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Into the Wild | Discussion Questions 11 - 20

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In Chapter 4 of Into the Wild, how does Paul Shepard's quotation about the value of desert retreats apply to Chris McCandless?

According to Paul Shepard, "to the desert go prophets and hermits ... pilgrims and exiles" to seek "the therapeutic and spiritual values of retreat, not to escape but to find reality." McCandless sought a world that was not walled in by governmental, societal, or familial directives. An adherent of the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau, and Tolstoy, he was determined to be a wanderer observing the uninhabited expanses of nature for the life truths that would help him discover the parameters of his future. In this sense, he definitely hoped to benefit from the "therapeutic and spiritual values of retreat." On the other hand, in some ways McCandless may have been more interested in creating his own reality rather than "finding reality." In fact, by going into the wild, he was trying to escape reality. He wanted to get away from what he perceived as "the stifling world of parents and peers" along with the societal ills of materialism and capitalism that he believed turn people into puppets. He was also still angry with what he perceived as his parents' betrayal after they withheld a family secret from him. This traumatic revelation was a reality he clearly wanted to distance himself from. While he faced certain aspects of dealing with the wild surprisingly well, he also overlooked other practical aspects of surviving there, suggesting some tension between his romantic view of the wild and its reality.

How do McCandless's values in Into the WiId contrast with the themes of John Donne's poem, "No Man Is an Island"?

Three important values formed McCandless's system of beliefs: the importance of self-reliance, solitude, and autonomy. These factors oppose the view of humanity Donne presents in his poem "No Man Is an Island": "No man is an island,/Entire of itself,/Every man is a piece of the continent,/A part of the main." McCandless, who valued his individuality so highly, would likely reject Donne's contention that humans are interconnected. As McCandless began his nomadic retreat, he was determined to prove his independence and self-reliance by embarking on a solitary journey into a wilderness almost devoid of humanity. In his mind, while he was communing with and learning the necessities of life from nature, he was no longer a part of the social world. In fact, his solitude in nature was a crucial component of the success of his spiritual journey. It was a deeply personal task meant to be carried out alone.

If McCandless valued truthfulness so highly, as Krakauer mentions in Chapter 4 of Into the Wild, why wasn't he candid with his parents about his anger at them?

McCandless could not be candid with his parents because he would have had to admit that he was angry at them and explain why. This would have forced him to be tied to his family again emotionally. Doing so would have been a threat to his insistence on his own autonomy. Also, McCandless would have had to admit that he had tried and convicted his parents of immorality as defined by his code, without having heard their side of the story. McCandless contended that his parents caused the conflict with their secrecy about his father's double life, and that he was a victim of their dishonesty. But when McCandless left Atlanta, he told his parents nothing about where he was going or why. He felt justified in using the same kind of duplicity he accused them of practicing. He considered his moral code to be the only right one. Krakauer writes in Chapter 4 that for McCandless, "telling the truth was a credo that he took seriously." Until he was truthful with himself and accepted that every situation involves various perspectives, and that his was one of many, he would never live the honest life that he professed to believe.

What drove McCandless to pursue "a life of constant motion" as Krakauer mentions in Chapter 4 of Into the Wild?

McCandless followed the ideology of transcendentalism espoused by Emerson, and his acolyte, Thoreau. Like the transcendentalists, McCandless found spiritual insight through immersing himself in nature. He was hooked on the magnitude of the mountains, the beauty of the forests, and the power of the Pacific Ocean. He believed that nature holds answers to all of life's mysteries, and his soul hungered to understand them. A "life of constant motion" is the very definition of the life of a seeker, one who, like McCandless, is always on the move in search of greater insight. It is also possible that as long as he was moving forward, McCandless felt he was leaving the anger, the negativity, and any demons from his past behind. Mobility meant freedom. He gave away his money and possessions. He walked away from his parents. Maybe as long as he remained in constant motion he believed that no other problems would catch him, leaving him free to just be.

How is it possible to defend McCandless's comment about not "giving or accepting gifts" when he does both in Chapter 4 and throughout Into the Wild?

For some reason, McCandless didn't find the clothes he accepted from a friend of Wayne Westerberg's or the help from the Mexican duck hunters who took him to the Pacific Ocean to be contrary to his transcendentalist beliefs in antimaterialism and self-reliance. Then again, he may have interpreted these offerings as a necessary practical aspect of his life on the road where nomads like himself often exchanged goods to help themselves and others survive. Also, in his mind, any of his parents' gifts were disrespectful attempts to buy his obedience to their plans for his future. He wanted the freedom to give or receive when he felt moved to do so, rather than when doing so was an obligation that came with strings attached.

What lessons could McCandless have learned from his canoe trip down the Colorado River in Chapter 4 of Into the Wild that might have saved his life in Alaska?

McCandless might have learned to be better prepared. He never studied the route of the Colorado River because he didn't have a map. Also, he carried only five pounds of rice with him. Thankfully, he found enough fish in the Pacific Ocean so he didn't starve. While canoeing down the Colorado River he passed a few towns as well as two wildlife refuges with people who might have told him what lay ahead. McCandless also needed to learn that accepting help does not necessarily hinder personal freedom. He felt that by asking for help he was failing to succeed on his own. He needed to understand that help from others would not necessarily have been a threat to his self-reliance.

Why does Krakauer include Thoreau's quotation as the epigraph to Chapter 17 of Into the Wild?

Thoreau at times attempted to live a solitary, self-reliant existence in nature, which he describes in his classic Walden; or A Life in the Woods. He finds spiritual meaning in his observations of and interactions with the animals, plants, and other features of the natural landscape. McCandless considered Thoreau a kindred spirit because he hoped to follow a similar, if more extreme, path during his time in the Alaskan wild and find insight through his immersion in nature. The quotation from Thoreau that opens Chapter 17 is surprising, however, because it does not present nature in a positive light. According to Thoreau, "Mother Earth" is not inviting but "something savage and awful, though beautiful." It is a powerful "force not bound to be kind to man." Thoreau says "man may use it if he can," but not expect it to welcome him in any way. ("Here was no man's garden ... Man was not to be associated with it.") Nature is the cold and terrifying "home...of Necessity and Fate" that inspires Thoreau's fear and awe. McCandless tended to romanticize nature rather than look at the more forbidding aspects of it that Thoreau describes in the epigraph. Chapter 17 is devoted to Krakauer's visit to what is left of McCandless's camp after his death and to the author's theories of what went wrong for McCandless there. Thoreau's quotation exposes the contrast between McCandless's idealistic expectations of living in nature and the brutal reality he encountered on the Stampede Trail.

Why does Krakauer include a detailed list of the objects and inscriptions he finds in Bus 142 in Chapter 17 of Into the Wild?

When Krakauer tours Bus 142, he is "taken aback to find a collection of [McCandless's] possessions." He provides a detailed list of them. The list gives readers a sense of what McCandless's life in the bus was like, but it is also a poignant reminder of his death. Some of the objects, while practical, such as a box of matches or a bottle of insect repellent, recall McCandless's attempt to care for himself in the wild, an attempt that ended in failure. Others, such as his clothes, his toothbrush, and the molar crown that fell from his tooth, create a sense of immediacy because they were in contact with his body when he was alive and therefore heighten the sense of loss about his death. Some objects, including the boots he received from Jim Gallien and a scabbard from Ron Franz, are reminders of the people McCandless came into contact with on the road who tried to help and protect him. Others recall the desperation of his final days, including the "torn and stained" mattress on which McCandless died and a "belt fashioned from a strip of blanket" that Krakauer speculates McCandless had to use, "growing so thin that his pants wouldn't stay up without it." The objects are sometimes eerie, too. McCandless scratched a message around a bullet hole in a bear's skull and signed it Alexander Supertramp, May 1992," only a few months before his own death.

Why is McCandless so willing to interpret Jack London's stories as more factual than fictional, as Krakauer notes in Chapter 5 of Into the Wild?

Jack London's novels portray men who are the personification of primordial beasts. They are tough enough to attempt to survive life-threatening ordeals in subarctic temperatures. Although the men don't always have power to defeat the elements, they don't cave in, and they continually strive to survive. McCandless needed to believe London's stories could actually happen in real life because they represent a fantasy of the solo adventurer who defines himself through the challenges he faces in a cold, unforgiving world. McCandless's possible interpretation of London's stories as more factual than fictional may have fulfilled a psychological need by mirroring his own fantasies of self-determination, self-reliance, and reinvention.

Why does Chris McCandless donate the remainder of his inheritance to charity and later burn his money in Chapters 3 and 4 of Into the Wild?

Part of McCandless's creed was his stance against materialism, conformity, and social injustice. Rather than using the remainder of his inheritance on himself, he gave it all to Oxfam, an organization devoted to alleviating world hunger. In this sense, his donation was a real-life demonstration of his idealism. But his donation had a hidden agenda. It was made without his parents' knowledge and as a deliberate rejection of their desire that he attend law school. McCandless's secrecy about his donation echoed his parents' secrecy about the family's history, revealing a vengeful side of his anger. In Chapter 4 McCandless burned his money at Detrital Wash after he believed a flash flood had destroyed his Datsun. He decided to continue his journey and "saw the flash flood as opportunity to shed unnecessary baggage." He burned $123 in an antiauthoritarian gesture to strip away what he likely viewed as another tie to a corrupt society. Burning the money may also have demonstrated his determination to be self-reliant enough to survive without it.

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