"The Dark Continent" of Ambiguity in Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2285

“I was haunted,” says Jon Krakauer in explaining why he wrote about Chris McCandless, whose journey away from the conventions and materialism of contemporary American culture and into the wilderness of Alaska ended with loneliness and starvation. What haunts the author is not only the facts of the story as he traces them but also the “unsettling parallels between events” in McCandless’s story and his own. Unabashedly, the author uses his own experience to gain insight into that of his real-life character, immediately telling his reader in his opening note that he does so “in the hope that [his] experiences will throw some oblique light on the enigma of Chris McCandless’s death.” But Krakauer does not limit his study to a comparison between his character and himself. In addition to his own experiences, Krakauer weaves together accounts of McCandless provided by those he met in his travels as well as by his family and friends, brief vignettes and longer case studies of others who have lived on the edge, and excerpts from the works of writers whom McCandless read on his journey. This multiplicity of perspective as well as its arrangement in the narrative serve to create disjuncture and ambiguity, and in so doing they preserve the complexity of McCandless’s motivation to go into the wild in the manner he did.

Thus, as Krakauer tells readers from the beginning, his purpose is twofold: he intends to be clear about his own “conviction” concerning the meaning behind McCandless’s story but also to leave it “to the reader to form his or her own opinion of” it. The word conviction packs a strong punch, connoting finality, yet Krakauer wants to soften this by placing it within a context of ambiguity—the multiple perspectives—that in many ways invite a dialogue that resists closure. Indeed, the conspicuous use of the pronouns “his or her” invites further inclusion, signifying meanings that recognize gendered differences as well. Does the author, in fact, accomplish all of this, and how does he do so?

Krakauer creates ambiguity by means of a vaguely circular yet ultimately disjunctive structure to the narrative, grounding it primarily in location, which fractures the temporal sequence of McCandless’s story. It begins with “The Alaska Interior” in Chapter 1. It moves in Chapter 2 to “The Stampede Trail,” the site of McCandless’s death, to which he returns intermittently throughout the story, concluding with it in Chapters 17 and 18. “Davis Gulch,” Chapter 9, resides in the center of the book, which would in a traditional narrative be a stop on the journey of the hero, but in this case it is a place that McCandless didn’t even visit and probably had never heard of. Instead, it contains the story of a different hero altogether, that of Everett Ruess, an adventurer lost in the Canyonlands of Utah some seventy years ago. Immediately before this vignette, Chapter 8, broadly titled “Alaska,” provides brief stories of three other adventurers. Later, toward the end of the book, Krakauer devotes two full chapters, Chapters 14 and 15, both titled “The Stikine Ice Cap,” to give drama to and meditate on his own adventures in mountain climbing in Alaska. In between all this he takes readers to different moments in McCandless’s life, but all are grounded in the place of the events as much as by the events themselves. In this way, Krakauer moves readers imaginatively, spatially, and, it sometimes seems, rather randomly through McCandless’s story.

Krakauer complicates this disjunctive pattern and amplifies ambiguity by using multiple points of view to describe each place, McCandless, and the reasons behind McCandless’s behavior. This shifting succeeds in showing McCandless’s life from various perspectives rather than telling about it from one. Sometimes the author speaks in his own narrative voice; in other places different characters speak in theirs; and in still others literary texts speak, sometimes merely by their placement in the narrative—their location, so to speak—and at other times by the narrator’s or other characters’ commentary on them. A review of a few chapters reveals this strategy and its results.

Jim Gallien, the driver who picks up McCandless while he is hitchhiking from Fairbanks to the Stampede Trail, is the lens through which readers see both setting and hero in Chapter 1. He says that “the bush is an unforgiving place...that cares nothing for hope or longing” and that McCandless might be “one of those crackpots from the lower forty-eight who come north to live out ill-considered Jack London fantasies.” Whether Gallien, “a union electrician,” would be sufficiently familiar with Jack London to make such an informed comparison, one cannot be sure, and it probably does not matter anyway because the very point here is to smudge definitive opinion.

Chapter 2 indirectly challenges and reflects on Gallien’s opinion of the wilderness and McCandless by opening with an epigraph that juxtaposes McCandless’s graffito on Jack London “carved into a piece of wood discovered at the site of Chris McCandless’s death” with a quotation from London’s White Fang. McCandless’s words hero-worship London as “King,” while this King describes Alaska as “so lone and cold that the spirit of it was not even that of sadness. There was a hint in it of laughter...cold as the frost and partaking of the grimness of infallibility.” Without directly commenting on this material, Krakauer then, in his narrative voice, describes the chapter’s title, “The Stampede Trail.” The Outer Range around the Trail, he says, “sprawls across the flats like a rumpled blanket on an unmade bed,” and the Trail itself “meander[s] through the tangled, rolling bottomland.” The figurative language here interprets the setting as benign if not comforting, which sharply contrasts with the terms used by Gallien—“unforgiving” and “caring nothing for hope”—and by London—“lone and cold.” Which description counts? Or do they all? Krakauer withholds an answer.

Following this brief description of the setting, Krakauer speaks as reporter, providing data concerning McCandless’s death, using the three men who discovered McCandless’s body as his source of information. This is all quite cut and dry: “just the facts, ma’am.” The chapter then ends with a description of McCandless’s dead body: “virtually no subcutaneous fat remained on [it], and the muscles had withered significantly....McCandless’s remains weighed sixty-seven founds. Starvation was posited as the most probable cause of death.” Certainly nothing in this language substantiates Krakauer’s soothing description of the Stampede Trail, which blankets and rolls, but instead appears to confirm that of London and Gallien—yet in a far different tone.

However, rather than resolve or recognize these inconsistencies, Krakauer ignores them—in fact, it is easy to overlook them altogether, for the story thrives on differing opinions. From the description of McCandless’s body at the end of Chapter 2, Krakauer moves readers to various locations through even more points of view. For this reason, it is not at all surprising when Chapter 8 tells of other adventurers in Alaska and Chapter 9, the very heart of the book, takes readers to Davis Gulch and the story of Everett Ruess along with a passing reference to monks who settled (and died) on an island off the coast of Iceland in the fifth and sixth centuries—skipping sixteen centuries to the past as well as to a different continent to provide insight into the actions of a twentieth-century young man.

Throughout all of this, Krakauer embeds each story into the other and then each into McCandless’s, ultimately providing an array of possibilities concerning McCandless’s motivations, all of which build tension and the confusion that Billie, McCandless’s mother, expresses at the end of Chapter 13: “I just don’t understand why he had to take those kind of chances....I just don’t understand it at all.” With these words, delayed through two-thirds of the book, Krakauer consolidates and renders inadequate all the information raised up to this point, for even with it the mother cannot comprehend the actions of her son. Using scenic devices familiar to novel writing, Krakauer shows the mother at the kitchen table “weeping as only a mother who has outlived a child can weep.”

Although Krakauer acknowledges that the mother’s “bereavement...makes even the most eloquent apologia for high-risk activities ring fatuous and hollow,” he proceeds to offer just that in the two chapters that follow, which, significantly, concern his own experiences mountain climbing in Alaska. In rendering his own desire, in the words of Thoreau, “to suck the marrow” from life, he interprets himself and his actions and, by projection, those of McCandless. He concludes that he and McCandless “had a similar intensity, a similar heedlessness, a similar agitation of soul.” His conviction is that it was only a “matter of chance” that he survived his own adventures in Alaska and McCandless did not. His conviction is also that both he and McCandless were “stirred by the dark mystery of mortality. [They] couldn’t resist stealing up to the edge of doom and peering over the brink. The hint of what was concealed in those shadows terrified [them], but [they] caught sight of something in the glimpse, something forbidden…that was no less compelling than the sweet, hidden petals of a woman’s sex.”

Sweet, hidden petals of a woman’s sex? No wonder Krakauer feels haunted by the mystery of McCandless’s death, and no wonder he wants to use his experience to shed “light” on such a dark, hidden territory. Certainly no language from any source compares to this spicy stuff, and if locating this space was McCandless’s motivation in renouncing the comforts of middle-class life, it is no wonder that his mother did not understand what her son was up to. However, this reference to the physical parts of a woman’s sexuality as an answer to the question of a mother becomes even more complicated when considered in terms of the comments Krakauer offers next; further ruminations lead him to conclude that “McCandless went into the wilderness not primarily to ponder nature or the world at large but, rather, to explore the inner country of his own soul.” Such interiority, in this book that foregrounds location and has already posited the “hidden petals of a woman’s sex” as what seduces men such as he and McCandless to take on adventure and risk, cannot help but gesture again toward connotations of female space. As a result, it is ironic—tragically so—when Krakauer describes McCandless’s death as a return to the primal interiority, the womb: “he crawled into the sleeping bag his mother had sewn for him and slipped into unconsciousness.” In terms of Krakauer’s imagery, the son, in a sense, does return to his mother, but such figurative language seems to mock rather than console her grief.

Krakauer does warn the reader at the beginning of the book that his “convictions will be apparent soon enough,” and so the reader should be prepared for just that, as unsettling as that may be. At the end of the book, however, Krakauer attempts to reestablish the ambiguity he created prior to this point. In Chapter 18 (“The Stampede Trail”), he and two other men revisit the site where McCandless died, endeavoring to figure out just what made this young man tick, just why he took such risks, and what in fact caused his death. Increasing the immediacy by speaking in the present tense, the narrator says, “Roman, Andrew, and I stay up well past midnight, trying to make sense of McCandless’s life and death, yet his essence remains slippery, vague, elusive.” Slippery, vague, elusive? Judith Fetterley’s “resisting reader” might find a correspondence between these adjectives and the male perspective that “caught sight of something in the glimpse, something forbidden…that was no less compelling than the sweet, hidden petals of a woman’s sex.”

In the book’s epilogue, McCandless’s mother comments, “The fact that Chris is gone is a sharp hurt I feel every single day....It’s going to be hard every day for the rest of my life.” But the final point of view is Krakauer’s, viewing the location where McCandless died from a helicopter rising from and leaving the scene: “The roof of the bus [in which McCandless’s body was found] remains visible among the stunted trees, a tiny white gleam in a wild green sea, growing smaller and smaller, and then it’s gone.” Just as it does in Krakauer’s description of the Stampede Trail in Chapter 2, a whiff of romanticism in this imagery soothes the reader—although probably not the mother. It is consistent with “the sweet, hidden petals” that the male adventurer seeks in his risks, the interiority of his search, the womb-like setting of McCandless’s death, and finally the “slippery, vague, elusive” reasons behind it.

Just as Freud referred to women as “the dark continent,” using a metaphor of location to describe a mystery that he could not figure out, Krakauer uses metaphors of the feminine to provide mystery to locations that he, and through him McCandless, desire to understand if not conquer. With his own convictions so starkly defined by gender, the ambiguity he hopes to preserve proves rather tenuous by the end of his account of why young Chris McCandless took his chances to survive in the wild of Alaska.

Works Consulted
“Dark Continent.” In International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, edited by Alain de Mijolla. Gale Group, 2005. eNotes.com, 2006. Available at http://www.enotes.com/psychoanalysis-encyclopedia/dark-continent (accessed December 30, 2007).

Fetterley, Judith. 1981. The Resisting Reader. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Krakauer, Jon. 1997. Into the Wild. New York: Anchor Books.

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