Into the Wild is the true story of Chris McCandless, a young Emory graduate who is found dead in the Alaskan wilderness in September 1992, when he is twenty-four. McCandless grows up in wealthy Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., and is a very gifted athlete and scholar, who from an early age shows deep intensity, passion, and a strict moral compass. After graduating from high school McCandless spends the summer alone on a road trip across the country, during which he discovers that his father secretly had a second family during Chris’s childhood. McCandless returns home and starts as a freshman at Emory, but his anger over this betrayal and his parents’ keeping it from him grows worse over time.
By the time that McCandless is a senior at Emory, he lives monastically, has driven away most of his friends with his intensity and moral certitude, and barely keeps in touch with his parents. He lets his parents think that he is interested in law school, but instead, after graduating with honors, he donates his $25,000 savings anonymously to charity, gets in his car, and drives away without telling anyone where he is going, abandoning the use of his real name along the way. He never contacts his parents or sister, Carine, again.
Not too long after leaving Atlanta, McCandless deserts his car in the desert after a flash flood wets the engine, and from then on, he hitchhikes around the Northwest, getting jobs here and there but not staying anywhere for long, often living on the streets, and keeping as little money and as few possessions as he can. During this time he gets to know a few people rather closely, and everyone admires his intensity and willingness to live completely by his beliefs, but he avoids true intimacy.
After about two years of itinerant travel, McCandless settles on a plan to go to Alaska and truly live in the wilderness, completely alone, and with very few supplies, to see if he can do it, to push himself to the very extremes. He spends a few months preparing, learning all he can about hunting, edible plants, etc, and then he leaves South Dakota, where he’d been working, and hitchhikes to Fairbanks. Those whom he tells about the plan all warn him that he needs to be better prepared, or should wait until later in the spring, but he is adamant and stubborn.
In April of 1992 McCandless gets dropped off near Mt. McKinley, and hikes into the wilderness. He spends the next sixteen weeks hunting small game, foraging, reading, and living in a deserted bus made to be a shelter for hunters, not seeing a single human the entire time. He is successful for the most part, although he loses significant weight. In late July, however, McCandless probably eats some moldy seeds, and the mold contains a poison that essentially causes him to starve to death, no matter how much he eats, and he is too weak to gather food anyway. McCandless is quickly incapacitated by the poison. Realizing he is going to die, he writes a goodbye message, and a few weeks later some hunters find his body in the bus.
Whether he was a vagabond, genius, whack job, free spirit, rebel, or poet, Christopher McCandless (also known by the pseudonym Alexander Supertramp) was unique among men. At an age when most upper-class kids begin their arduous climb toward becoming the next big thing, Christopher McCandless went in the opposite direction—he became a nobody. His two-year descent into the furthest margins of society baffled and fascinated many, including author Jon Krakauer. Following an article he wrote for Outside magazine, Krakauer authored a painstaking reconstruction of McCandless’s odyssey, Into the Wild. In committing the story to paper, Krakauer attempts to answer one question: why did McCandless do it? It is an impossible question to answer no matter how earnestly Krakauer pursues it.
Krakauer acknowledges his own obsession in the introduction, and his crafting of the story raises its own questions. By fashioning the last two years of Christopher McCandless’s life into the book Into the Wild, is Krakauer making it a modern-day tragedy? Does Into the Wild invite parallels to notions of tragedy originating in ancient Greece? If so, what elements apply? Much of what we know about how the ancient Greeks developed and evaluated tragedy comes from Aristotle—or so some think. His treatise, Poetics, may not have been written by him and instead may represent the notes of a student or students at one of his many lectures. Either way, the document is still considered the starting point for any discussion of the nature of tragedy and includes analysis of tragedy’s composite elements. To examine Into the Wild's fitness for comparison, Aristotelian notions of tragic heroes and the definition of tragedy must be considered, along with staple structural elements like choruses and poetic language.
All tragedies center on a hero, so in order to determine whether Chris McCandless has been transformed into one in Krakauer’s book, McCandless’s resemblance to a tragic hero must be established in specific terms. In the Greek model, tragic heroes usually come from noble families. While Chris was neither a prince nor the son of a politician, he did come from an upper-class background. He also went on a journey, as many tragic heroes do. Yet the real test of his status as a tragic hero is his embodiment of a trait the Greeks called hamartia. Since it is a translated term, its exact meaning is often debated but can generally be interpreted as “tragic flaw,” a trait that blindsides the hero and leads him to his own ruin. While some would certainly argue that McCandless was fanatical or hubristic in taking on nature itself, that definition does not quite fit the McCandless depicted in Into the Wild. After all, Krakauer’s whole purpose in writing the book was to try to determine what trait led McCandless down his ultimately terminal path. Mere pride or adolescent stupidity seems like an incomplete answer.
Another interpretation of hamartia presents it less as a character flaw than a misunderstanding of one’s place in the world. In this light, hamartia seems to fit Chris McCandless quite well. The rich kid who leaves the material world, his family, and his identity behind to pursue enlightenment in the natural landscape seems the very definition of someone looking for his place. In some ways, Krakauer presents McCandless’s transformation into Alexander Supertramp in this light in Into the Wild: an ambitious young man who erroneously saw himself as an adventurer in the outdoors. Linking hamartia to the fate of a tragic hero is crucial to this interpretation. According to Into the Wild, Chris McCandless died because of his own misconception of himself.
In the Greek tragic...
(The entire section is 1543 words.)