Was Chris McCandless a visionary hero or a fool? How did stubbornness contribute to his death?
The central question about McCandless is exactly the one you ask—was he a visionary, or a fool? There is no simple answer to this, other than to say he was a little bit of both. I think McCandless very much thought he was following a dream, and that his adventure in the wilderness would be transformative in a spiritual way. That is, his decision to retreat to Alaska is driven in part by his anger at his parents, particularly his father, who McCandless saw as a liar and hypocrite, and by a belief, fueled by his reading of Thoreau and Tolstoy, that self-reliance could purify his spirit, grant him greater self-knowledge, and bring him some measure of inner peace.
On the other hand, McCandless can also be seen as emblematic of a certain kind of hubris. He truly believes that he can survive in the wild. Partly, his self-confidence comes from his youth—when you are twenty, you think you can handle anything—and partly from a certain kind of middle class privilege. Whatever McCandless thought of his parents, he absolutely believed in education and his innate ability to figure things out. He had always been the best at whatever he tried to do. Surviving in the wilderness was simply another problem to solve. In a sense, his belief in his own intelligence was his greatest weakness, and, perhaps, the thing he was most stubborn about. It’s not that he wasn’t smart; it’s that he didn’t realize that he wasn’t smart enough.
The book is full of examples that support each interpretation, but to me the best story is the one Krakauer recounts in the first pages of the book—Jim Gallien’s story about picking up McCandless hitchhiking, and dropping him off at the trailhead of the Stampede trail. Gallien knew at once that what McCandless was attempting to do—“live off the land for a few months”—was foolhardy.”
People from outside…They’ll pick up a copy of Alaska magazine, thumb through it, get to thinkin’ ‘Hey, I’m goin’ to get on up there, live off the land, go claim me a piece of the good life.’ But when they get here and actually head out into the bush – well, it isn’t like the magazines make it out to be.”
This description does not exactly fit McCandless: he knew, probably more than most, the general outlines of surviving in the wilderness. Gallien, nevertheless, thought McCandless was a “nut case.” But there was something about McCandless that made Gallien want to protect him or help him. After failing to convince McCandless that the trip was a bad idea, he offers to drive him to Anchorage and buy him some real gear; failing that, he manages at last to give him a pair of boots and a couple of sandwiches. Chris is absolutely determined to go: as Gallien says, “He was determined. Real gung ho. The word that comes to mind is excited. He couldn’t wait to get out there and get started.”
Gallien’s desire to help McCandless is a theme that repeats over and over in the book; McCandless is always running into strangers who want to help him (or even, in the case of Ron Franz, adopt him). I think the reason for that is that people could see in McCandless something true and genuine; they connected with his desire to live more purely and simply, and understood empathically his desire to make his own identity. In other words, people like Gallien could see both sides of McCandless: the “nut case” side, and the visionary side. McCandless was simply too stubborn to sacrifice his vision for the practical realities of living in the wild.