Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

Sublime Nature

From Into the Wild’s first pages, Jon Krakauer loads the text with descriptions of natural phenomena, flora, fauna, weather patterns, and geological formations. Most notable among this plethora of detail are key passages that note mountain ranges, glaciers and rivers, especially rivers in flood, as sublime or frightening. These include Krakauer’s description of the Alaska Range near Mount McKinley, where Christopher McCandless spends his last days, and of the glacier called the Devils Thumb, also located in Alaska. Into the Wild asks its reader how close they can come to the mystery of nature, which apparently cares nothing for human beings, and whether nature can be considered beautiful, given that its primary aspect is inhuman or even opposed to human life. These descriptions of sublime nature also pose a secondary, more complex question about whether nature writing can ever do justice to its subjects.

Read more about the theme of sublime nature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Music and Musical Instruments

At several unexpected junctures in his journey, Christopher McCandless plays the piano. In one case, he plays the organ in an alternative society on the edge of a dry lake bed in California. He leaves behind in his yellow Datsun the same guitar his mother, Billie McCandless, used to play to soothe him. He can also sing. The motif of Christopher’s musicality in fact poses a question about his relationship to community. His artistic talent allows him to connect with other people, yet he still makes the decision to leave society behind. Most importantly, however, Christopher McCandless’s talent for the piano ties him to his father, Walt McCandless. Once a professional pianist, Walt played with professional combos when Christopher was a child. The narrator makes no explicit suggestion that Christopher renounces music or doesn’t like to play because Walt did, but their bitter relationship and Christopher’s feeling that his father was a dishonest, imperfect man may have led him to hide his own musical talents.

Ascetics, Artists, and Holy Figures

Jon Krakauer assembles a cast of literary and historical figures with whom he compares Christopher McCandless, including a survivalist, a hiker, a photographer, and Krakauer himself. This cast expands to include medieval Irish monks called papar, who landed in Iceland. Tellingly, Krakauer also mentions that when he climbed up the Devils Thumb, he wore a cross of ski poles on his back. No other explicit mention is made of religiosity Into the Wild, though Carine McCandless, Christopher’s sister, wears a cross necklace. In one of the book’s final episodes, Billie McCandless, Christopher’s mother, brings Christopher’s childhood bible to place in the bus where he died. Each comparison and mention of spiritual life may help the reader clarify the relationship between creativity, spirituality, and divinity in Into the Wild, though it is left to the reader to determine at what position along this spectrum of ascetics, artists, and holy figures to place Christopher McCandless.

Read about Hermann Hesse’s depiction of Siddhartha, a character whose communion with nature leads to spiritual fulfillment, in Siddhartha.