Into the Wild Characters
The main characters in Into the Wild are Chris McCandless, Walt McCandless, Ronald Franz, Bob and Jann Burres, and Wayne Westerburg.
- Chris McCandless is the subject of the biography. An evasive and enigmatic figure, McCandless forsook his privileged life and undertook a transcendentalism-inspired journey through the wilderness.
- Walt McCandless is Chris's father. Chris's discovery of Walt's second family spawned complex feelings and at least partially inspired Chris's journey.
- Ronald Franz is a kind, fatherly man that Chris meets during his travels.
- Bob and Jann Burres are a kind couple that Chris meets during his travels.
- Wayne Westerburg employs Chris at his grain factory.
Chris McCandless remains a somewhat ghostly presence even in this biography of his life. Although Krakauer uses frequent excerpts from Chris's personal journals, the reader always feels somewhat distanced, partly owing to his habit of writing about himself in the third person under an assumed name. Only Chris's final journal entries are written in the first person and signed with his real name, perhaps underscoring the shocking realization of first the possibility and then the certainty of his own imminent death. The tone of these final words is frightened at first, then rueful and courageous, and finally serene and reconciled. Other than these journal extracts, all of the information about McCandless is fragmentary and pieced together from the testimony of people who had met him on his journeys. Their accounts seem to paint him as an intensely bright and defiantly independent young man who clung to the stern and archaic ideals gleaned from his readings.
According to the reminiscences of his family and university friends, McCandless was a seemingly well-adjusted twenty-two-year-old at the time of his disappearance. He was athletic, bright, and a natural-born entrepreneur, excelling at so many things that he tended to be overconfident. A double major with above average grades, he led a life of comparable comfort and good fortune. He worked on the student newspaper at Emory University and, like many other people his age, thought about injustice in the world around him. He seemed to take life more seriously than many peers, however, refusing to join a fraternity and declaring that, according to his principles, he would no longer give or accept gifts. He appeared, on balance, to be an affable and intense friend according to all who met him, but there are puzzling glimpses of the unhappiness directed at his parents. While appearing to be content with his home life, McCandless revealed to a few trusted people a fierce disdain and bitterness toward his parents, whom he saw as unfairly tyrannical.
Krakauer is careful to avoid weighting Into the Wild with an excess of authorial judgment; although he concedes at the outset that his own feelings about McCandless will become obvious, he painstakingly tries not to impose his deeply-held convictions on his readers. A notable subtext in this biography is the way the young man's story and any number of other themes seem to inter-illuminate each other for the author. In the introduction to Into the Wild, Krakauer says "in trying to understand McCandless, I inevitably came to reflect on other, larger subjects as well: the grip Wilderness has on the American imagination, the allure high risk activities hold for young men of a certain mind, the complicated, highly charged bond that exists between fathers and sons."
A significant theme is the deep and secret alienation that McCandless felt toward his parents. He was intensely angry with them, although his complaints never seem to have been very clear. Bitterness and frustration often build walls between the competing natures of strong-willed sons and equally inflexible fathers, and Krakauer's portrait of the elder McCandless as a self-made man with a powerful personality makes this possibility a very reasonable one. However, a persevering positivism such as McCandless possessed might easily have overcome such an obstacle, and Walt McCandless remembers that, regardless of everything, he loved spending time with his son. Krakauer suggests one possible reason that kept reanimating his powerful antipathy may have been his discovery that the end of his father's first marriage and the beginning of the second were messy and fraught with tension and dissembling on all sides. These long-ago marital troubles seem...
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to have enraged the son's impeccable and unforgiving sense of morality, and eventually led him to judge and condemn his father forever, using moral standards so unrelentingly severe he would not even apply them to his friends.
He seems in the whole breadth of his nature to have been possessed of an insatiable hunger to discover some redeeming truth about mankind through himself. Nevertheless, his insistence on doing things his way caused him to neglect several basic precautions that would probably have kept an experienced woodsman alive: a good hunting gun with ample ammunition, reliable information about the area he would be venturing into, and a dependable U.S. Geological Survey topographic map. Krakauer has concluded that the actual cause of Chris's death by starvation was a form of poisoning to which he succumbed after eating some wild seeds that even the experts never knew were highly toxic. Ironically, this was a mistake anyone might have made, but McCandless would not have had to eat the seeds if he had not allowed himself to be trapped by runoff from the Teklanika river, if he had possessed a gun adequate for hunting game, or a map to show him that half a mile away from his camp was a way to cross the torrent. As one friend was to observe later, McCandless, given his passion and intensity, sometimes had a problem seeing the forest for the trees.
While he remains an elusive figure, others who are more distinctly represented in Into the Wild include the diverse, ordinary, and not-so-ordinary characters who briefly met and befriended him. These include "rubber tramps," Jan Burres and her boyfriend Bob, who ran into McCandless along the United States Highway 101. Jan felt a maternal impulse toward Chris, and he responded with an almost waif-like affection. At other times, he was given work and a place to stay by Wayne Westerberg in Carthage, a small, hard-working South Dakota town. Ronald Franz, another friend, had lost his own family to a tragic automobile accident long before Mc- Candless was born. Franz was touched by Chris's earnest good nature and actually asked the young man if he would let Franz adopt him as his grandson. McCandless responded with characteristic evasiveness; having renounced his family, it seems as if he is instinctively drawn to parental figures even while he was trying to push them away.