Into the Wild as Greek Tragedy
Whether he was a vagabond, genius, whack job, free spirit, rebel, or poet, Christopher McCandless (also known by the pseudonym Alexander Supertramp) was unique among men. At an age when most upper-class kids begin their arduous climb toward becoming the next big thing, Christopher McCandless went in the opposite direction—he became a nobody. His two-year descent into the furthest margins of society baffled and fascinated many, including author Jon Krakauer. Following an article he wrote for Outside magazine, Krakauer authored a painstaking reconstruction of McCandless’s odyssey, Into the Wild. In committing the story to paper, Krakauer attempts to answer one question: why did McCandless do it? It is an impossible question to answer no matter how earnestly Krakauer pursues it.
Krakauer acknowledges his own obsession in the introduction, and his crafting of the story raises its own questions. By fashioning the last two years of Christopher McCandless’s life into the book Into the Wild, is Krakauer making it a modern-day tragedy? Does Into the Wild invite parallels to notions of tragedy originating in ancient Greece? If so, what elements apply? Much of what we know about how the ancient Greeks developed and evaluated tragedy comes from Aristotle—or so some think. His treatise, Poetics, may not have been written by him and instead may represent the notes of a student or students at one of his many lectures. Either way, the document is still considered the starting point for any discussion of the nature of tragedy and includes analysis of tragedy’s composite elements. To examine Into the Wild's fitness for comparison, Aristotelian notions of tragic heroes and the definition of tragedy must be considered, along with staple structural elements like choruses and poetic language.
All tragedies center on a hero, so in order to determine whether Chris McCandless has been transformed into one in Krakauer’s book, McCandless’s resemblance to a tragic hero must be established in specific terms. In the Greek model, tragic heroes usually come from noble families. While Chris was neither a prince nor the son of a politician, he did come from an upper-class background. He also went on a journey, as many tragic heroes do. Yet the real test of his status as a tragic hero is his embodiment of a trait the Greeks called hamartia. Since it is a translated term, its exact meaning is often debated but can generally be interpreted as “tragic flaw,” a trait that blindsides the hero and leads him to his own ruin. While some would certainly argue that McCandless was fanatical or hubristic in taking on nature itself, that definition does not quite fit the McCandless depicted in Into the Wild. After all, Krakauer’s whole purpose in writing the book was to try to determine what trait led McCandless down his ultimately terminal path. Mere pride or adolescent stupidity seems like an incomplete answer.
Another interpretation of hamartia presents it less as a character flaw than a misunderstanding of one’s place in the world. In this light, hamartia seems to fit Chris McCandless quite well. The rich kid who leaves the material world, his family, and his identity behind to pursue enlightenment in the natural landscape seems the very definition of someone looking for his place. In some ways, Krakauer presents McCandless’s transformation into Alexander Supertramp in this light in Into the Wild: an ambitious young man who erroneously saw himself as an adventurer in the outdoors. Linking hamartia to the fate of a tragic hero is crucial to this interpretation. According to Into the Wild, Chris McCandless died because of his own misconception of himself.
In the Greek tragic model, a chorus typically served many purposes, one of which was to try to warn the tragic hero of his own hamartia. In order for the results to be a true tragedy, however, the hero does not listen. Krakauer portrays McCandless’s descent into death in a similar fashion. Krakauer structures the...
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