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Into the Wild | Discussion Questions 1 - 10

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Why does Krakauer say McCandless was "a pilgrim, perhaps" in Chapter 8 of Into the Wild?

In Chapter 8 Krakauer points out that "McCandless didn't conform particularly well to the bush-casualty stereotype" represented by Rosellini, Waterman, and McCunn, men who also perished or vanished in the wild. He speculates that McCandless was "something else—although precisely what is hard to say. A pilgrim, perhaps." A pilgrim is someone who journeys to a sacred place but can also be defined more generally as one who seeks spiritual or philosophical truths. As Krakauer suggests in Chapter 17, McCandless wanted to "explore the inner country of his own soul" through his time in the wild. While McCandless's pilgrimage is not a religious one in the traditional sense, from Krakauer's perspective, he was a pilgrim because he sought greater insight and a more authentic life through his solitary immersion in nature.

In Chapter 1 of Into the Wild, what are some possible reasons why McCandless dismissed Jim Gallien's concerns about the dangers McCandless might face in the Alaskan bush?

McCandless's adamant refusal to listen to the truths about the Alaskan bush from a man familiar with the area appears foolhardy. His desire to prove his ability to survive in the wild is understandable, and given his youth, McCandless may have overestimated his ability to be self-reliant in that context. It is also possible that McCandless's pride prevented him from agreeing with Gallien's concerns about McCandless's lack of preparedness regarding the basic essentials—food, clothes, and awareness of the spring and summer conditions in the Alaskan wild. Even though Gallien detailed the major dangers his passenger might encounter—raging rivers, carnivorous mosquitoes, angry bears—McCandless refused to listen. After all, he had survived being on the road in often difficult conditions for almost two years on his own. It is also possible that McCandless dismissed Gallien's concerns because they were too realistic and therefore did not support his romantic vision of the solo adventurer finding enlightenment in the wonders of nature.

What is the purpose of Krakauer's creation of a foreboding and suspenseful mood in Chapter 1 of Into the Wild?

Krakauer treats McCandless as if he were a literary character in a thriller with a compelling plot and characters. A postcard sent by McCandless opens the chapter with the words, "This is the last you shall hear from me ... If this adventure proves fatal." McCandless's own words create an immediate sense of suspense and foreboding, despite the fact that most readers know already that he will die in the wild. Krakauer continues to build upon this suspenseful and foreboding mood throughout the chapter. This approach also helps Krakauer establish that there were warning signs that foreshadowed McCandless's death. During his conversation with McCandless, Gallien pointed out how visitors often romanticized the wild. He spotted McCandless's crude map, inadequate gun, and insufficient food supply and was concerned for his welfare. But he failed to talk McCandless out of his plan to enter the wild because McCandless insisted he could handle whatever he might encounter there. As he watched the young adventurer head for the Stampede Trail, Gallien wondered if he shouldn't call the police. Krakauer's establishment of a foreboding mood places readers in a similar position as Gallien. Readers can't figure out McCandless's reasons for doing what he does any more than Gallien can. This calls attention to the mysteries of McCandless's personality and motivations, which will be Krakauer's central focus throughout the book.

Why does Krakauer write the Epilogue of Into the Wild in the present tense?

Much of Into the Wild, particularly those chapters tracing Chris McCandless's two-year odyssey, are written in the past tense because they portray events that have already taken place. The Epilogue, however, in which Krakauer accompanies Walt and Billie McCandless to visit Bus 142, is written in the present tense, though this event obviously took place before Into the Wild's publication. Krakauer's use of the present tense in the Epilogue has multiple effects. It makes Krakauer a participant in the story rather than a mere observer. He accompanies Walt and Billie to Bus 142 as a mourner, not just as a journalist. It also serves to place readers directly at the scene as if they, too, are visiting Bus 142. Krakauer's use of the present tense is a reminder that Chris McCandless is now part of the past, because he has died and no longer belongs to the present. Bus 142 is now a shrine, a perpetual reminder of Chris McCandless's death. Perhaps most significantly, it makes Walt and Billie's loss immediate and therefore more poignant because the present tense underlines that their grief is ongoing, rather than something they have gotten beyond.

What is the purpose of the imagery Krakauer uses to describe Bus 142 and the geography of the Stampede Trail in Chapter 2 of Into the Wild?

Krakauer uses visual, auditory, and olfactory imagery in his descriptions of the geography of the Stampede Trail to create a dark and foreboding mood. His words paint a picture of a totally bleak and inhospitable place where nature always trounces innocence and recklessness. Its magnificence camouflages, its grim and unsympathetic realities. Decrepit even when it was left by the Sushana River in 1963, by 1992 Bus 142 is so rusted, broken, and derelict it is difficult to imagine how it could offer any protection from the elements or ravenous wild animals that inhabit the area. The spring and summer thaws from the Outer Range create a rampaging river that cannot be crossed, so loud it inhibits all other sound. The sickly sweet odor of decay the Anchorage couple described as a "real bad smell" is that of an emaciated corpse inside a sleeping bag. This is not the serene refuge that McCandless found in April but a harsh and ruthless place.

In Chapter 2 of Into the Wild, what is the relationship between the spiritual hunger and the physical hunger McCandless experienced?

McCandless had a deep yearning to commune with nature in search of a meaningful, authentic life. This spiritual hunger was the driving force behind his nomadic existence, especially his obsession with going to Alaska. McCandless also read constantly, demonstrating an intense hunger for ideas. This, in turn, sharpened his appetite for living the ideas he read about by putting them into practice in the real world. McCandless attempted to accomplish this through his life on the road and his journey into the wild. Once in the Alaskan bush, however, his desire for self-determination, self-reliance, and freedom outweighed more practical concerns like ensuring that he had a proper food supply. In effect, his focus on his spiritual hunger leads to the cold, hard reality of physical hunger.

In what ways does the quotation from James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in Chapter 4 of Into the Wild accurately or inaccurately describe Chris McCandless?

In the midst of detailing McCandless's journey up the West Coast, Krakauer offers a quotation from James Joyce's Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man about its protagonist, Stephen Dedalus. In many ways, the quotation does describe McCandless accurately. Like McCandless, Dedalus is in search of himself and his calling in the world, and he experiences exhilaration "near the wild heart of life" as he walks alone in nature, in his case, beside the sea. The words "alone and young and willful" could certainly describe McCandless as well. In other ways, given the tragic outcome of McCandless's attempt to exist "near the wild heart of life," the quotation is somewhat inaccurate. It may even be interpreted as Krakauer's attempt to romanticize McCandless. By including the quotation, Krakauer takes McCandless, a real human being, and associates him with a fictional character in an impassioned, poetic literary passage. In addition, the quotation does not accurately describe McCandless because he and Dedalus do not share the same fate. In Joyce's novel, Dedalus goes on to live and write. McCandless died young in Alaska.

In Into the Wild, how does McCandless often serve as a mirror for others?

McCandless believed that he saw himself, or his best version of himself, in the works of Thoreau, London, and Tolstoy. Krakauer comments in Chapter 6, however, that "McCandless made an indelible impression on a number of people" during his travels. People he met were often charmed by McCandless's intelligence and enthusiasm, but he often served as a mirror in which others saw, or wanted to see, aspects of themselves. In Chapter 1 Jim Gallien wanted McCandless to be as prudent as he is about the Alaskan wilderness and agree to abort his plan to go there. In Chapter 4 Jan Burres had "a son about the same age Alex was" from whom she was estranged. This made her want to reach out and help McCandless, who, unbeknownst to her, is also estranged from his parents. Ron Franz, who lost his family when they were killed in an accident, offered to adopt McCandless as his grandson. McCandless acts as a mirror for Krakauer, too, who includes not one but two chapters of autobiographical material to show, in part, the many parallels between his life and McCandless's. Ron Dial, who accompanied Krakauer on his visit to Bus 142, admits he "can't help identifying" with McCandless, either, and believes McCandless's critics are so strong in their condemnation of him because he mirrors them at an earlier age.

Why does McCandless want to reinvent himself as Alexander Supertramp in Chapter 3 of Into the Wild?

The Wallace Stegner quotation that introduces the chapter captures McCandless's mindset. ("Being footloose is associated in our minds with escape from history, oppression and irksome obligation.") McCandless likely wanted to reject his personal history, which he felt had been compromised by the revelation that his parents had lied about the family's history. He also viewed his parents as oppressing him by pressuring him to attend law school. He shed all the accoutrements of his past life—except for a very few possessions that he needed to start his new existence—so he could be free to grow into the man he wanted to be. To be truly footloose, in Stegner's sense, McCandless needed to become his alter ego, Alexander Supertramp, an unencumbered wanderer who could dictate his own path.

What does the new name McCandless gave himself, Alexander Supertramp, symbolize in Chapter 3 of Into the Wild?

Alexander Supertramp was the name McCandless adopted to represent his desire for complete freedom. Alexander Supertramp has no family or personal relationships to chain him to other people's expectations. Instead, he is completely unfettered emotionally, mentally, and spiritually, and can go wherever his whims take him. His name also alludes to Alexander the Great, a powerful ruler of his own empire in classical times. Like him, McCandless wanted to be a king, but of his own private empire—a domain whose borders are defined only by his desires. McCandless avoided material goods or personal attachments as they would limit his independence and prevent him from being as mobile as possible. The name Supertramp signifies McCandless's belief in his extraordinary powers as a nomad as he follows his carefree dream of liberation.

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