Into the Wild Summary and Analysis
by Jon Krakauer
Krakauer, like McCandless, was a willful, self-absorbed, passionate, and moody child who had problems with male authority figures. He becomes obsessed with climbing in his late teens, and spends all of his time fantasizing about, planning and undertaking dangerous climbs. At twenty-three, he plans on an especially dangerous climb in Alaska, the Devils Thumb, and determines that he will go it alone. He is dimly aware that he might be getting in over his head, but that is part of the point, and only encourages his zeal.
He quits his carpentry job in Colorado, and drives off to Alaska. To get to the Thumb required either a jet or a boat, so he abandons his car and gets passage on a workboat. Krakauer arrives in Petersburg, the nearest town, and meets a woman named Kai, who invites him home for dinner and gives him a place to sleep. He starts on his journey to the peak the next day, totally alone. The first two days go well, and everything feels more melodramatic and extreme because of his solitude.
On the third day, just as he approaches the most dangerous and intimidating part yet, a snow storm breaks, and he loses all visibility. He twice almost falls into crevasses, and it takes him the entire day to make it through the dangerous icefall. Soon after, he reaches the place where a pilot is supposed to drop his food to him, but the unending snow means the conditions are too poor, so he just has to keep waiting as his supplies dwindle.
The plane finally comes, and though he is still mentally unprepared after the stress of waiting, the perfect weather the next day leads Krakauer to start the actual climb. He gets into a rhythm and makes significant progress, but all of a sudden he gets to a point where the ice that is supporting him has severely thinned out, and is impassable. He has no choice but to go back down.
The weather turns bad, and Krakauer is confined to the tent for three days. He quickly runs out of things to do, and so he smokes some marijuana he’d been planning to save to use as a kind of victory cigar. He throws the match into a bag of trash, which lights, and before he can put the fire out the inner wall of his tent is damaged, and the temperature inside is now thirty degrees colder. Even more than that, though, he is bothered by the fact that it is his father’s tent, which had been loaned to him reluctantly.
Krakauer’s relationship with his father, a fiercely competitive man who expects Jon to become a doctor, is very strained. Krakauer believes that only perfection will please his father, and he does his best to live up to these expectations, but when family secrets are revealed and he realizes his father himself is not perfect, his anger and resentment become extreme, and it is only decades later that he can accept his father as human. Lewis eventually develops post-polio syndrome, an extremely painful condition, and in an attempt to halt his decline, starts self-medicating. His misuse of the drugs ends up addling his mind, to the point where he has to be institutionalized, and no remnants of sanity are left.
When the weather clears, Krakauer decides to try to climb the Thumb again. This time he only makes it a hundred feet up before the weather forces him to stop, and his decent is terrifying and almost fatal. When he finally makes it back to his camp, he realizes that he is not going to be able to succeed, and he has to give up on climbing the north face of the Thumb. There is still an easier route, which he originally thought was beneath him, but which he now realizes is the only path he’ll be able to succeed on, and so he tries that way.
When he wakes up the next morning, it is clear that the weather is not going to hold for very long, so he climbs as fast as he can with almost no gear, intending to go up and back before the storm hits. He reaches the summit after a quick and dangerous climb, takes a few pictures, and heads back down. He makes it back, and not too much later is back in Colorado, working the same construction job that he’d been at before he left.
It is only in these sections that Krakauer truly becomes a character in Into the Wild, more than just narrator, investigator and interviewer. In his story of climbing the Devils Thumb, he illuminates a lot of parallels between himself and McCandless, and we see how he probably can understand McCandless’s motivations deeply, without having ever met him, because of their similarities in life circumstances and personalities. This does raise the question, however, of if he can really tell this story impartially, or might he be imposing his own story onto McCandless’s, which, with his death, can never be completely known.
This draws attention to the problem of biography generally, that someone has to write it, and by choosing what to put in and what to leave out, how to frame the story, and how to tell it, the biographer has significant control over how the public will perceive the subject of the biography. In this case especially, where much is not known and the key figure is deceased, there is more room for the biographer to assert his own perspective. Yet Krakauer does it explicitly—he admits that he may be impartial, that he feels a connection to McCandless, and he makes explicit where he is making assumptions or drawing conclusions that cannot be proven.
This switch to Krakauer’s story, taking Krakauer from journalist, author and narrator to subject and temporary protagonist, highlights again the issue of point-of-view and perspective. Not only does this section emphasize Krakauer’s impartiality and personal perspective, but it also highlights the fact that, unlike Krakauer, McCandless will never be able to tell his own story. We must rely on Krakauer’s perspective of everything that happened to McCandless because we will never have McCandless’s, and this again emphasizes the tragedy of his death.
The inclusion of Krakauer’s own story in Into the Wild does seem to complicate McCandless’s story, and allows us to see, if not into McCandless’s mind, at least into the mind of someone who had similar passions, demons, and ambitions. Krakauer’s loneliness in his time on Devils Thumb seems significant, as McCandless chose to go into the Alaskan wilderness alone, and while he generally seemed to bask in his independence and solitude, Krakauer’s admission that as much as he thought he could do without people, he was really lonely, makes it seem likely that McCandless probably had moments of deep loneliness as well.
Krakauer’s story also makes it clear that McCandless was almost surely not suicidal. Although he admits, in his last postcard to Westerberg, that he is aware that he might never make it out of the wilderness alive, he believes in his ability to survive, and he is too young to truly be able to imagine death, especially because he has managed to survive all of his other dangerous adventures. Krakauer does not give up on his ascent even after multiple near-death encounters, for he has put so much stake on succeeding that to give up is unimaginable, and it seems likely that for a similar reason, no matter the advice he got, McCandless cannot imagine changing or giving up on his Alaska plan.
Krakauer does eventually give up on his first ascent plan, going up an easier way instead, and this amounts to a discovery that is difficult for both he and McCandless to accept—there are some things that, no matter your will or determination, are impossible. The same is not true of McCandless’s adventure—he did survive for many, many weeks with minimal supplies in dangerous conditions, and he very conceivably could have made it out alive. But his way of thinking, that he can do anything as long as he truly has the determination to do it, and is willing to suffer while doing it, is not, in the end, correct.
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