In Into the Wild, what did Ronald Franz reveal about Chris McCandless's character?

In Into the Wild, Ronald Franz revealed that Chris McCandless was an intelligent, creative, nonconformist young man who was frustrated with mainstream society and determined to live life on his own terms. McCandless was also angry with his family and averse to forming lasting relationships with other people. He ultimately left Franz behind and criticized the older man's life choices in a letter, showing what could be interpreted as arrogance or self-centeredness.

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In Into the Wild, journalist Jon Krakauer pieces together the experiences of various people who met Christopher McCandless to paint a fuller picture of his character and his journey to Alaska. Ronald Franz, an elderly man living in Salton City, is one of these people. There are a few different ways Ronald Franz reveals the character of Christopher McCandless; you can decide which area to focus on.

In chapter 6, through Franz, we see McCandless as an intelligent, well-groomed young man. “He seemed extremely intelligent,” Franz states. Franz immediately recognizes that the young man, who introduces himself as Alex, is not the average hitchhiker. McCandless confirms this by telling Franz, “I have a college education. I’m not destitute. I’m living like this by choice.”

Despite his privileged upbringing, McCandless is accepting of people whom the rest of society treats with mistrust. Franz sees McCandless as “too nice a kid to be living ... with those nudists and drunks and dope smokers” at Oh-My-God Hot Springs; yet in his letter to Franz, after he’d left Salton City, McCandless defends the group of campers at the hot springs, saying that Franz doesn’t truly understand them.

Another characteristic we see in McCandless, through his interaction with Franz, is his confidence. At age twenty-four, McCandless feels free to lecture a man in his eighties, despite the fact that McCandless was benefitting greatly from Franz’s generosity. In his letter to Franz, McCandless encourages him to adopt a radical lifestyle, criticizing what McCandless sees as “a life of security, conformity, and conservatism.”

During his time with Franz, McCandless also shows himself to be artistically gifted. Franz is a leatherworker and teaches the skill to McCandless. McCandless’s first project is a tooled leather belt that tells the story of his wanderings in images. Krakauer writes: “Executed with remarkable skill and creativity, this belt is as astonishing as any artifact Chris McCandless left behind.”

A final element of McCandless’s character that Franz reveals is his seemingly conflicted approach to personal relationships. Franz, a lonely man whose own family was killed in a tragic accident, is partly drawn to McCandless because the young man stirs his “long-dormant paternal impulses.” Readers have to wonder if McCandless also formed such a strong bond with the older man out of his own longing for family. Is this longing for a father figure the reason that McCandless accepts, and even at times asks, for help from Franz? Whatever the case, McCandless’s ability to connect deeply and quickly with people is striking. Although the two met only briefly, the news of McCandless’s death grieves Franz to the point that he denies his faith and becomes an atheist.

Despite creating remarkable personal attachments like his friendship with Franz, McCandless shows discomfort with this level of intimacy. When Franz asks to adopt McCandless, McCandless “dodged the question.” In a letter to Franz, McCandless states strongly: “You are wrong if you think joy emanates only or principally from personal relationships.” Does this statement ease McCandless’s guilt at leaving the old man? Perhaps. It is certainly a clear reflection of McCandless’s belief—one that ultimately changes—about the path to joy.

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It's largely a matter of opinion, but I would argue that Ronald inadvertently reveals something fundamentally self-centered about Chris's character.

It's clear that Chris is someone who no longer wishes to form any kind of relationship with anyone, that he's so determined to drop out of mainstream society that he's almost scared of developing emotional attachments to another living soul. This would explain why Chris appears so spooked by Ron's suggestion that he adopt him. Having broken free of family relations back home, the last thing he wants is to establish a substitute family elsewhere.

But it's the manner in which Chris turns down Ron's suggestion that provides a key to his character. He doesn't simply decline it politely; he treats Ron to a lecture on how Ron, too, needs to break free from mainstream society if he's to live an authentic life. Chris seems unable or unwilling to take into consideration Ron's age or the precise circumstances of his life situation. Instead, he blithely assumes that Ron can follow in his, Chris's, footsteps and just take off into the wilderness without a moment's thought.

Speaking personally, this episode leaves a rather unpleasant taste in the mouth, as it appears to show Chris as something of a fanatic. And fanatics, in whichever walk of life you find them, are very dangerous people indeed.

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Chapter Six is the section of this novel that deals with the relationship between Franz and Chris McCandless. You would do well to re-read it and pay particular attention to how Ronald Franz's account adds to our understanding of Chris and what drove him. In particular, while Franz is obviously impressed by Chris's intelligence and ability to survive, it is also interesting to note the unresolved anger that is so much a big part of Chris's character. Note the following quote:

Not infrequently during their visits, Franz recalls, McCandless's face would darken with anger and he'd fulminate about his parents or politicians or the endemic idiocy of mainstream American life. Worried about alienating the boy, Franz said little during such outbursts and let him rant.

It is clear that so much of what drove Chris to do what he did was his very real sense of frustration and anger with his parents and American life as a whole. He chose to reject mainstream life largely because of this.

Another factor that is made explicit in this chapter is the way that Chris McCandless deliberately avoided any kind of relationship that would ensnare him and keep him back from doing what he wanted to do. Note the comment that Krakauer makes after Alex gives a non-commital response to Franz's offer to adopt Alex:

McCandless was thrilled to be on his way north, and he was relieved as well--relieved that he had again evaded the impending threat of human intimacy, of friendship, and all the messy emotional baggage that comes with it.

This is of course Krakauer's own opinion, but it clearly indicates the way in which Chris McCandless tried to keep himself aloof from human bonds and relationships. These are the two most important elements that we learn about Chris's character from his relationship with Ronald Franz.

 

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