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Into the Wild | Discussion Questions 21 - 30

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How does Chris McCandless's Alaskan trip in Into the Wild compare and contrast with Thoreau's attempt to live in the woods in Walden; or Life in the Woods?

McCandless's desire to live off the land was similar to Thoreau's desire to spend a two-year residency at Walden Pond. He shared many of the same values as Thoreau, such as spiritual enlightenment through solitude in nature, the virtues of self-reliance, and antimaterialism. But the logistics of McCandless's experience were much riskier than Thoreau's and his isolation more extreme. There are significant differences between living in the woods of Massachusetts near the town of Concord versus living in the Alaskan wilds without human contact. Thoreau lived a mere two miles from the town of Concord, a distance he could easily walk on a familiar route except in the most severe blizzard. Although he valued solitude, he also enjoyed company. Thoreau received visitors to his cabin in the woods and frequently went into town. Finally, his experiment in the woods never threatened his life. McCandless told Wayne Westerberg at one point that he wanted to write a book about his travels, but, unlike Thoreau, he never got the chance to record his experiences.

Although McCandless avoided forming close relationships during his travels, why did he become close to Ron Franz in Chapter 6 of Into the Wild?

Ron Franz reminded McCandless of his grandfather, Loren Johnson, a man who chose to live on the margins of society. Both men shared an ability to listen openly to McCandless without judgment or dogmatic demands. Franz became a confidant, a paternal figure Chris could trust, and an advisor. He taught his young friend the skill of leather tooling, and McCandless happily carved a pictorial summary of his adventures into a belt. He even encouraged Franz to adopt a nomadic lifestyle like his own, perhaps seeing a kindred spirit in him. McCandless did chafe at Franz's offers to buy him supplies or give him money and left when the man became what McCandless regarded as too protective. When Franz mentioned that he wanted to adopt him, McCandless avoided the issue by saying that they would talk about it when he returned from Alaska and left shortly afterward. But he stayed in touch with Franz from a safe distance through post cards and letters and reconnected with him later. In fact, he appeared to be closer to Franz than he was to his parents, with whom he was no longer in contact.

In Into the Wild how do McCandless's actions support or contradict the perception that he lacked common sense?

On the one hand, McCandless was not without practical skills. He was clearly intelligent enough to run successful businesses as a teenager. His grades were high, and he read extensively. He took multiple cross-country trips on his own before he graduated from college. Krakauer points out that McCandless managed to survive 113 days in the Alaskan bush before he died, and he had been able to survive life on the road with minimal money or possessions for over a year before that. On the other hand, Wayne Westerberg's comment that McCandless displayed "gaps in his thinking" also is accurate. Hitchhiking, jumping freight trains, and trespassing are risky activities that require the temporary suspension of common sense. McCandless attempted his solo canoe trip on the Colorado River without an updated map, barely got by on a minimal supply of rice and fish, and almost drowned. He showed a similar disconnect in understanding the correlation between collecting the basic necessities for his Alaskan odyssey and his survival in the bush, as Jim Gallien recognized. McCandless also seemed to treat London's fictions and the romantic philosophies of Thoreau and Emerson as a literal guide for living in the real world, as if the boundary between fiction and fact did not exist.

What is the symbolism of the belt McCandless created in Chapter 6 of Into the Wild?

Ron Franz taught McCandless how to tool leather, and the belt McCandless carved represents the close bond between the two men. It also symbolizes McCandless's odyssey on the road and his view of himself as a vagabond. During his travels, McCandless was negotiating his old and new identities, and versions of both appear on the belt. He carved his pseudonym, "ALEX," at the left end of the belt, along with the initials of his real name, Christopher Johnson McCandless. In this way, McCandless continued to favor his alter ego, only partially revealing his name by using just his initials. The initials eerily frame a skull and crossbones, possibly representing the symbolic death of his old life but also foreshadowing his actual death. The rest of the belt is covered with images that stand for places or events McCandless encountered during his travels, including Wayne Westerberg's house and the loss of McCandless's beloved Datsun to a flash flood. The belt is also a reminder that McCandless wanted to be the master of his own destiny, to craft his journey as an act of self-expression.

Why was McCandless comfortable forging relationships with people he met who revealed the same shortcomings he detested in his parents as discussed in Chapter 7 of Into the Wild?

Even as a child, McCandless demonstrated an independent attitude with his family and a desire to march to the beat of his own drummer. Although he obeyed his parents' rules—from climbing mountains to attending college—their demands chafe against his desire to meet his goals rather than theirs. Although Westerberg, Franz, and Burres tried to convince McCandless to accept the choices they saw for his future, he could tolerate their opinions because he was not tied to them emotionally or financially the way he had been to his parents. This is the same reason he was able to discuss his deeper thoughts and feelings with Gail Borah and Mary Westerberg when he refused even the most superficial communication with his family. None of these people demanded obedience from him, nor did they judge him. Most importantly, he could accept their moral frailties because they were not dishonest with or disloyal to him, as he believed his parents had been.

In Chapter 17 of Into the Wild, according to the author, why did McCandless not take a topographic map with him into the Alaskan bush?

Krakauer notes elsewhere in the book that McCandless went into the wild less prepared than he should have been. A topographic map shows the features of a geographical area in detail, and Krakauer acknowledges that such a map could have saved McCandless's life. But he also believes that there was another reason McCandless did not take such a map with him. Krakauer suggests that McCandless wanted to explore a landscape that was "uncharted" and would therefore truly represent the unknown. He hungered for the purity of nature. What could better represent such purity than an uninhabited location, as far away from civilization as possible? He might also have viewed a map as a barrier between himself and the immediacy of being alone in the wild. By going to Alaska, McCandless had wanted to escape his past identity and reinvent himself, to map out his own territory, not follow established routes. Going without a detailed, updated map would have also challenged his self-determination and self-reliance, values he aspired to, because he would have had to rely more on his own wits to read the land.

Why does Krakauer include the stories of Gene Rosellini, John Waterman, and Carl McCunn in Chapter 8 of Into the Wild?

Some Alaskans thought McCandless was mentally disturbed, foolish, or arrogant. Krakauer includes the stories of Rosellini, Waterman, and McCunn to counter this criticism. All four men perished or vanished in the wilderness and represent wacky or dreamy "marginal characters" who "marched off into the Alaska wilds, never to reappear." Krakauer points out that "like Rosellini and Waterman, McCandless was a seeker and had an impractical fascination with the harsh side of nature." McCandless also shared a "staggering" lack of common sense with Waterman, who abandoned the radio that would have saved his life in the wild, and McCunn. Of the three men, McCunn is the one McCandless most closely resembles because McCunn's dreamy impracticality caused him to starve in the wilderness. But, for Krakauer, the similarities end there. Rosellini killed himself after his experiment of living like a caveman failed. Waterman lost his mind and vanished. McCunn also killed himself after realizing he would die of starvation and, unlike McCandless, admitted that he was at fault. Krakauer declares that McCandless "wasn't a nutcase" like Waterman or Rosellini. He wasn't "incompetent" like McCunn and "wouldn't have lasted 113 days if he were." Krakauer thus disqualifies McCandless from being dismissed as "one more dreamy half-cocked greenhorn" who was too unrealistic to survive in the wild.

What are the similarities and differences in motivation behind Everett Ruess's and Chris McCandless's wilderness odysseys as described in Chapter 9 of Into the Wild?

Everett Ruess and McCandless shared a passionate love for the magnificence and grandeur of the wilderness in the West. They both chose to travel as lightly as possible to physically push their bodies as far as they dared. The words that Wallace Stegner chooses to describe Ruess could be said about McCandless, too. He states that Ruess was "a callow romantic, an adolescent esthete, an atavistic wanderer of the wasteland." Ruess's letters to his family and friends reveal the total joy he experienced in his adventures as do McCandless's conversations with his friends on the road. There are also significant differences between the two men. Unlike McCandless, Ruess had positive and supportive relationship with his parents, communicated more effectively with other people, and was expressive, rather than reticent like McCandless. Ruess was open about his feelings—to himself, as his journals show, and to others, in his letters. On the surface both of these men's letters seem to mirror each other's even though they were written six decades apart. But Ruess's correspondence shows his inner thoughts, the reasons behind his decisions, and the ways he felt he had grown. McCandless's letters, on the other hand, remain purely objective and never offer insight into his motivations.

In Chapter 18 of Into the Wild, what is the significance of Krakauer's interpretation of McCandless's final photograph?

Krakauer comments that McCandless's face is "horribly emaciated, almost skeletal," but that he is "smiling ... serene as a monk gone to God." The author moves quickly from the horror of McCandless's situation to what Krakauer perceives as his transcendence. The author's simile enhances the notion of McCandless as a spiritual figure, even a martyr, whose solitary suffering in the wilderness brought him closer to God. This recalls Krakauer's earlier description in Chapter 8 of McCandless as a "pilgrim" on a sacred quest and implies that McCandless succeeded in his search for a kind of enlightenment in the wild. The author's description of the photograph raises issues about the validity of his interpretation. Krakauer admits his own subjectivity at other points in the book, but here he insists on the absolute truth of his interpretation. ("He is smiling in the picture, and there is no mistaking the look in his eyes ...") This could validate the claim by some that Krakauer was "glorifying" McCandless and his quest by not allowing for other readings that might emphasize the more upsetting aspects of the photograph. In some ways, Krakauer's interpretation of the picture echoes McCandless's single-minded devotion to his unshakable moral code of solitary transcendence, a factor in his tragic demise. This raises the question of how intertwined Krakauer is with his subject and whether this affects his judgment or presentation of McCandless in any way.

How do the details about McCandless in Chapter 11 of Into the Wild reveal his competitive nature to be both a strength and a weakness?

When people are competitive, they challenge themselves physically and mentally by taking risks. McCandless showed courage and creativity with his various businesses, from selling vegetables to starting a copying business, to marketing remodeling contracts. He participates in competitive running, which toughened his body and focused his mind. These types of competition are strengths. McCandless's struggle with his father over athletic skills sprang from his need to prove that he already understood all of the nuances of a sport and therefore did not need any instruction. This negative attitude breeds rash behavior and unnecessary risk-taking, like when he was 12 and wanted to scale a Colorado peak before he had the training, and when he hiked the Mojave Desert with little water. Persistence and determination are strengths. The stubborn unwillingness to accept instruction demonstrates the negative side of individuality. It is ironic that McCandless turned his back on his parents for their inflexible attitudes and obstinate actions when he shared that same quality.

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