Matthew Power, writing in Men’s Journal, gives a perfect introduction to this story of of adventure, discovery, alienation, and eventually death:
It was a haunting tale, capturing the imagination of the country. September 1992, deep in the bush of the Alaskan interior northeast of Mount McKinley, in an abandoned bus on a disused mining trail, the decomposed body of a man was found by a moose hunter. The remains weighed only 67 pounds, and he had apparently died of starvation. He carried no identification, but a few rolls of undeveloped film and a cryptic journal chronicled a horrifying descent into sickness and slow death after 112 days alone in the wilderness. When the man’s identity was established, the puzzle only deepened. His name was Chris McCandless, a 24-year-old honors graduate, star athlete, and beloved brother and son from a wealthy but dysfunctional East Coast family. With a head full of Jack London and Thoreau, McCandless rechristened himself “Alexander Supertramp,” cut all ties with his family, gave his trust fund to charity, and embarked on a two-year odyssey that brought him to Alaska, that mystic repository of American notions of wilderness, a blank spot on the map where he could test the limits of his wits and endurance. Setting off with little more than a .22 caliber rifle and a 10-pound bag of rice, McCandless hoped to find his true self by renouncing society and living off the land. But, as Craig Medred would note in the Anchorage Daily News, “the Alaska wilderness is a good place to test yourself. The Alaska wilderness is a bad place to find yourself.” No one ever saw McCandless alive again. Fifteen years later his story continues to resonate as a quintessentially American tale, and its hero has assumed near mythic status, blurring the lines between living memory and the creation of a legend.
After reading the book and reflecting upon it, I have not even begun to make up my mind about who Chris McCandless was, why he did what he did, and what forces drove him to completely separate himself from his family and past. At times I found myself admiring his willingness to get up and actually walk away from a life that seemed to him to be filled with hypocrisy and lies, but at other points in the narrative, McCandless was absolutely infuriating. His inability or simple unwillingness to forgive his father for his faults and failings (after all, nothing his father did ever actually affected him directly) struck me as hypocritical as his father’s actions, especially when he seemed so accepting of other’s faults. And besides, who among us come from perfect families? I know I don’t, and even though the love for my family is great, I have seen all to clearly their imperfections, especially as far as my own father is concerned. And yet I cannot imagine totally separating myself from everyone who loves me. In this regard, McCandless strikes me as simply childish, arrogant, self-righteous and selfish.
Finally, it is clear that Krakauer, as he himself states, is not an objective observer when it comes to McCandless. Krakauer sees in Chris a kindred spirit, and while that in itself is not a bad thing, I believe it causes him to gloss over McCandless’ own faults. I, for one, feel that Krakauer’s lack of objectivity causes him to ignore the very real possibility that Chris may have been adversely affected by an undiagnosed mental condition. Of course, others see something quite different, including Paul at The Other Side of Awesome, who has written:
What’s never mentioned in the book, nor is ever intimated by Chris himself, is the striking parallels between the life Chris led and the one Jesus told his followers to lead. He sold or gave away all his belongings, lived amongst the fringe and outcast, and wandered about the country, eventually dying in the wilderness whilst on the same type of spiritual pilgrimage that Jesus himself went on. Whether he meant to or not, he lived the authentic Christian life. I wonder how things would’ve turned out for him had he lived.
Initial Questions for Discussion
1. In the article The Cult of Chris McCandless found in Men’s Journal (cited above), there is this quote:
Carlson, a barrel-chested Athabascan who worked as a tribal liaison on the shoot, shows me around the bus. He chuckles through a handlebar mustache and offers an unburnished appraisal of McCandless: Another fool bit the dust. “We grew up here. You learn how to make a campfire when you’re a kid. This, I didn’t think much of it at the time. That kid’s mistakes started a long time before he got here.”
What mistakes, if any, did Chris make before going to Alaska?
2. What do think caused Chris to embark on his journey?
3. In a review of the book by Library Journal (found here), one complaint about it was that Krakauer “never satisfactorily answers the question of whether McCandless was a noble, if misguided, idealist or a reckless narcissist who brought pain to his family.” Which, in your opinion, was he? Was he both?
4. As I stated above, and as Krakauer himself noted in his book, there is a notable lack of objectivity in Krakauer’s writing. Do you feel that this adds or detracts from the book itself? Why or why not?
5. What do you think of Krakauer’s insertion of himself into the narrative? Did it add or detract from Chris’ story? Did it help you understand Chris’ own motives?
6. What do you make of this quote and Westerberg’s assessment of Chris?
“‘You could tell right away that Alex was intelligent,’ Westerberg reflects, draining his third drink. ‘He read a lot. Used a lot of big words. I think maybe part of what got him into trouble was that he did too much thinking. Sometimes he tried too hard to make sense of the world, to figure out why people were bad to each other so often.”
7. One Alaskan Park Ranger has made some comparisons between himself and Chris. He wrote:
Essentially, Chris McCandless committed suicide while I apprenticed myself to a career and a life that I wanted more badly than I can possibly describe in so short an essay. In the end I believe that the difference between us was that I wanted to live and Chris McCandless wanted to die (whether he realized it or not). The fact that he died in a compelling way doesn’t change that outcome. He might have made it work if he had respected the wilderness he was purported to have loved. But it is my belief that surviving in the wilderness is not what he had in mind.
I did not start this essay to trash poor Chris McCandless. Not intentionally. It is sad that the boy had to die. The tragedy is that McCandless more than likely was suffering from mental illness and didn’t have to end his life the way he did. The fact that he chose Alaska’s wildlands to do it in speaks more to the fact that it makes a good story than to the fact that McCandless was heroic or somehow extraordinary. In the end, he was sadly ordinary in his disrespect for the land, the animals, the history, and the self-sufficiency ethos of Alaska, the Last Frontier.
Do you feel that McCandless was either mentally ill or suicidal?
8. What do you think of the comparison made above by Paul that Chris and Christ were kindred spirit?
9. How do view and interpret this quote from Chris:
So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future.
10. What significance, if any, do you attach to the note Chris left in the margins of Dr. Zhivago: “Happiness only real when shared” as he neared the end of his life?
11. The original article for Outside by Krakauer was titled “Death of an Innocent.” In his book Krakauer tells of Chris’ discovery of his father’s infidelity in Chapter 12, which begins with a quote from GK Chesterton: “For children are innocent and love justice, while most of us are wicked and naturally prefer mercy.” Who are the guilty parties, if anyone, in this tale? What is the proper response for the guilty ones: justice or mercy?
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.
More Discussion Questions
Here you will find some very good and in-depth questions from The New Humanities Reader
Click here for more discussion questions for Into the Wild
Click here for discussion questions from a website on male spirituality.
Additional Articles for Reading
Julie R. Neidlinger, Co-author of The Librarium, has posted about Into the Wild on her own blog at Lone Prairie.net. You can read what she wrote by clicking on the links below:
Into the Wild (April 2007)
Into the Wild (July 2007)
More Articles for Reading
Death of an Innocent – The original article Krakauer wrote for Outside Magazine.
Into the Wild Debunked – This article specifically deals with the cause of Chris McCandless’ death.
One very negative reaction to the film version of Into the Wild.
Click here for a web page that has an essay by students who visited McCandless’s death site.