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Into the Wild | Discussion Questions 41 - 50

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In Chapter 15 of Into the Wild, why does Chris McCandless fail to prepare sufficiently for his Alaskan adventure?

Although McCandless came across to family and friends as overconfident and sometimes reckless, he was more stubborn than arrogant. After he made a decision, he erroneously felt that others would perceive him as weak if he adopted a different stance. More importantly, self-reliance was an important aspect of his identity. If he failed to be self-reliant, he had failed to fulfill his ideals. Despite all his education, McCandless also did not grasp the fact that people may benefit from others' perspectives. When people offered their suggestions regarding his Alaskan odyssey, they were not demeaning McCandless's urge to live in the wild but were offering the advice he'd need to succeed. Instead of accepting the insight of Alaskan wilderness veterans who had experienced the reality of what he was attempting, McCandless opted to remain naïve and would not deviate from his romantic ideal of communing with nature in the wild. Instead, he overlooked some of the harsh realities of living in the Alaskan bush and neglected serious practical considerations, such as bringing enough rice with him.

In Chapters 14 and 15 of Into the Wild, what were McCandless and Krakauer running away from and toward on their perilous Alaskan adventures?

In Chapters 14 and 15 both men chose to run away from demanding fathers who expected their sons to fall into line with society's expectations. McCandless didn't want to be a lawyer any more than Krakauer wished to be a doctor, and both refused to allow their fathers to live vicariously through the futures they had planned for them. Rejecting their fathers' expectations, McCandless and Krakauer chose to pursue a life on the margins that would allow them to live on their own terms based on their own values. Both were attracted to extreme activities and environments, reveling in the beauty and enduring the miseries of nature. McCandless became a nomad seeking self-knowledge and a deeper connection to life through his adventures in remote, often dangerous, locales. Krakauer became obsessed with climbing dangerous mountains in order to prove himself. Risks are a part of this lifestyle of living in the moment, and that was fine with them.

How does McCandless's comment to Gaylord Stuckey about "proving himself without any help" correspond to the Evans and Nash quotes that introduce Chapter 16 of Into the Wild?

McCandless's choice to live in the wilds of the West, Southwest, and Alaska mirrors the Evans and Nash quotations. Like Evans, McCandless was always searching for experiences within the "grandeur" of nature that would require "the pleasure of suffering and the novelty of danger." Already he had survived near death by dehydration in the Mojave Desert, a Pacific Ocean storm during a canoe trip, and jail time for jumping trains. He felt he could beat any challenge. If he had ever read Nash's quote, McCandless would have seen a resemblance to his heroes Thoreau and London. The first line completely coincides with McCandless's reasoning for his odyssey, "Wilderness appealed to those bored or disgusted with man and his works." McCandless stood against materialism and distrusted authority, particularly that of the US government. McCandless's goal to "prove himself without any help" also corresponds to Nash's comment because McCandless was an adventurer who "exercis[ed] the cult he ma[d]e of his own soul" in the "total freedom of the wilderness."

In Chapter 16 of Into the Wild, what item that McCandless purposely chose not to include with his gear may have done the most to save his life?

A good topographical map, not the almost unreadable Alaska state map he had stuffed into his backpack, would have gone a long way toward saving McCandless's life. The map would have offered him alternative routes during the July thaw when he was still healthy enough to hike. Although the rivers were raging and too dangerous to ford where he had been that month, he might have come across a passable section on his way to George Park Highway 30 miles east, or one 16 miles north that is patrolled by the National Park Service because of tourist traffic. Just a few miles from the bus, four privately owned cabins dotted the landscape and might have contained food. A detailed map would have offered him options that could have ensured his survival.

In Chapter 16 of Into the Wild, what is the significance of Krakauer's analysis of why McCandless planned to leave Bus 142?

At various points in Into the Wild, Krakauer freely admits his subjectivity, meaning he includes his thoughts and feelings rather than relying strictly on facts. For example, the author states that "we can do no more than speculate about what [McCandless] intended to do after he walked out of the bush." But Krakauer offers a theory about McCandless's state of mind. He believes McCandless may have had a change of heart and decided to return to society: "He seemed to have moved beyond his need to assert so adamantly his autonomy, his need to separate himself from his parents." Krakauer notes a quotation from Tolstoy's "Family Happiness" underlined by McCandless about "living life for others" before he left the bus. Passages underlined in a book prove only that a reader may have found the words interesting, but not whether he or she agreed with them. Krakauer's speculations about McCandless therefore may reveal more about him than they do about his subject. Krakauer hopes for a more satisfying resolution in which McCandless, like the hero of a novel, would have learned an important life lesson and matured by forgiving his family. This is, of course, what Krakauer himself did, although at a much later age, when he forgave his father. Krakauer's theory about McCandless could be interpreted as evidence of authorial intrusion, a sign that Krakauer identifies too closely with his subject or is too emotional about him.

What are some advantages and disadvantages of Krakauer's inclusion of autobiographical material in Chapters 14 and 15 of Into the Wild?

Into the Wild is a biography, not an autobiography, but Krakauer chooses to include autobiographical material in Chapters 14 and 15. One advantage of doing so is that Krakauer's background closely mirrors Chris McCandless's. The two men share a surprising number of similarities, from rebelling against overbearing fathers to their need to define themselves through high-risk activities in harsh, natural environments. Krakauer's autobiographical chapters therefore may shed valuable light on McCandless's motivations because Krakauer has lived through similar circumstances himself, including a near-death experience while mountain climbing. But the autobiographical chapters also make it hard to tell where Krakauer's objectivity ends and his subjectivity begins. The book deals with a real-life event. Krakauer, as an investigative journalist, wants to find out the truth about McCandless, and readers have some expectation that he will focus on the facts. Though he openly admits that he is not "impartial" where McCandless's story is concerned, Krakauer does base much of the information in the book using techniques to derive the most objective information possible. He interviews people who knew McCandless, gathers evidence about him from his diary, and seeks out scientific data. But the autobiographical material forces readers to confront the book's ambiguous mixture of facts and opinions that may raise more questions than they answer. Is it possible to ever fully understand what happened to McCandless or why? The autobiographical chapters are a reminder that Into the Wild can ultimately provide no closure and understanding. McCandless remains frustratingly out of reach.

Considering all of his notes, especially those in Chapter 18 of Into the Wild, which factor influenced McCandless's odyssey more, breaking parental ties or seeking purity in nature?

A strong argument can be made for either choice. McCandless felt betrayed by his parents' secrecy about their family's history. He discovered the truth when he took a solitary road trip just after he graduated from high school. First, he noticeably withdrew from them and then decided to break all ties. McCandless's decision to abandon his parents didn't have to mean going into the wild. Joining the Peace Corps or any other institution that fights hunger or injustice in the world—both issues he strongly supported—could have formed his odyssey. He could have gotten lost in the jungles of New York City by changing his name and appearance or used his inheritance to pursue a career free of parental pressure. Considering his unshakable belief in transcendentalism and his desire to test himself, though, finding purity in nature may have been the stronger impetus for his odyssey. Even before he became disenchanted with his parents, the family trips he enjoyed opened his soul to nature's wonders. His reading of Thoreau, Emerson, Tolstoy, and London inspired him to seek greater insight and purpose in the natural world. Even if McCandless hadn't been angry at his parents he may have headed for the wild.

In Chapter 18 of Into the Wild, what theories does Krakauer offer about the cause of McCandless's death, and why?

Before he left Fairbanks, McCandless bought the book Tanaina Plantlore by Priscilla Russell Kari. She spends pages discussing the characteristics and edibility of the very similar wild potato and wild pea plant, two vegetables whose leaves are easily confused. Krakauer contends that McCandless ate the tubers from the potato for a long enough period of time that when he had to resort to chewing the seeds he wouldn't have been confused and chosen those of the wild pea plant by mistake. Through extensive lab studies Krakauer does find inconclusive evidence that a substance in the wild potato seeds might have poisoned McCandless rather than his confusing the two plants. He then offers another theory: mold growing on the potato seeds might have become toxic and poisoned McCandless. Although he can, to some extent, agree that McCandless was foolhardy to travel into the wild so unprepared, Krakauer cannot concur that the intelligent young man would make such a fatal error in confusing the two plants. It is possible that he does not want to accept that McCandless made a mistake. His death would seem more tragic and be harder to dismiss as the result of a foolish error in that case. It is also possible that Krakauer is correct about the cause of McCandless's death because he cares about what happened to him and wants to find the truth.

In Chapter 12 of Into the Wild, why is the timing of McCandless's trip to the Mojave Desert significant?

The timing of McCandless's first visit to the Mojave Desert is important. It takes place during his solo cross-country trip after he graduated from high school. What happens to McCandless in the Mojave Desert is a precursor to his later adventures on the Colorado River and in Alaska. He went alone into the desert, got lost, and "nearly succumbed to dehydration," just as he would later enter the two other extreme natural environments alone, nearly drowning in one and dying of starvation or poisoning in the other. The timing of McCandless's visit to the Mojave is also important because it comes hard on the heels of his discovery of his father's double life and his parents' deception about it. The proximity of the events suggests that there may have been a psychological link in his mind between the traumatic discovery of his family's past and his determination to exert his independence in high-risk environments.

In the Epilogue of Into the Wild, what is the significance of Walt and Billie McCandless's visit to Bus 142 and the Stampede Trail?

Walt and Billie attempt to understand what happened to their son as they stand on the spot where he spent the last four months of his dream odyssey. They hold his clothes and toothbrush, read the notes he wrote on the bus, and walk around the area picturing the place through his eyes. They leave a plaque to memorialize him and as a reminder to future visitors that he died there. The suitcase filled with survival supplies that they stow under the bed comforts them as they hope the contents will help other hikers if they ever have to face the same circumstances as their son. As Billie says, "I don't know if you ever get over this kind of loss." For now they have some closure. Someday they may find peace.

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