Introductory Lecture and Objectives

Into the Wild eNotes Lesson Plan content

Introductory Lecture

At the very beginning of Into the Wild, the reader learns that the book’s subject, Chris McCandless, is dead. After graduating from a private East Coast university, he donated his savings to charity and cut off all contact with his family. Two years later, he walked alone into the Alaska wild without the provi- sions most would find critical for surviving in such an unforgiving landscape. His emaciated body was found four months later. Shortly afterwards, Jon Krakauer wrote a story about McCandless for Outside magazine.

The story set off a firestorm, generating more mail than any other article in Outside’s history. Many readers admired McCandless’s courage and quest for simplicity; many others found his behavior selfish and rife with hubris. The question of why a young, privileged man, by all accounts charming, athletic, and intelligent, would embark on such an ordeal was not one easily left unanswered by readers, or by Krakauer. The author’s fascination with McCandless led to Into the Wild, Krakauer’s painstakingly researched account of what happened to McCandless and why he walked into the wild.

Through Krakauer’s retelling, McCandless’s story grows larger than an examination of why a specific individual makes unconventional choices. Krakauer also tackles themes such as Americans’ romanticizing of the wild, the role of risk in the life of youth, and the complex relationships between fathers and sons. Krakauer also contextualizes McCandless’s quest, exploring his devotion to aesthetes like Henry David Thoreau and Jack London, as well as considering how McCandless compares to—and more importantly—contrasts with adventurers and iconoclasts who came before him. If Krakauer doesn’t exactly universalize McCandless’s extreme lifestyle, he makes the motivations behind it sympathetic. A review in the New York Times attests that “by the end, Mr. Krakauer has taken the tale of a kook who went into the woods, and made of it a heart-rending drama of human yearning.”

Into the Wild was published in 1996 and became a national bestseller with millions of copies sold. A decade after its publication, Sean Penn directed a film version with a soundtrack by Eddie Vedder. Chris McCandless was also the subject of a 2007 documentary. The abandoned bus where he set up camp and ultimately died has become a pilgrimage destination. A notebook at the site is filled with comments from those who traverse the twenty-two miles between the bus and the nearest road to pay tribute, comments attesting to the impact of Chris’s life, though years have passed since his death. The story of Chris McCandless has reached mythical proportions.

Chris McCandless may have become a legend without Into the Wild, although it’s doubtful the story would have gone beyond that of an extreme adventure gone dark. As the most comprehensively researched and masterfully written piece about the young adventure seeker himself, Jon Krakauer’s book frames the debate about McCandless and will continue to engage readers in their attempts to understand his life, as well as his death.

By the end of the unit the student will be able to:

1. Explain why Chris McCandless chose to cut his ties with friends and family and to enter the wild.

2. Describe McCandless’s relationships with Wayne Westerberg, Jan Burres, and Ronald Franz.

3. Describe the role money and want played in McCandless’s life and adventures.

4. Compare and contrast Chris McCandless with the other risk-takers in the book, including Gene Rosellini, John Waterman, Carl McCunn, Everett Ruess, and Krakauer himself.

5. Identify the reasons Chris McCandless perished in the wild.

Instructional Focus: Teaching With an eNotes Lesson Plan

This eNotes lesson plan is designed so that it may be used in numerous ways to accommodate ESL students and to differentiate instruction in the classroom.

Student Chapter Guide

•The Chapter Guide is organized for a chapter-by-chapter study of the book. Chapter Guide pages may be assigned individually and completed at a student’s own pace.

• Chapter Guide pages may be used as pre-reading activities to preview for students the vocabulary words they will encounter in reading each chapter and to acquaint them generally with the chapter’s content.

• Before Chapter Guide pages are assigned, questions may be selected from them to use as short quizzes to assess reading comprehension.

• Chapter Guide vocabulary lists include words from the book that vary in difficulty.

1. The vocabulary lists for each chapter are sufficiently comprehensive so that shorter lists of vocabulary words can be constructed from them.

2. Working from the lesson plan’s chapter vocabulary lists, the teacher also may construct vocabulary studies for individual students, choosing specific words from each chapter that are most appropriate for them.

Discussion Questions

The discussion questions vary in degree of difficulty.

1. Some questions require higher levels of critical thinking; others engage students with less challenging inquiry.

2. Individual discussion questions may be assigned to students working in pairs or in small Chapter groups; their contributions may then be added to a whole-class discussion.

Multiple-Choice/Essay Test

Test questions also vary in degree of difficulty.

1. Some multiple-choice questions address the factual content of the book; others require students to employ critical thinking skills, such as analyzing; comparing and contrasting; and drawing inferences.

2. The teacher may select specific multiple-choice questions and one or more essay questions to assess an individual student’s understanding of the book.

3. The essay portion of the test appears on a separate page so that it may be omitted altogether in testing.

Before students read through the book, point out to them the following themes, or universal ideas, that will be addressed:

  • Truth
  • Fathers and sons
  • Risk
  • Simplicity
  • Adventure
  • Natural beauty
  • Independence

Talk with your students about how a motif is a recurring pattern or repeated action, element, or idea in a book. As they read, have them pay attention to the following motifs:

  • The pseudonym “Alexander Supertramp”
  • Physical pain or discomfort
  • Connections with strangers
  • Expressions of creativity

A symbol is a concrete object or place that has significance in a literary work because it communicates an idea. Have your students talk about how the author uses the following symbols and look for other symbols on their own as they read:

  • Money
  • Chris’s Datsun
  • The moose
  • A map

Essay and Discussion Questions

1. An epigraph is a quotation at the beginning of a book, chapter, or section of a book. How does Krakauer use epigraphs in Into the Wild? What do they reveal about Chris McCandless?

2. McCandless was ostensibly morally opposed to gift-giving, yet he gave his mother a gift for Mother’s Day. Why might he have done this?

3. An excerpt from the epigraph that begins Chapter Four reads: “To the desert go prophets and hermits; through the deserts go pilgrims and exiles.” Which was McCandless—prophet, hermit, pilgrim, or exile? Did he fit any of these categories?

4. McCandless was fiercely independent, yet he relied constantly on the kindness of strangers for food, shelter, and transportation. Was he a hypocrite? Why or why not?

5. It might be said that Into the Wild is as much about the people McCandless meets as it is about McCandless himself. Is that a fair interpretation? Why or why not?

6. McCandless highlighted the following text by Henry David Thoreau: “Though the result were [sic] bodily weakness, yet perhaps no one can say that the consequences were to be regretted, for these were a life in conformity to higher principles.” Would McCandless have felt his path was regrettable?

7. McCandless had a profound effect on Ronald Franz, who was deeply saddened when McCandless left and heartbroken when he learned he had died. Was McCandless’s treatment of Franz heartless? Why or why not?

8. McCandless graduated from college, yet didn’t seem to value education. He showed up punctually for work shifts and worked hard, yet eschewed the working culture. He used formal words like “shall” in his communications with others, yet did not often bathe. How can such contradictions in McCandless’s character and behavior be reconciled?

9. Could Walt and Billie have stopped their son from entering the wild? Could Carine have stopped him? If yes, how? If not, why not?

10. Describe three examples of McCandless’s creativity. Do you think this trait was linked to his decision to enter the wild?

11. One criticism of McCandless reads as follows: “McCandless’s contrived asceticism and a pseudo- literary stance compound rather than reduce the fault.” Is this a fair critique? Why or why not?

12. McCandless had a complicated relationship with his father. Discuss three twists and turns in their relationship.

13. Entertainment Weekly wrote, “It may be nonfiction, but Into the Wild is a mystery of the highest order.” How is it a mystery? What are the clues, and how does Krakauer follow them to reach a conclusion?

14. Krakauer writes that “it can be argued that youthful derring-do is in fact evolutionarily adaptive, a behavior encoded in our genes.” Do you agree or disagree? What role does risky behavior play in your life and in those of your peers?

15. Two cabins near the abandoned bus were vandalized the summer that McCandless lived in the wild. While the owners suspect McCandless was the vandal, Krakauer thinks it is unlikely. Discuss both possibilities. Which do you think is correct, and why?

Author's Note


asceticism: a philosophy of strict self-denial as a measure of personal and spiritual discipline 

dispassionate: unemotional, detached 

fulminated: intensely disapproved of, criticized 

peregrinations: travels (often in regard to travels on foot) 

renunciation: a rejection, a refusal or giving up of something 

taiga: a moist subarctic forest dominated by conifers (such as spruce and fir) 

transcendent: extending or lying beyond the limits of normal experience 

1. Why did Jon Krakauer initially write about Chris McCandless? Why did he continue to write about him? 

Krakauer initially wrote about Chris McCandless on an assignment for Outside magazine. He continued to write about him because McCandless’s story fascinated him. Some of the themes of McCandless’s story resonated with Krakauer’s own life, and he couldn’t let go of the story. 

2. What broader themes does Krakauer think McCandless’s story speaks to? 

Krakauer thinks that McCandless’s story is greater than just a single person’s, that it touches on Americans’ relationship with the wilderness, why some young men are attracted to high-risk activities, and the complex relationships between fathers and sons. 

3. The reader learns right away that McCandless does not survive. How does that change the focus of the book? 

The knowledge that McCandless does not survive makes the book less about what happened to McCandless and more about why it happened. 

4. Describe the two sides of the debate about McCandless. Does Krakauer himself take sides? 

Some people who wrote to Outside magazine about McCandless felt he was noble and courageous. Others thought he was an arrogant narcissist or a “reckless idiot.” Krakauer does take a side in the debate, although he doesn’t say which one. 

Chapter 1: The Alaska Interior


bore: noun the interior diameter of a gun barrel

bush: wilderness, a large and sparsely settled area usually scrub-covered or forested

congenial: friendly, agreeable

Jack London: famous American author of Call of the Wild (a novel set in Alaska)

lower forty-eight: the continental states of the United States between Canada and Mexico

muskeg: wet spongy ground found in northern North America

sonorous: resonant, deep

unsullied: pure, untarnished

Study Questions

1. According to Jim Gallien, what attracts some people from the lower forty-eight to Alaska? What do they find instead?


(The entire section is 307 words.)

Chapter 2: The Stampede Trail


amalgam: a combination, a mix of different elements

antimony: a silvery-white metal that breaks easily and that is used especially in alloys

contumacious: stubborn, rebellious

derelict: run-down, dilapidated

escarpments: long cliffs or steep slopes that separate two comparatively level or more gently sloping surfaces

flinty: unyielding, stony

incommunicable: beyond description, too awful/wonderful for words

incongruously: strangely, inharmoniously

infallibility: incapability of error

mirthless: without happiness or joy

ore: a naturally occurring mineral containing a valuable constituent (as metal) for which it is mined and worked...

(The entire section is 468 words.)

Chapter 3: Carthage


adrift: aimless, wandering

altruistic: unselfish, showing selfless concern for the welfare of others

convivial: welcoming, hospitable, sociable

eddy: a current of water or air running contrary to the main current

hyperkinetic: fast-paced, energetic

itinerant: traveling, roaming

jetsam: the part of a ship, its equipment, or its cargo that is cast overboard to lighten the load in times of distress (used metaphorically in the text)

mawkish: having unpleasant taste; overly sentimental

mien: manner, appearance, behavior

onerous: burdensome, difficult

plebeian: a working-class man

stasis: a state of stability


(The entire section is 554 words.)

Chapter 4: Detrital Wash


amplified: enlarged

anvil-headed: referring to a cloud shape that is normally associated with severe thunderstorms

austerity: severity, harshness

brackish: salty, briny

chollas: types of shrubs found chiefly in the southwestern United States and Mexico (similar to cactus plants)

convection: the transfer of heat by the mass movement of heated particles into an area of cooler fluid (as used with the word current)

credo: a philosophy, a belief

detrital: rock that has been broken down by erosion or weathering

egress: an escape, a way-out, an exit

emasculated: weakened, made powerless

Emersonian: referring to Ralph Waldo Emerson, an...

(The entire section is 613 words.)

Chapter 5: Bullhead City


adherent: a supporter, a believer, an enthusiast

bourgeois: showing concern for material interests

denizens: inhabitants

denuded: divested of covering, made bare

garrulous: talkative, chatty

ideologue: an impractical idealist

idiom: an expression, a phrase

lumpen: dispossessed and uprooted individuals cut off from their usual economic and social class

oxymoronic: contradictory

porous: full of holes, leaky

primordial: primeval, prehistoric

rheumy: watery, runny

sheathed: enclosed

survivalist: a person who advocates survival as a main life value

teeming: swarming, crowded

turgid: excessively...

(The entire section is 598 words.)

Chapter 6: Anza-Borrego


bulls: slang people acting in the stubborn, sometimes foolish, way of a bull

creosote: a desert shrub of the southwestern United States and Mexico with small yellow flowers

desiccated: dried-up, without water

dormant: inactive

endemic: pervasive

filigree: a lacy pattern

harangues: long verbal attacks or scoldings

hegira: a journey undertaken to escape from a dangerous or undesirable situation

idiocy: senselessness, stupidity

indelible: unforgettable

phantasmal: fantastical in appearance

placid: calm, peaceful

salve: verb to soothe, to ease

spectral: ghostly, ethereal


(The entire section is 553 words.)

Chapter 7: Carthage


canted: angled, slanted

chaff: the seed coverings and other debris separated from the seed in threshing grain

congress (with nature): the act of coming together and meeting

conjecture: a speculation, a prediction

corollary: something that naturally follows, a natural result or consequence

grubstake: supplies or funds for launching an enterprise

innards: insides, entrails

milo: a small grain with compact bearded heads of large yellow or whitish seeds

scything: cutting

snarly: cranky, irritable

surfeit: an excess, a surplus

titillated: excited, aroused (often in regard to something sexual)


(The entire section is 516 words.)

Chapter 8: Alaska


bight: a bend in a coast forming an open bay

contrived: artificial, false

epistle: a letter

eremitic: acting like a hermit or a recluse

hamlet: a village, a small town

opprobrium: something that brings disgrace

paucity: a scarcity, a lack

pseudoliterary: characterized by false pretentions of being bookish or well-read

recondite: obscure, little-known

seine: a type of net used on fishing boats that hangs vertically in the water

strident: harsh

Study Questions

1. Why were many of the Alaskans who wrote letters about McCandless so critical of him? Why were they critical of Krakauer?


(The entire section is 482 words.)

Chapter 9: David Gulch


affectation: an artificial speech or mannerism used to gain admiration or support

atavistic: describing someone who regresses/returns to a past manner or way of life

beggars: verb exceeds

callow: naïve, immature

curragh(s): a type of Irish boat with a wooden frame covered with animal skins or canvas

defile: noun a narrow passage or gorge

esthete: a person who has or pretends to have sensitivity to the beautiful

Kayenta Anasazi: ancient Pueblo people who lived in the southwestern United States and surrounding areas

petroglyphs: carvings or inscriptions on rocks

potsherds: pottery fragments

vermilion: a...

(The entire section is 389 words.)

Chapter 10: Fairbanks


bristle: to rise, to stand up

cryptic: mysterious, puzzling, not immediately clear

dispirited: disheartened, discouraged

gaunt: extremely thin, emaciated

Study Questions

1. Why did Jim Gallien think the hiker found dead might be Alex?

Jim Gallien realized the details about the missing hiker released in the newspaper matched the details he remembered about Alex, including the spot where the hiker’s body was found.

2. Why didn’t the Alaska State Troopers take Westerberg seriously when he first called?

They didn’t take him seriously because the news story had been published nationally, and the...

(The entire section is 281 words.)

Chapter 11: Chesapeake Beach


arcane: mysterious, unfathomable

chastened: punished, caused to suffer

gregarious: outgoing, sociable

imperceptibly: unnoticeably

mercurial: characterized by rapid and unpredictable changeableness in mood

panache: flair, style

rancor: resentment, animosity

taciturn: reserved, quiet

vagaries: unpredictable actions

Study Questions

1. Krakauer writes of Walt McCandless, “Even from across the room it is apparent that some very high voltage is crackling through his wires.” What does he mean?

Walt McCandless was intense, so much so that his energy was palpable from a distance.


(The entire section is 525 words.)

Chapter 12: Annandale


anomalous: irregular, abnormal

censorious: disapproving, critical

choler: anger, ire

clemency: leniency

confrères: colleagues, comrades

dollop: an amount given, a spoonful

idiosyncratic: eccentric, peculiar to an individual

insurrectionists: people revolting against civil authority of established government

lenity: forgiveness, clemency, showing tolerance or indulgence

monomania: excessive concentration on a single object or idea

obliquely: indirectly, in a roundabout way

pellucid: reflecting light evenly from all surfaces

Study Questions

1. Why did Walt refrain from objecting to...

(The entire section is 483 words.)

Chapter 13: Virginia Beach


apologia: a defense of one’s actions or opinions

delineating: describing, explaining

fatuous: idiotic, foolish

hollow: empty, having no feeling or emotion

recalcitrant: obstinate

Study Questions

1. Why did Carine wonder if things would have turned out differently if Chris had taken Buckley with him?

Though Chris had little regard for his own safety, he would not have endangered the family dog. Carine wondered if this concern would have kept Chris from taking the risks he did.

2. How were Carine and Chris similar? How were they different?

Carine looked like her brother, and like him, she...

(The entire section is 193 words.)

Chapter 14: The Stikine Ice Cap


carapace: a covering

comelier: more pleasing in appearance

corked: restrained

desideratum: something desired as essential

dunning: persistent, unstopping

inveigled: enticed, wheedled

labyrinthine: resembling a labyrinth or maze

nordwand: German north face

penitente: Spanish a member of a religious society in Spanish-American communities of the south-western United States who practice self-whipping and other forms of torture as penitence

phantasmagoria: an exhibition of optical effects and illusions

purse seining: a type of fishing in which a large net is drawn around a school of fish by...

(The entire section is 400 words.)

Chapter 15: The Stikine Ice Cap


acrid: pungent, sharp, unpleasant

ambulate: to walk

ampoules: small vials used to hold fluid for injections

bergschrund: German a deep crevasse or series of crevasses frequently occurring near the head of a mountain glacier

spindrift: fine wind-borne snow

stratagems: ploys, tricks, contrived schemes

synapses: places in the body where a signal passes from one nerve cell to another

Study Questions

1. What happened to Krakauer’s tent, and why did it upset him?

He accidentally set a fire when he tossed a match into a bag of garbage, and the fire burned part of his tent. It upset him because...

(The entire section is 353 words.)

Chapter 16: The Alaska Interior


factitious: produced by humans rather than by natural forces

gauntlet: a punishment formerly used in the military in which somebody was forced to run between two lines of men who beat him as he passed

gloaming: twilight, dusk

laconic: using the minimum of words

sulfurous: containing sulfur (a nonmetallic element)

Study Questions

1. What did McCandless promise Stuckey he would do, and what wouldn’t he promise to do?

He promised Stuckey he would write to him, but McCandless would not agree to call his own parents.

2. Krakauer suggested that McCandless might have been planning to resume a more normal...

(The entire section is 296 words.)

Chapter 17: The Stampede Trail


analysand: a person who is undergoing pyschoanalysis

bobolink: an American migratory songbird

bumbler: someone who is generally clueless or ignorant

coppice: a thicket or grove of small trees

disquietude: anxiety, agitation

gristly: hard to chew, tough, leathery

hauteur: arrogance, haughtiness

hydrologists: people who study the circulation of water below and on the earth’s surface and in the atmosphere

métis: offspring of an American Indian and a person of European ancestry

miasma: a heavy vaporous emanation or atmosphere that smells unpleasant

modicum: a small amount

sobriquet: a nickname

ungulate: having...

(The entire section is 361 words.)

Chapter 18: The Stampede Trail


conflagration: a fire

conundrum: a puzzle, a mystery

fecund: fruitful in offspring or vegetation

munificence: generosity, benevolence

stymied: thwarted, blocked

Study Questions

1. To what did Krakauer initially attribute McCandless’s death?

Krakauer initially believed that McCandless had eaten toxic wild sweet pea.

2. Ultimately, what did Krakauer determine poisoned McCandless? Why does the new information matter to McCandless’s story?

Krakauer determined that McCandless ate moldy seeds, or wild potato seeds, that were contaminated with swainsonine. This information is significant to...

(The entire section is 250 words.)



percussive: characterized by bursts of sound striking the ear

prattles: chatters

Study Questions

1. Compare Billie’s feelings of anticipation about the trip to the bus with Walt’s.

Billie had been looking forward to the trip and approached it feeling calm and centered. Walt felt edgy and uncertain about how he would feel when he saw the site.

2. What was Walt and Billie’s reaction to seeing the bus’s setting?

Both Walt and Billie remarked on its beauty and understood why it appealed to Chris.

3. Explain how seeing the site of their son’s death gave Walt and Billie solace.


(The entire section is 151 words.)

Multiple-Choice Test and Answer Key

1. McCandless journeyed to all of the following spots EXCEPT:

A. Carthage, South Dakota

B. Detrital Wash

C. Bullhead City, Arizona

D. Modesto, California

E. The Stampede Trail

2. One of McCandless’s problems with his parents was that they

A. adopted another child when Chris was in college.

B. wouldn’t let his sister Carine come on his adventures.

C. spent money in a way Chris felt was extravagant.

D. didn’t come to his graduation.

E. never had enough money.

3. Why did McCandless abandon his...

(The entire section is 987 words.)

Essay Exam Questions With Answers

1. In his Author’s Note, Krakauer admits that he is not an impartial biographer and that McCandless’s story struck a personal note. He devotes two chapters to his own quest to summit the Devils Thumb when he was McCandless’s age, “in the hope that my experiences will throw some oblique light on the enigma of Chris McCandless.” Compare and contrast Krakauer and McCandless as young men, and explain how their quests were similar and different. How does Krakauer’s story shed light on Chris McCandless’s motives?

Upon reading Jon Krakauer’s account of his attempt to summit the Devils Thumb, it is clear why Chris McCandless’s story captured his attention. The two stories have clear similarities, and in...

(The entire section is 2090 words.)