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 often debated but can generally be interpreted as “tragic flaw,” a trait that blindsides the hero and leads him to his own ruin. While some would certainly argue that McCandless was fanatical or hubristic in taking on nature itself, that definition does not quite fit the McCandless depicted in Into the Wild. After all, Krakauer’s whole purpose in writing the book was to try to determine what trait led McCandless down his ultimately terminal path. Mere pride or adolescent stupidity seems like an incomplete answer.
Another interpretation of hamartia presents it less as a character flaw than a misunderstanding of one’s place in the world. In this light, hamartia seems to fit Chris McCandless quite well. The rich kid who leaves the material world, his family, and his identity behind to pursue enlightenment in the natural landscape seems the very definition of someone looking for his place. In some ways, Krakauer presents McCandless’s transformation into Alexander Supertramp in this light in Into the Wild: an ambitious young man who erroneously saw himself as an adventurer in the outdoors. Linking hamartia to the fate of a tragic hero is crucial to this interpretation. According to Into the Wild, Chris McCandless died because of his own misconception of himself.
In the Greek tragic...
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"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 story, concluding with it in Chapters 17 and 18. “Davis Gulch,” Chapter 9, resides in the center of the book, which would in a traditional narrative be a stop on the journey of the hero, but in this case it is a place that McCandless didn’t even visit and probably had never heard of. Instead, it contains the story of a different hero altogether, that of Everett Ruess, an adventurer lost in the Canyonlands of Utah some seventy years ago. Immediately before this vignette, Chapter 8, broadly titled “Alaska,” provides brief stories of three other adventurers. Later, toward the end of the book, Krakauer devotes two full chapters, Chapters 14 and 15, both titled “The Stikine Ice Cap,” to give drama to and meditate on his own adventures in mountain climbing in Alaska. In between all this he takes readers to different moments in McCandless’s life, but all are grounded in the place of the events as much as by the events themselves. In this way, Krakauer moves readers imaginatively, spatially, and, it sometimes seems, rather randomly through McCandless’s story.
Krakauer complicates this disjunctive pattern and amplifies ambiguity by using multiple points of view to describe each place, McCandless, and the reasons behind McCandless’s behavior. This shifting succeeds in showing McCandless’s life from various perspectives rather than telling about it from one. Sometimes the author speaks in his own narrative voice; in other places different characters speak in theirs; and in still others literary texts speak, sometimes merely by their placement in the narrative—their location, so to speak—and at other times by the narrator’s or other characters’ commentary on them. A review of a few chapters reveals this strategy and its results.
Jim Gallien, the driver who picks up McCandless while he is hitchhiking from Fairbanks to the Stampede Trail, is the lens through which readers see both setting and hero in Chapter 1. He says that “the bush is an unforgiving place...that cares nothing for hope or longing” and that McCandless might be “one of those crackpots from the lower forty-eight who come north to live out ill-considered Jack London fantasies.” Whether Gallien, “a union electrician,” would be sufficiently familiar with Jack London to make such an informed comparison, one cannot be sure, and it probably does not matter anyway because the very point here is to smudge definitive opinion.
Chapter 2 indirectly challenges and reflects on Gallien’s opinion of the wilderness and McCandless by opening with an epigraph that juxtaposes McCandless’s graffito on Jack London “carved into a piece of wood discovered at the site of Chris McCandless’s death” with a quotation from London’s White Fang. McCandless’s words hero-worship London as “King,” while this King describes Alaska as “so lone and cold that the spirit of it was not even that of sadness. There was a hint in it of laughter...cold as the frost and partaking of the grimness of infallibility.” Without directly commenting on this material, Krakauer then, in his narrative voice, describes the chapter’s title, “The...
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