher than for other people in his life. He holds himself to these same standards, always living by the philosophies he espouses, and the standards he holds others to, but he is forgiving of many sins from his friends, including alcoholism and mistreatment of women. Yet even the offer to buy him a car as a graduation gift, coming from his parents, is enough to make him completely disgusted with them, even though, with Carine for example, he does not hold her materialism against her.
In the previous section, McCandless attempts a few times to rejoin society, but finds he cannot stomach it for long. Here we see, however, that he does seem to be planning to settle down after his Alaska trip—his last great adventure. Although it is tragically impossible to know whether he would’ve actually settled down, that he was planning on it at all shows that he did not see his lifestyle as a permanent one, and it also refutes on some level the idea that his Alaska trip was intentionally suicidal.
This section is also the first time Krakauer describes the other famous and infamous characters to whom McCandless is now often compared. Krakauer makes his own beliefs clear—that though McCandless shares some characteristics and behaviors with these men, the only one who is truly like him is Everett Ruess. Carl McCunn was more naïve, John Waterman was actually mentally insane, but Everett Ruess was, like McCandless, simply deeply in love with the land, very romantic, and passionate about living by his principles. These comparisons show that removing oneself from society and living riskily can be a symptom of insanity or stupidity, but it is not inherently so.
This in turn emphasizes the need to look deeply into something before passing judgment. Those who compare McCandless to John Waterman, for example, are doing so based on a few parallels, but a detailed study of either character very quickly shows that their motivations and behaviors were very different indeed. This highlights the purpose of Into the Wild itself, which is not just to tell an adventure story, but to study McCandless in the closest possible detail, so that is anyone is to pass judgment, it is at least with all the necessary information.
Into the Wild Essays and Related Content
- Into the Wild: Major Themes
- Into the Wild: Lesson Plan
- Into the Wild: Questions
- Into the Wild: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- Jon Krakauer: Biography
- Into the Wild Summary
- About Into the Wild
- Character List
- Glossary of Terms
- Major Themes
- Quotes and Analysis
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 1-3
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 4-5
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 6-9
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 10-11
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 12-13
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 14-15
- Summary and Analysis of Chapter 16
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 17-18 and Epilogue
- McCandless's Copycats
- Related Links on Into the Wild
- Suggested Essay Questions
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 1
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 2
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 3
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 4
- Author of ClassicNote and Sources