Into the Wild

by: Jon Krakauer

Study Questions

1

How does Jon Krakauer’s own near-death experience story inform the book’s portrait of Christopher McCandless?

Into the Wild attempts to generate sympathy or understanding for Christopher McCandless by exploring his psychology and piecing together not just his movements but his feelings and ideas. Krakauer believes that McCandless represents a relatable and fascinating American type and that his desires access a deeper truth about experience for certain people. Unfortunately, Christopher McCandless’s death remains shrouded in mystery and always will be, to a certain extent. Not only does he die before he can answer his family’s questions or explain in his few journal entries exactly why he has headed into the wild, but the extreme nature of his physical suffering pushes him outside of ordinary comprehension. By contrast, Krakauer’s own story of a journey into the wild is more accessible to a general readership, not least because it is told in the first person by the same person who lived it.

When Krakauer heads from Colorado to Alaska to summit the Devils Thumb glacier, he acts out of restlessness and unconscious frustration. Krakauer draws parallels between his motivations and McCandless’s both explicitly and implicitly, including those motivations to which McCandless himself might not have had conscious access. Like McCandless, Krakauer was traumatized by his exacting father and sought both to appease him and to escape from him. Whether recalling his own past or the climb itself, Krakauer writes with the intense detail that comes directly from his experience, including the reader in the tense joy of extreme outdoor activity. At the same time as he simulates for the reader the fear of his climb, the boredom and anxiety of being trapped in a tent in a storm, and the thrill of achieving the summit of the Devils Thumb, Krakauer also maintains a critical distance. Krakauer the narrator is much older than the Krakauer who climbs the Devils Thumb, and he can explain, even ridicule his actions. This loving but ironic tone suggests that a person could understand Christopher McCandless’s death as the product of his youth, his intense intellectualism, his perfectionism and emotional burdens, none of which were unusual.

2

Analyze Krakauer’s description of and encounter with Ronald A. Franz. How does this episode affect the book’s portrait of Christopher McCandless?

Jon Krakauer learns of Ronald A. Franz through a letter Franz sends inquiring about the article Krakauer has published about Christopher McCandless in Outdoor magazine. Franz’s handwriting already betrays his vulnerability, since it is small and spidery, and his insistence that McCandless was a special young man demonstrates his bond with McCandless before Franz even meets Krakauer. When he does sit down for an interview with Krakauer, he comes across as gentle but reserved, sorrowful at the same time he is intimidating because of his physical size. Krakauer’s respectful treatment of Franz’s leatherworking and his life in his trailer make Franz seem self-contained and competent. His description of Franz’s tragic past and the loss of his wife and son to a drunk driving accident also set up as Franz as a victim of forces beyond his control.

As Krakauer’s conversation with Franz in Anza-Borrego progresses, the reader learns that Franz has struggled to make good and to heal his own emotional wounds by mentoring younger men. Krakauer then implicitly demonstrates how McCandless takes advantage of Franz’s need to replace his son. After he learns of McCandless’s death, Franz’s sadness seems to infect his whole being. In turn, this sadness affects the reader’s evaluation of McCandless’s character. The revelations that Franz asked McCandless to be his adopted grandson and was turned down and that he broke years of sobriety to drink an entire bottle of whiskey when word of McCandless’s death reached him make Krakauer’s portrait of McCandless less overwhelmingly positive and more complicated.

3

Discuss the significance of maps in Into the Wild. Why might maps be included at the beginning of several chapters?

Most obviously, the maps included in Into the Wild allow the reader to follow Christopher McCandless’s wanderings from the east coast up to the Alaskan frontier. He spends a great deal of time in the desert and in small towns, so the reader may not be able to imagination his location immediately. A more interesting reason for Krakauer’s use of maps might be that McCandless never has a map with him, not even when a map might have saved him significant time or even his life. It seems important to McCandless not to use maps or navigational aids when he can help it, perhaps because he wants to keep his experience of the wilderness from relying on as much human technology as possible. In his journey down the Colorado River in a canoe, McCandless takes no heed of hazards and restricted areas. McCandless has no idea when such hazards are even on the horizon, since he has no map with him, and instead must force his way through them or take his canoe out of the river and walk while carrying it. When Krakauer finally visits the abandoned bus in which McCandless dies, he uses his topographic map to navigate and also explicitly discusses the fact that McCandless could have found his way to safety if he had brought a map with him. The use of maps to help the reader locate the places discussed in Into the Wild is thus slightly ironic and positions the reader as a better-equipped traveler than the book’s protagonist.