In style, the two chapters present an intensely crafted, suspenseful, in-scene adventure narrative rich with poeticism and irony. Beginning with Krakauer’s journey to Petersberg, Alaska, the story of his attempt at the Devils Thumb perhaps rivals any other chapter in Into the Wild for intensity of visual description. The narrative moves between dangerous escapades on the face of the mountain and long spells of boredom at base camp and while waiting for the delivery of supplies, mimicking closely the lived experience of mountaineering. The reader encounters a very pure example of adventure writing for which Krakauer is best known, and these chapters may be taken as the most significant and sustained appearance of that genre in Into the Wild.
Parallels between Krakauer’s adventure and McCandless’s journeys come rich and fast in Chapters Fourteen and Fifteen. The explicit connections are many, and include the expositional material provided in the opening of Chapter Fourteen. Among the implicit comparisons to be made include the number of telling “blunders,” Krakauer cites. He drains his food supplies after the smoking of a marijuana cigarette. These anecdotes generate amusement and sympathy for his character despite the self-imposed danger of his climb. That is, more than simply engaging the reader in cinematic storytelling, Krakauer ridicules the ambitions of his younger self while insisting on careful explanations of his thought process. The narrative stakes are high in these passages, since the reader’s judgment of Krakauer’s success in paralleling his life with McCandless determines whether the latter’s story might be judged worth reading. By connecting his willful, youthful recklessness with McCandless’s, Krakauer argues against the idea that McCandless was a nihilist and tries to preserve the significance of the latter’s death.
In addition to the story of his climb up the Devils Thumb and as a part of his effort to convince the reader of McCandless’s death as meaningful, Krakauer dives into an examination of his relationship with his own father. He bucked parental expectation only to realize that he had in fact internalized his father’s strict sense of discipline and achievement. These passages shed yet more explicit light on Christopher McCandless’s psychology. He, too, internalized his father’s perfectionism. Perhaps unintentionally, Krakauer also underlines the relative mildness of the trauma that McCandless suffered at his father’s hands. Krakauer’s father attempted to commit suicide in front of his son, and his obsessive self-medication along with the suicide attempt led to his confinement to a psychiatric hospital. By comparison, the reader might find the trauma that Walt McCandless’s actions inflicted upon his son to be relatively minor.
Generally speaking, Krakauer illustrates the way that fractured relationships, especially between father and son, can radiate through a life, operating as a continuous trauma and instigating a desire for solitude or risk-taking behavior. The section rests on the assumption that acts of hubris or ignorance can be explained, if not entirely redeemed, by scrutinizing their root causes. In turn, this assumption underwrites Into the Wild as a biography, and the genres of autobiography and biography themselves. In the sense most specific to the text, however, this section helps or at least intends to help cast the case of Christopher McCandless as a relatable, human story of a person in search of happiness, healing and meaning.