Essays and Criticism
Into the Wild as Greek Tragedy
Whether he was a vagabond, genius, whack job, free spirit, rebel, or poet, Christopher McCandless (also known by the pseudonym Alexander Supertramp) was unique among men. At an age when most upper-class kids begin their arduous climb toward becoming the next big thing, Christopher McCandless went in the opposite direction—he became a nobody. His two-year descent into the furthest margins of society baffled and fascinated many, including author Jon Krakauer. Following an article he wrote for Outside magazine, Krakauer authored a painstaking reconstruction of McCandless’s odyssey, Into the Wild. In committing the story to paper, Krakauer attempts to answer one question: why did McCandless do it? It is an impossible question to answer no matter how earnestly Krakauer pursues it.
Krakauer acknowledges his own obsession in the introduction, and his crafting of the story raises its own questions. By fashioning the last two years of Christopher McCandless’s life into the book Into the Wild, is Krakauer making it a modern-day tragedy? Does Into the Wild invite parallels to notions of tragedy originating in ancient Greece? If so, what elements apply? Much of what we know about how the ancient Greeks developed and evaluated tragedy comes from Aristotle—or so some think. His treatise, Poetics, may not have been written by him and instead may represent the notes of a student or students at one of his many lectures. Either way, the document is still considered the starting point for any discussion of the nature of tragedy and includes analysis of tragedy’s composite elements. To examine Into the Wild's fitness for comparison, Aristotelian notions of tragic heroes and the definition of tragedy must be considered, along with staple structural elements like choruses and poetic language.
All tragedies center on a hero, so in order to determine whether Chris McCandless has been transformed into one in Krakauer’s book, McCandless’s resemblance to a tragic hero must be established in specific terms. In the Greek model, tragic heroes usually come from noble families. While Chris was neither a prince nor the son of a politician, he did come from an upper-class background. He also went on a journey, as many tragic heroes do. Yet the real test of his status as a tragic hero is his embodiment of a trait the Greeks called hamartia. Since it is a translated term, its exact meaning is...
(The entire section is 1543 words.)
"The Dark Continent" of Ambiguity in Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild
“I was haunted,” says Jon Krakauer in explaining why he wrote about Chris McCandless, whose journey away from the conventions and materialism of contemporary American culture and into the wilderness of Alaska ended with loneliness and starvation. What haunts the author is not only the facts of the story as he traces them but also the “unsettling parallels between events” in McCandless’s story and his own. Unabashedly, the author uses his own experience to gain insight into that of his real-life character, immediately telling his reader in his opening note that he does so “in the hope that [his] experiences will throw some oblique light on the enigma of Chris McCandless’s death.” But Krakauer does not limit his study to a comparison between his character and himself. In addition to his own experiences, Krakauer weaves together accounts of McCandless provided by those he met in his travels as well as by his family and friends, brief vignettes and longer case studies of others who have lived on the edge, and excerpts from the works of writers whom McCandless read on his journey. This multiplicity of perspective as well as its arrangement in the narrative serve to create disjuncture and ambiguity, and in so doing they preserve the complexity of McCandless’s motivation to go into the wild in the manner he did.
Thus, as Krakauer tells readers from the beginning, his purpose is twofold: he intends to be clear about his own “conviction” concerning the meaning behind McCandless’s story but also to leave it “to the reader to form his or her own opinion of” it. The word conviction packs a strong punch, connoting finality, yet Krakauer wants to soften this by placing it within a context of ambiguity—the multiple perspectives—that in many ways invite a dialogue that resists closure. Indeed, the conspicuous use of the pronouns “his or her” invites further inclusion, signifying meanings that recognize gendered differences as well. Does the author, in fact, accomplish all of this, and how does he do so?
Krakauer creates ambiguity by means of a vaguely circular yet ultimately disjunctive structure to the narrative, grounding it primarily in location, which fractures the temporal sequence of McCandless’s story. It begins with “The Alaska Interior” in Chapter 1. It moves in Chapter 2 to “The Stampede Trail,” the site of McCandless’s death, to which he returns intermittently throughout the...
(The entire section is 2285 words.)