The Power of Comparison: Into The Wild

“The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure.” This was the philosophy of a young man who abandoned his family, car and possessions, inventing a new life for himself. Into The Wild is the story of Christopher McCandless, a twenty-four year old from the East Coast, who walked alone into the Alaskan wilderness and never came out. At the discovery of his remains, the puzzling circumstances of the boys death received huge media attention. Many called him reckless, incompetent, selfish, a wacko, a “narcissist who perished out of arrogance and stupidity.” Jon Krakauer, author of Into the Wild, reported on McCandless’s death, and soon realized the connection he had with the boy who perished in the Alaskan bush.While Krakauer’s work is technically a biography, the essence of his novel is very complex: a narrative at times, and most importantly a persuasive and comparative essay. Jon Krakauer’s comparisons of Christopher McCandless to Everett Ruess, Walt McCandless, and Krakauer himself, compels readers to change their view of McCandless to brilliant rather than arrogant.

Everett Ruess, a young man who mysteriously disappeared in a remote area of Utah in 1934, is extensively discussed in Jon Krakauer’s Into The Wild. Krakauer’s description of Everett Ruess and Christopher McCandless draws significant parallels between their personalities. Rather than focusing on the misjudgements that led to their deaths, Krakauer brings to light the motives behind them. First, Krakauer describes in detail Ruess’s family; successful, educated and wealthy, not so different from McCandless’s family. Strangely enough, Ruess like McCandless began travelling the wilderness alone just after high school. And to the bewilderment of his family returned home less and less until one day, he didn’t return at all. Without background knowledge, this appears to be a selfish act; completely undermining the love and support of family. Krakauer however, reveals a different perspective Ruess had, which the reader can’t help but apply to Christopher McCandless. To open the chapter, Krakauer includes an excerpt from a letter Ruess wrote to his brother in 1934, the last letter ever received from him. In it, Ruess not only justifies his abandonment of civilization, but McCandless’s as well who held his life to the same principles: “Do you blame me for staying here, where I feel that I belong and am one with the world around me? It is true that I miss intelligent companionship, but there are so few with whom I can share the things that mean so much to me that I have learned to contain myself. It is enough that I am surrounded by beauty.” Krakauer’s strategic placement of this excerpt before retelling Ruess’s story destroys any misconceptions that Ruess (and McCandless) were running away from relationship trouble, which would undermine his pure and authentic awe with the wilderness. He was not trying to get revenge on those he loved by walking out of their lives, rather he felt so inspired the wild that he couldn’t bear to leave it. Krakauer discusses their similarities further by stating specific examples of these parallels, such as adopting a new name before entering the wild. Ruess inscribed “Nemo 1934” on a canyon wall while McCandless inscribed “Alexander Supertramp 1992” on an abandoned bus in Alaska. Both McCandless and Ruess were undeterred by physical discomfort, and obsessed with the pursuit of adventure. By showing these similarities, the perception that McCandless had unprecedented feelings is challenged, as he mirrored another man’s actions from decades before. Krakauer’s decision to share Ruess’s story changes the way McCandless’s actions are interpreted: “In attempting to understand Everett Ruess and Chris McCandless, It can be illuminating to consider their deeds in a larger context. It is helpful to look at counterparts from a distant place and a century far removed.” This comparison is crucial in depicting McCandless as a courageous young man whose pursuit of adventure has been shared by other men before him.

While the comparison of Ruess discussed adventurous motivations, Krakauer’s analysis of McCandless’s relationship with his father shed light on his frustration with the world around him, further explaining his desire to go to Alaska. Krakauer dedicates nearly an entire chapter of Into the Wild on Walter McCandless’s life and his interactions with his son, drawing on personal statements from Walter, and interpreting those statements based on Christopher’s actions. Krakauer’s description of the tension between Christopher and his father is supported and further developed by examples. First, Krakauer describes a fundamental point of contention-money. To provide background information on Walt, Krakauer outlines his life and struggle from a poor child to successful businessman. With enough money to finally provide for his family, Walt showered his wife and kids with expensive things, a loving act in his mind. Krakauer provides a quote from Chris’s mother who acknowledges that Chris was “embarrassed” by it, as he was strictly against materialism. To further inform the reader, more background is given on Chris’s childhood and his revulsion to any kind of fatherly advice. The examples given in Chris’s early years are effective foreshadowing to greater disagreements that Krakauer will discuss later, such as the value of a college education. Walt thought college was necessary to make an impact, while Chris viewed it as a waste of time and money. To further establish the tension between Chris and Walt, Krakauer uses juxtaposition and places their point of view side by side. Like setting up a row of dominos, Krakauer uses each source of conflict to prepare the reader for the major relational flaw. First the reader is left wondering why Chris’s anger towards his father increases after high school. Krakauer places the reader in the position of Chris’s family, who were bewildered by his sudden disconnect. Next, the perspective changes, as Krakauer reveals the missing piece to the puzzle of Chris’s anger. Walt had continued his relationship with his first wife while he was married to Chris’s mother Billie, and had fathered one of her children after having Chris. This only hardened the resentment Chris felt for his father, solidifying the distance between them. Krakauer’s detached tone during this chapter forces readers to analyze the gray areas between the turbulent relationship of Chris and his father. However, by including the father aspect, the reader must place themselves in Chris’s childhood and family life which is crucial in understanding him. Krakauer’s keen sense to include this is vital in the portrayal of McCandless as misunderstood; destroying the notion that he had no reason for dissatisfaction with his life before entering the wild.

Perhaps the most formative comparison Krakauer makes of McCandless is to himself. Krakauer has a personal connection to McCandless in many ways; a strained relationship with his father, a love of the outdoors, and most importantly a desire of adventure that brushed with death. In destroying the notion that McCandless was suicidal, Krakauer uses his personal experience as a young man who nearly lost his life while climbing an ice cap. He first states: “As a youth, I am told, I was willful, self-absorbed, intermittently reckless, moody,” then shares his plan to climb Devil’s Thumb, a unclimbed mountain in Alaska. He describes this ordeal in detail, a terrifying experience that nearly ended with him falling three thousand feet to his death. Most importantly, Krakauer emphasizes the emotions that led to his actions; feelings that can be applied to McCandless: “It is easy, when you are young, to believe that what you desire is no less than what you deserve, to assume that if you want something badly enough, it is your God-given right to have it. When I decided to go to Alaska that April, like Chris McCandless, I was a raw youth who mistook passion for insight and acted according to an obscure, gap-ridden logic…I suspect we had a similar intensity, a similar heedlesness, a similar agitation of the soul.” Krakauer’s personal story portrays a young man whose sense of adventure nearly cost him his life; not a suicidal maniac. This is critical in understanding McCandless. Many of McCandless’s critics portrayed him as naive, incompetent, even insane. As a well known and respected author known for his knowledge of the wilderness, the connections between McCandless and Krakauer help improve Chris’s image from someone who was mentally unstable, to an adventurous young man who suffered from bad luck. Krakauer points out that in a different array of events he could’ve died on the ice cap, and people would be saying of him exactly what they were saying of McCandless. The two men’s stories were very much alike, apart from a very different end. The emotional link between Krakauer and McCandless is key in the portrayal of McCandless as a young man searching for a purpose, not a death wish.

Into the Wild successfully reports the outcome and events leading up to Christopher McCandless’s journey into the wilderness. It completely fits the role of biography, yet Krakauer’s approach defend McCandless’s actions against the judgement of the world. Krakauer successfully does this through a series of comparisons that not only increases the readers understanding of McCandless, but portrays him as a young man with a deep passion for life, an intense moral compass, and a restlessness that many young people can relate to.With each small part of the larger whole that is the novel, Krakauer draws the reader in, using pathos to change the view of McCandless. In comparison to Ruess, Krakauer proves that the desire for unpredictability offered by the wilderness is universal to young men with a certain agitation of the soul. The investigation of McCandless’s relationship with his father reveal a strong sense of moral rectitude possessed by Chris, further improving his image. Lastly, the personal connection Krakauer had with McCandless depicted a similar experience which highlighted the characteristics of post-adolescence and the struggle to find identity. Into The Wild is the defense of a man who pursued the life he wanted, and all who share a similar passion.