What rhetorical or literary devices does Jon Krakauer use in Into Thin Air to support his writing purpose?

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John Krakauer conveys his alluring yet devastating quest to summit the highest peak on Earth in his personal account of the 1996 Mount Everest disaster, Into Thin Air. His first-person narration detailing the expedition dually examines the risks humans will take to find purpose in the face of mortality’s ambiguous threat. As such, Krakauer explores how he and his fellow participants undertake this quest for cultivating a meaningful existence.

While depicting these existential themes, Krakauer describes the pursuit of summiting Mount Everest as “an intrinsically irrational act” with an almost intoxicating appeal to thrill-seekers. Despite being an overzealous ambition, the desire to transcend mortality persists in human nature, and accordingly, Krakauer reflects on how his own intrinsic desire to find “a seriousness of purpose” in his own life. In doing so, he uses inner conflict as an allegorical device to illuminate inherent dangers of human ambition:

It was titillating to brush up against the enigma of mortality, to steal a glimpse across its forbidden frontier. Climbing was a magnificent activity, I firmly believed, not in spite of the inherent perils, but precisely because of them. (269)

In this quotation, Krakauer personifies mortality as a “forbidden frontier” that serves as an ironic motivator for climbers. Considering the abundant, glaring risks of climbing Mount Everest, the expedition seems a nonsensical pursuit because of its potentially fatal consequences. However, for Krakauer and the others, the risk of climbing Everest is crucial to the reward; for many, this reward is the defiance of death in an environment not suited for human survival.

An interesting example of Krakauer’s use of metaphors as a literary device is in Chapter 10, when he describes the expedition as “an almost Calvinistic undertaking.” Calvinism’s belief in salvation by grace is subtly evident in the participants—and other climbers who attempt Everest—in their collective goal:

I quickly came to understand that climbing Everest was primarily about enduring pain. And in subjecting ourselves to week after week of toil, tedium and suffering, it struck me that most of us were probably seeking above all else, something like a state of grace. (136)

In a sense, Krakauer suggests that Mount Everest’s infinite omnipotent presence acts as a force of God for the climbers, as if their fates are determined by faith in the pursuit of grace—even if the result of that pursuit is death. Throughout the novel, Krakauer uses Mount Everest as an enduring symbol of nature’s eternal and dangerous powers, illuminating how human ambition—with its accompanying fatal consequences—reflects the innate desire to transcend reality in order to attain everlasting purpose.

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Literary devices are structures used by authors to convey specific messages to readers, and manipulation of various devices help readers better understand or appreciate a literary work.

One important literary device is narrative point of view, and it is critical to take note of while reading Into Thin Air. The narrative point of view of this book is mainly first person. This point of view is used in all kinds of literature; however, it makes a lot of sense for Jon Krakauer to use the first person perspective with this book because he was on this expedition that ended in tragedy. Furthermore, he was a member of the group that actually summited Mt. Everest. He did not stay back at base camp, as was one of the early plans to do with his coverage of an Everest summit attempt.

The first person perspective gives this harrowing account of Everest expeditions a lot of credibility. Readers are much more likely to believe Krakauer's descriptions because we know that he was there, and he is writing it that way. The first person perspective also has the additional advantage of creating a slightly more ominous and tense mood. This is due to the fact that the first person perspective is inherently limited. Krakauer can't possibly know everything. He doesn't know where certain people are at all times. He doesn't know what they are thinking in all situations. These holes in his knowledge heighten reader tension because most readers have a natural tendency to fear and stress about the unknown.

Krakauer will every so often attempt to alleviate some of that reader tension by breaking the narrative point of view. Krakauer will every so often slip into third person narration in order to inform readers about an event that he did not personally witness. This change allows him to continually inform readers about what was happening on the mountain. Unfortunately, Krakauer will insert his own opinions into these sections. He does this during the first person narration too, but those opinions are much more believable. His opinions during third person narration are still his opinions, but they are much less credible.

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Into Thin Air is a non-fiction, autobiographical account of an expedition to the summit of Mount Everest which ended with eight members of the expedition losing their lives. The primary purpose of the book is to describe the expedition, and a secondary purpose is to explain the events which led to the disaster. The quotations cited below include devices used for these purposes.

"In order to succeed you must be exceedingly driven, but if you’re too driven you’re likely to die. Above 26,000 feet, moreover, the line between appropriate zeal and reckless summit fever becomes grievously thin. Thus the slopes of Everest are littered with corpses.”

In this quotation Krakauer explains the mindset of the average Everest climber and how that mindset can be at once the cause of their success and their failure. The sentences pivot upon connective phrases ("in order to . . . but if . . . thus") which are used as devices to signal cause and consequence relationships between different parts of the sentences. This is a simple but effective characteristic of texts written for the purpose of explaining.

"To move in that direction it was necessary to walk directly upwind into the teeth of the storm. Wind-whipped granules of ice and snow struck the climbers’ faces with violent force, lacerating their eyes and making it impossible to see where they were going."

In this second quotation there are lots of literary devices, the primary function of which is to describe a vivid, emotionally infused picture that the reader can easily imagine. For example, the storm is personified in the phrase, "the teeth of the storm," to present the storm as a force which, like humans, has its own will. The imagery of the mouth into which the climbers must walk also suggests that the climbers risk being swallowed by the storm. There is also in this second quotation a pattern of words which all connote power and violence: "whipped . . . struck . . . violent force . . . lacerating." This pattern of words helps the reader to empathize with the climbers and therefore helps Krakauer to fulfil the primary purpose of the book, which is to describe, both visually and emotionally, the scene and the experiences of the climbers.

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