To McCandless and many others of his ilk, the wilderness has a very specific allure. McCandless sees the wilderness as a purer state, a place free of the evils of modern society, where someone like him can find out what he is really made of, live by his own rules, and be completely free. And this is not just naïveté; McCandless's journal entries show that he does find some answers, some keys to living the way he wants to live.
Yet, it is also true that the reality of day-to-day living in the wilderness is not as romantic as he and others like him imagine it to be. McCandless spends so much time trying to find food to keep himself alive that he has little time to consciously appreciate the wilderness, as is evidenced by the fact that his journal consists almost solely of lists of the food that he finds and eats every day. Perhaps this explains why many of his heroes who wrote about the wilderness, for example, Jack London, never actually spent much time living in it.
Forgiveness, and the danger inherent in the inability to forgive, are central themes in Into the Wild. Chris McCandless is shown to be a very compassionate person, who is unwilling to ignore the fact that so many people are starving or hungry around him, and feels a personal responsibility to help them. Yet his actions are ultimately selfish, and do great harm to those who love him most. Moreover, his inability to forgive his parents’ mistakes seems to be at the center of this seeming contradiction between his compassionate nature and his sometimes cruel behavior.
There is certainly more behind his odyssey than just anger at his parents, but his resentment of them does spread into the rest of his life, and seems to be closely connected to how isolated he becomes at Emory. This, in turn, adds to his revulsion against society generally, which is clearly a driving factor in his deciding to go into the wilderness. One is left to wonder if, had McCandless found a way to forgive his parents for their shortcomings, he would not have felt the need to go to such extreme lengths in his quest for answers.
McCandless describes what he is looking for on his odyssey, particularly on the Alaska trip, as “ultimate freedom.” It would seem that this largely represents, to him, freedom from other people’s rules and authority over him. Throughout his whole life he finds authority particularly oppressive, especially when exercised by anyone who he feels only has such power over him for arbitrary reasons. To live completely alone, in a world where the only laws he feels the need to follow are those of nature, is to him ultimate freedom.
Yet this level of freedom requires total isolation, for to be with others means to have obligations to them. Thus, McCandless’s quest for freedom becomes, also, a refutation of any and all intimacy with others. This kind of freedom is inherently selfish. By living only according to his own rules and those of nature, no matter how principled and deeply-thought, McCandless is implicitly living only for his own best interest. For example, he refuses to get a hunting license because he doesn’t think it is any of the government’s business what he eats; were everyone to act this way, animal populations would be destroyed, and food supplies threatened. McCandless's ultimate freedom is thus limited in scope, for on any larger scale it would be dangerous and potentially disastrous.
The Allure of Danger
The allure of danger and high-risk activities is central to Into the Wild. Krakauer does not believe that this allure is significant to everyone, but it certainly is to a specific kind of young man -- one who is intense, passionate, driven and ambitious, but not satisfied with the opportunities or challenges society presents to him. These young men also always seem to have some kind of demon driving them, whether it is a troubled relationship with their fathers, as with McCandless, Krakauer, and John Waterman, or something else.
For Krakauer, at least, the risk in his activities brought him to a point of meditation—because he is often only one mistake away from death, he has to focus utterly, and this allows him to escape from those problems that would otherwise eat away at him. There is also the thrill of pure accomplishment, man against only nature and himself, which allows him to feel that he truly knows what he is capable of, that he doesn’t need to rely on others, or on society, to survive.
Valuing Principles over People
One of the primary qualities McCandless constantly exhibited, which in turn led many to respect him, was his adherence to principles. He does not simply preach that his parents are too materialistic, or state that he won’t be as greedy as he believes them to be. Instead, he lives by his anti-materialism completely, giving away all of his life savings to charity, only making the bare minimum of money that he needs to survive, and keeping as few possessions as he possibly can.
While this adherence to principle is admirable and, unfortunately, unusual, McCandless does seem to put his principles above people, which leads him to cause hurt without really intending to do so. For example, in college Chris decides that he has a moral problem with gifts, and so will no longer accept or give them. Although this decision is based on a sense of morality, it in fact causes McCandless to hurt those who care about him. This may be related to his intimacy problems, for as long as he doesn’t let people get too close, he won’t be put in a position of having to choose them over his principles.
The Elusiveness of Identity
The elusiveness of identity, or of truly understanding someone’s identity, is a theme both explicitly and implicitly present throughout Into the Wild. Krakauer spends about three years putting together first the article on Chris McCandless, and then this book. He talks to almost anyone who met McCandless, even fleetingly. He follows McCandless's trails, reads his journals, even reads the articles he wrote for the student paper at Emory. Krakauer also feels he has an extra level of understanding, because he was much like Chris when he was in his twenties.
Yet even with all of this, at the end of the book, Krakauer acknowledges that McCandless’s presence remains elusive. As closely as he may have studied him, as well as he has come to “know” him, there are a few fundamental questions which no one, not even Chris’s parents, can find a satisfactory answer to. Most important of these is how someone so compassionate, kind, and intelligent could have ended up devastating his parents, and all of those who loved him, so profoundly. The ultimate inability to truly know another person is thus at the heart of Into the Wild.
The Father-Son Relationship
The father-son relationship, and the potential for dysfunction within it, is an important theme in Into the Wild. Both Krakauer and McCandless are highly ambitious, and have highly ambitious fathers. The problem arises in that their fathers’ ambitions for them are very different from their own, and their strong wills and passion for their own kind of ambition—in Krakauer’s case, mountain climbing, and in McCandless’s, the wilderness and anti-materialist living—cause great rifts between father and son.
For both McCandless and Krakauer, the combination of trying to please a difficult-to-please father, resenting authority, and discovering their fathers’ own great failings leads to an almost insurmountable rift. Krakauer was able to forgive his father only once he was no longer the same man. McCandless died before he had the opportunity to grow out of his anger.
Into the Wild Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Into the Wild is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.