This chapter introduces one of the primary motifs of Into the Wild, that of documents. Because the book’s subject, Christopher McCandless, has died before author Jon Krakauer can meet him, Krakauer must rely on the testimony of the people McCandless encountered in order to stitch together the story of the young man’s journey — and especially on the documents McCandless left behind. The first of these documents is McCandless’s S.O.S. note. Others will include his journals, the notes he made in the books he read, graffiti he scratched into various surfaces, and photos he took of himself.
To these Krakauer will add maps of the places McCandless visited, relevant quotations from a wide variety of authors, and even a brief memoir of the author’s own young manhood, inserted near the end of Into the Wild. All of these enrich our understanding of McCandless and help us to believe that the amazing story we read in Into the Wild really happened.
The fact that someone as articulate and effective at communicating as McCandless died alone, having written a kind of letter (the S.O.S. note) that went unread until it was too late, is an example of irony. Also ironic: McCandless, who encountered no one during the four months between his entrance into the bush and his death there of starvation, is discovered not by one fellow trekker but by five — all within days of McCandless’s death.
This chapter begins to explore the character of Christopher McCandless in depth.
Far from being a stereotypical slacker, he was hard-working, according to Wayne Westerberg. The fact that he had read the long and difficult War and Peace indicates that McCandless was intelligent and studious. (Indeed, we learn as well in this chapter that he was a success at selective Emory University.)
Most indicative of all with respect to McCandless’s character are the things he renounced: $24,000 and his very name. In doing so, he seems to have been rejecting his family and what he saw as their materialistic values. This information doesn’t fully explain why Christopher McCandless would forge alone into the Alaskan wilderness, but it begins to address the motivation for this bizarre act.
The fact that McCandless never told his parents what he planned to do could indicate a lack of resolve on his part, or even cowardice. It also shows that the young man thoughtful enough to present Wayne Westerberg with an inscribed copy of one of his favorite books was callous enough regarding his parents’ feelings to leave them in the dark regarding their son’s whereabouts.
Considering that he eventually would die of starvation, McCandless’s gift of $24,000 to OXFAM, an organization dedicated to fighting hunger, is an example of irony.
This chapter unearths additional motivation for McCandless’s irrational Alaska trek to come. During his time in Mexico, he lived on nothing more than “five pounds of rice and what marine life he could pull from the sea,” and Krakauer points out that this may have accounted for the young man’s belief that he could live off the land in the Alaskan wilderness. (Undeniably, McCandless proves himself remarkably capable in this chapter, canoeing through hundreds of miles of hostile landscape and even crossing an international border undetected.)
And yet other questions remain unanswered. His mother says that “Chris was very much of the school that you should own nothing except what you can carry on your back at a dead run.” She doesn’t say why this is so, however.
The motif of friendship emerges further in these pages, as McCandless, who earlier struck up a friendship with Wayne Westerberg, befriends Jan Burres and her boyfriend Bob. One of Into the Wild’s many ironies: a young man compelled toward a solitary life, who eventually will die alone, was quite gregarious and made friends easily. Another irony: McCandless abandons a car, the only problem with which is a wet battery, and burns his cash — but quits a job when it becomes clear that he won’t be paid for his hard work. He has a complicated relationship with money and possessions, to say the least.
In this chapter, a theme introduced when McCandless presented a copy of War and Peace to Wayne Westerberg reappears: the young man’s abiding love of literature. Since childhood, he was obsessed with the novels and stories of Jack London, who condemned capitalism and glorified nature. According to Krakauer, however, McCandless forgot he was reading fiction and “conveniently overlooked the fact that London himself had spent just a single winter in the North and that he’d died by his own hand on his California estate at the age of forty, a fatuous drunk, obese and pathetic.”
Krakauer characterizes his protagonist more deeply by means of contrast with those who surround him: Note that even at the Slabs, where snowbirds, rubber tramps, and other antiestablishment types congregated, McCandless was an anomaly: an individual who wanted life to be not easier (as most of the habitués of the Slabs presumably do) but more difficult. Thus he prepares at the Slabs for a life in the harsh wilderness of Alaska.
Notice as well the extent to which author Krakauer relies on documents left behind by McCandless to tell the young man’s story. During this part of his journey, he ceases regularly keeping a journal, and Into the Wild becomes sketchier, more reliant on authorial inference.
The theme of this chapter is the astonishing ability of Christopher McCandless to win friends and influence people. Not only did he befriend the octogenarian Ronald Franz, but he convinced the old man to change his ways fundamentally at a time in life when most people have settled down for good. It is important to understand that McCandless fled society not because he couldn’t get along with others, but because he chose to be alone.
The fact that McCandless achieved this effect by means of a letter speaks to the power of the written word. Remember that he was inspired to head “into the wild” by books he read (Tolstoy’s, Jack London’s, and others) — and that it is a magazine article which informs the hitchhiker Franz picks up at chapter’s end that McCandless has died, thus inspiring the old man to give up on life.
Regarding McCandless’s character, it is interesting — and of course believable — that he can be intelligent, hardworking, and resilient, yet lack mechanical dexterity and perhaps even common sense. While the former characteristic, his awkwardness with machines, is consequential in ways that he manages to recover from (as in the abandonment of his car), the latter, his difficulty being just plain sensible, will have a greater impact.
McCandless’s rage toward his parents, and particularly his father, is something that many of those who meet him pick up on. It seems to be their lifestyle more than anything else that McCandless is rejecting when he flees the conventional middle-class American way of life, though why it so repels him is never made completely clear by Into the Wild. It is not uncommon for men and women of Christopher McCandless’s age to flee their parents’ particular ways of doing things (psychology even has a term for this dynamic: reaction formation), but rarely is the response so extreme, so complete. The degree of McCandless’s renunciation of his family’s values is a large part of what makes Krakauer’s book so fascinating.
Finally, there is something admirable about McCandless’s utter devotion to what he believes in. It is easy to be inspired by books and the ideas they espouse, but not so easy to live the kind of life envisioned by thinkers like Tolstoy and London. McCandless “talks the talk” in a way that alienates fewer listeners than one would predict, but he “walks the walk,” too — which may account for the fact that so many of those he encountered continued to listen.
This chapter offers context for, and thus perspective on, McCandless’s situation. By quoting from some of the many outraged responses to his article, Krakauer shares with the reader the typical reaction to McCandless’s story: smug superiority laced with disbelief that anyone could be so foolhardy.
And yet, as the examples of Rosselini, Waterman, and McCunn demonstrate, McCandless is hardly the only individual impelled to live off the land in the Alaskan wilderness. At the same time, these others provide Krakauer with an opportunity to highlight McCandless’s uniqueness; the author characterizes him by contrast with his predecessors. Similar to Rosselini and Waterman, Christopher McCandless “was a seeker and had an impractical fascination with the harsh side of nature,” the author writes. Like Waterman and McCunn, he lacked common sense. McCandless was unlike Waterman in that he was mentally stable. And in contrast to McCunn, McCandless didn’t expect to be saved.
“Although he was rash,” Krakauer summarizes, McCandless “wasn’t incompetent — he wouldn’t have lasted 113 days if he were. And he wasn’t a nutcase, he wasn’t a sociopath, he wasn’t an outcast. McCandless was something else. . . . A pilgrim perhaps.”
This is a second consecutive chapter in which the author attempts to illuminate McCandless’s character by comparing and contrasting it to those of his predecessors. In doing so, Krakauer further convinces the reader that although McCandless was unique, the impulses that drove him were not unprecedented. Nor are these impulses an exclusively American phenomenon. In fact, although rare, the drive toward solitude crosses continents and millennia, as the example of the Irish monks demonstrates.
By flashing forward to McCandless’s death, Krakauer intensifies the drama of his story. He reminds us that McCandless’s adventure ends tragically. In addition, the author emphasizes the young man’s connections to those whose lives he touched: friends Gallien and Westerberg, as well as MCandless’s relatives.
The prior two chapters have emphasized McCandless’s commonalities with others who have sought adventure and solitude in the wild. This short chapter reminds us that, although it was not unique, McCandless’s story was noteworthy, newsworthy — it was covered not only in Alaska but in the national press.
This chapter asks more questions than it answers — and understandably, since the riddles it poses cannot be solved definitively. Are Christopher McCandless’s parents responsible for their son’s death? Was his personality shaped by, or even inherited from, them? Could his parents have interceded and altered his behavior, thereby changing his fate?
For that matter, what exactly was McCandless rebelling against, aside from middle class ennui? Also, wouldn’t it have been more productive for him to have resumed his work on behalf of the homeless, hungry, or disenfranchised after college, instead of indulging his whimsical notions of (his own) survival?
Two factors emerge in this chapter that clearly contributed to McCandless’s flight into the wilderness — and his eventual death.
First, Walt McCandless comments that “Chris was good at almost everything he ever tried . . . which made him supremely overconfident.” This bit of characterization goes a long way toward explaining McCandless’s bewildering lack of preparation for his Alaskan “adventure.” There is no evidence that he failed at much, if anything, during his childhood and adolescence, which may have exacerbated the hubris naturally felt by many young adults.
As to why McCandless’s overconfidence found its outlet in a radical rejection of his parents’ bourgeois values — and his family altogether — the information that emerges in this chapter about his father’s double life could well have offered the motivation. Krakauer doesn’t linger on this episode, but if nothing else, it seems to have provided the match that lit McCandless’s short fuse.
During the plane ride home with Chris’s remains, his sister Carine eats “every scrap of food the cabin attendants set in front of her.” Soon afterward, however, she discovers she has no appetite and loses so much weight that friends think she has become anorectic. Chris’s mother also stops eating, losing eight pounds. His father, Walt, responds the opposite way, putting on eight pounds.
Though both compulsive eating and loss of appetite are not uncommon responses to stress and grief, it is hard not to see the McCandless family’s food-related behaviors as connected to Chris’s demise. It is as if Billie and Carine are identifying with him, feeling Chris’s pain, while Walt is compensating for what killed his son — though none of them are doing what they do intentionally, or even consciously.
Up to this point in Into the Wild, author Jon Krakauer has maintained journalistic objectivity, or at least the appearance of objectivity. In this chapter he abandons that perspective. Note, however, that Krakauer’s integrity as a journalist is not compromised, since he is entirely up-front about the experiences he shares in common with his subject, McCandless. In fact, it would be more ethically suspect if Krakauer did not divulge that he had his own “into the wild” experience as a young man. Because of his candor, readers are able to take this into account when the author views McCandless’s activities with some sympathy.
And as a result of reading this chapter and the one that follows, the reader moves closer to McCandless and his perspective. Not only Rosselini, Waterman, McCunn, and Reuss (as well as the Irish monks described) have shared McCandless’s impulses, but the author himself. Behavior that seemed utterly bizarre, at the start of Into the Wild, is becoming easier to conceive of with every successive chapter.
his chapter further develops the motif of fathers and sons, suggesting explicitly that sons often rebel against their fathers at the same time that they are powerless to resist paternal traits they have inherited. Clearly Krakauer believes that McCandless was driven to do what he did in large measure by his relationship with father Walt.
And this is only part of what Krakauer believes he shared with McCandless. They also shared hubris. “It is easy, when you are young,” he writes, “to believe that what you desire is no less than what you deserve, to assume that if you want something badly enough, it is your God-given right to have it. When I decided to go to Alaska that April, like Chris McCandless, I was a raw youth who mistook passion for insight and acted according to an obscure, gap-ridden logic.”
Which is not to say that Jon Krakauer believes his younger self to have been identical to Christopher McCandless in every respect. Krakauer says he wasn’t as intelligent as McCandless and didn’t possess his lofty ideals — but young Krakauer was also, crucially, a superior outdoorsman.
This chapter, the heart of Into the Wild, reconstructs McCandless’s climactic Alaska adventure, following him into the bush and observing his admirable survival skills. Although Krakauer’s book is an adventure story, Into the Wild is also a study in character, and Chapter Sixteen is no exception. McCandless is revealed in the moose episode to be highly ethical and deeply sympathetic; the reader cannot help being moved by the enormity of the young man’s despair over wasting his kill.
By the same token, McCandless’s lack of foresight and his hubris, apparent in a low-level way prior to this time, now yield consequences that will be fatal. He did not anticipate that melting snow would swell the bodies of water he crossed on his way into the bush. And his arrogant refusal to bring a map prevents McCandless from learning that, despite its increased size, the river is fordable upstream — another in a series of ironies that punctuate this book
The ironies multiply in this, the book’s penultimate chapter. The basket that Krakauer and his companions discover at the U.S.G.S. station has been secured by hunters to the side of the river on which McCandless camped so as to make crossing the Teklanika harder for outsiders. “If he’d known about it,” the author writes, “crossing the Teklanika to safety would have been a trivial matter. Because he had no topographic map, however, he had no way of conceiving that salvation was so close at hand.”
In another irony, McCandless was close to not only the abandoned gauging station but three empty hunting cabins, as well. Did he really go “into the wild” after all? Undoubtedly he was living in a hostile environment during the months he spent in Alaska, but some wouldn’t call the area he inhabited the wilderness at all.
Did McCandless finally come to forgive his family, as evinced by the “HAPPINESS ONLY REAL WHEN SHARED” inscription he wrote toward the end of his life? Perhaps — but note that in all of his writings, there is nothing that explicitly reaches out to his parents or his sister, Carine. McCandless never acknowledges them, even to say goodbye.
Note, too, that Krakauer’s theory on McCandless’s death, that it was caused by mold on wild potato seeds, is just that: a theory. It is not definitive. To some degree it is beside the point anyway, since one could argue that it wasn’t so much starvation that killed McCandless as arrogance and shortsightedness.