At a Glance

Into the Wild key characters:

  • Into the Wild presents Chris McCandless as a ghostly presence: he writes about himself in the third person and much of the information about him is gleaned from fragmented sources.

  • McCandless was idealistic, espousing the qualities of characters he read about in his books.

  • The tension between father and son drives McCandless away from his family and into isolation. Walt McCandless was a strong-willed father whose double life was unforgivable in the eyes of his staunchly moral son.

  • McCandless’ stubbornness and independence ultimately led to his downfall as he embarked on a dangerous mission with poor preparation.

  • McCandless met many people on his travels across the country. These brief encounters often resulted in friendship.

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Characters

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

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...

(The entire section is 994 words.)