At the very beginning of Into the Wild, the reader learns that the book’s subject, Chris McCandless, is dead. After graduating from a private East Coast university, he donated his savings to charity and cut off all contact with his family. Two years later, he walked alone into the Alaska wild without the provi- sions most would find critical for surviving in such an unforgiving landscape. His emaciated body was found four months later. Shortly afterwards, Jon Krakauer wrote a story about McCandless for Outside magazine.
The story set off a firestorm, generating more mail than any other article in Outside’s history. Many readers admired McCandless’s courage and quest for simplicity; many others found his behavior selfish and rife with hubris. The question of why a young, privileged man, by all accounts charming, athletic, and intelligent, would embark on such an ordeal was not one easily left unanswered by readers, or by Krakauer. The author’s fascination with McCandless led to Into the Wild, Krakauer’s painstakingly researched account of what happened to McCandless and why he walked into the wild.
Through Krakauer’s retelling, McCandless’s story grows larger than an examination of why a specific individual makes unconventional choices. Krakauer also tackles themes such as Americans’ romanticizing of the wild, the role of risk in the life of youth, and the complex relationships between fathers and sons. Krakauer also contextualizes McCandless’s quest, exploring his devotion to aesthetes like Henry David Thoreau and Jack London, as well as considering how McCandless compares to—and more importantly—contrasts with adventurers and iconoclasts who came before him. If Krakauer doesn’t exactly universalize McCandless’s extreme lifestyle, he makes the motivations behind it sympathetic. A review in the New York Times attests that “by the end, Mr. Krakauer has taken the tale of a kook who went into the woods, and made of it a heart-rending drama of human yearning.”
Into the Wild was published in 1996 and became a national bestseller with millions of copies sold. A decade after its publication, Sean Penn directed a film version with a soundtrack by Eddie Vedder. Chris McCandless was also the subject of a 2007 documentary. The abandoned bus where he set up camp and ultimately died has become a pilgrimage destination. A notebook at the site is filled with comments from those who traverse the twenty-two miles between the bus and the nearest road to pay tribute, comments attesting to the impact of Chris’s life, though years have passed since his death. The story of Chris McCandless has reached mythical proportions.
Chris McCandless may have become a legend without Into the Wild, although it’s doubtful the story would have gone beyond that of an extreme adventure gone dark. As the most comprehensively researched and masterfully written piece about the young adventure seeker himself, Jon Krakauer’s book frames the debate about McCandless and will continue to engage readers in their attempts to understand his life, as well as his death.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Explain why Chris McCandless chose to cut his ties with friends and family and to enter the wild.
2. Describe McCandless’s relationships with Wayne Westerberg, Jan Burres, and Ronald Franz.
3. Describe the role money and want played in McCandless’s life and adventures.
4. Compare and contrast Chris McCandless with the other risk-takers in the book, including Gene Rosellini, John Waterman, Carl McCunn, Everett Ruess, and Krakauer himself.
5. Identify the reasons Chris McCandless perished in the wild.