Christopher McCandless’s character and his motivations for living by himself on the road and in Alaska form the central question for the narrator and the reader of Into the Wild. Was McCandless suicidal? Insane? On a spiritual quest? Why did he ignore the risks his decision represented for other people, not just for himself? Jon Krakauer considers a wide array of sources both primary and secondary in constructing his idea of McCandless’s character before and during his journey into Denali National Park. As he zigzagged first from Atlanta to California, then down to Mexico and then back up into Alaska, McCandless left behind him a trail of written material, especially photographs, graffiti, and postcards. His communications are sometimes wordy, sometimes terse. They sometimes contain specific, overbearing instructions suggesting that others should give up their materialistic lives and do as he has done. McCandless also wrote in his diary in the third person, suggesting that he understood himself as a character in an adventure story, and gives himself a nickname that both protects him from his parents’ attempts to track him and seems to justify his enactment of a role far outside established norms.

Throughout Into the Wild, McCandless appears as a careful and dedicated reader. Certain of his books, like his guide to edible plants, are functional. They reflect his attempt to acquire knowledge. Others, like the novels by Michael Crichton, serve to entertain. The intellectual and philosophical interests revealed by most of his other, more serious books help Krakauer delineate McCandless’s motivations and the structure of his thought. McCandless’s annotated books, both those left behind in the bus and those he gives to friends, reveal that he values independence and self-reliance. Certain of his books reveal that he thinks of human society as a kind of poison. In the works of novelists Tolstoy and Pasternak, he underlines passages about the dangers of sex and falsehood. In work by Thoreau he underlines and stars passages about the importance of self-reliance and of eating a vegetarian diet. Krakauer takes McCandless’s reading seriously, as the reader is clearly meant to, and relates the moments in which McCandless recorded a kind of religious ecstasy seriously, sometimes comparing him to a monk or other spiritual figure outright. Krakauer also presents evidence that McCandless may have changed his mind about the value of other people, but cannot call it conclusive, since McCandless dies before he can find a way back to civilization.

Read more about how Leo Tolstoy explored falsehood within the theme of “the right life” in The Death of Ivan Ilych.

Generally speaking, Krakauer’s exploration of McCandless’s relationships with others is split into two categories: the first contains the friends he meets on his journeys and the second his family and friends from early life. To the people he meets on the road, McCandless is reserved but also open. He only infrequently reveals his real name to others, preferring to go by Alex or Alexander. He works hard, and on occasion he plays the piano, revealing a gift for music. He often impresses the drifters and outcasts he encounters with his storytelling abilities. To certain companions, including Wayne Westerberg and Ronald Franz, he relates his frustrations with his family and sometimes comes off as absentminded or aloof. To his family, however, McCandless appears selfish, impetuous, and impenetrable with more frequency. These ambiguities in McCandless’s character are allowed to abide in the book and even contribute to its richness. Ultimately, Krakauer insists, the reader must determine Christopher McCandless’s character, after a thoughtful weighing of the stories told and the evidence presented in Into the Wild.