What is the purpose of the beginning quotes of each chapter of Into the Wild?

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I feel that author John Krakauer uses the quotes in the beginning of each chapter for two main reasons. The first reason is to try and get readers to better understand Chris McCandless. The quotes are a somewhat subtle way of doing this. It might seem overt, but the quotes are not nearly as overt as when Krakauer spends time narrating how he is similar to McCandless, nor is it as overt as when Krakauer spends two entire chapters comparing McCandless to other men like Ruess, McCunn, Waterman, and Rosellini. As readers work their way through the text, Krakauer makes sure that we understand McCandless revered authors like Jack London. McCandless seemed to romanticize authors like him and the places that they wrote about, so it makes sense that Krakauer would include quotes from those authors in order to show the reader how McCandless's life echoed things those men wrote about.

The second reason is much more tactical. Writers are constantly trying to convince readers to start reading and keep reading. This is why a good opening hook is so important. An easy, yet effective, hook is to ask the reader a question. It begs to be answered, and readers generally keep reading in order to find out the answer. Using a bold statement is another good hook. A third tactic is to use a quote. A quote tells readers that the information is so important that the author decided to use someone else's words. A reader is generally intrigued to find out why the quote was used at the start of the chapter, because we want to know how it applies to the upcoming information. Krakauer uses the quotes at the start of each chapter to hook the reader into reading the rest of the chapter.

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Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer traces the real life journey of Chris McCandless when he gives up everything that he has, even donating his funds to charity and cuts ties with his loving and totally bewildered, family. He travels into unforgiving territory in Alaska and does not make it out alive, foolishly not having been adequately prepared for life in this wilderness, even though it may have "made the journey more enjoyable." He wants to avoid "monotonous security," but his attempts have tragic consequences. The death of McCandless remains a mystery and, since the printing of Into The Wild, Krakauer's hypotheses have been dis-proven.

Krakauer includes some details of his own life, such as it compares to that of McCandless and tries to make the reader understand McCandless's motivations by including references from, amongst others, Henry David Thoreau and Jack London, McCandless's preferred writers. 

Including quotes or epigraphs allows readers to refocus their attention at each stage or chapter to ensure that no detail is missed in this attempt to understand the complexities of Chris McCandless's actions and his quest. "Absolute freedom"(chapter 3) is apparently of the utmost importance and helps readers to recognize the extreme change that they will read about, from a young man with a promising future, to a self-made loner. Chris focuses on the idea rather than the detail, which will be revealed as a contributor to his untimely death which, readers will learn later, comes after he has recognized that he does need companionship after all to make life worthwhile.

In chapter 7, there are quotes which helps readers sympathize with Chris's attempts to find "meaning and order in life," after discovering his parents' weaknesses. However, readers can already see his misguided efforts and are reminded of chapter 5 where Krakauer includes a reference from Jack London's Call of the Wild. His "newborn cunning," an over-confident belief in his ability to hide his true inner strength, is perhaps a contributor to his lack of insight in not adequately preparing for his extended trip despite his attempts to be responsible and earn some money.   

Therefore the quotes are useful as they serve as a guide in understanding Chris and also in reminding readers of various, potential reasons for his actions and motivations. They are designed to help readers understand him better.

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The quotes that precede each chapter are examples of epigraphs: quotations, sayings, or other information that relates to the themes in each chapter. These are common in both fiction and non-fiction, and here, they serve to show insight into the mind of Chris McCandless. Most of the quotes are either from his personal diaries and writings, or from authors who inspired him. For example, Chapter Two contains the following epigraph:

Jack London is King
Alexander Supertramp
May 1992

graffito carved into a piece of wood discovered
at the site of chris mccandless's death
(Krakauer, Into the Wild, Amazon.com)

This quote reference Jack London, the author who wrote many Man-Versus-Nature stories about Alaska and the Yukon. London was one of Chris's inspirations, and this quote is followed by one from London's novel White Fang. These quotes relate to the chapter's themes: the hostility of the Alaskan and the discovery of Chris's body by hunters. Other chapters have quotes from authors such as Thoreau and Twain, as well as copies of letters that explain some of Chris's inner thoughts.

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